The big question: What can we do about housing?
 | Guest Viewpoint

John Mauro
Posted 3/16/22

Almost all of my conversations these days — at work, at home, with friends — touch upon housing.   

It’s a serious challenge for us as a community as we price people …

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The big question: What can we do about housing?
 | Guest Viewpoint

Posted

Almost all of my conversations these days — at work, at home, with friends — touch upon housing.   

It’s a serious challenge for us as a community as we price people out, for employers trying to attract and retain talent and for individuals, many of whom pay far too much for housing, are still looking, or are unhoused.  It’s also an unshakable national reality with a “booming” U.S. housing market a bust for those trying to get in the door to simply having a door. 

It’s nuts. And not sustainable.  

What are we doing about housing, and what can we do?  

Some of the work we’ve done together as a community recently is bearing fruit now. For instance, Pat’s Place was a miraculous local achievement of volunteer-leaders, OlyCAP’s 43-unit 7th Haven project is now under construction, and the emergency shelter at the American Legion and Caswell-Brown Village both serve emergency needs. There’s also the Winter Warming Shelter operated by the Interfaith Coalition, Bayside’s Old Alcohol Plant, Habitat’s affordable homes, Dove House’s advocacy.  

Each of these examples is important, but none of them are enough. We persist in the face of bigger systems at the state and federal level that we have minimal influence on. Rethink how we’ve structured our global economy, change the federal tax code, and look at federal monetary policy? Yes. Massively increase the Housing Trust Fund and include shared-equity housing models? Yes. Boost federal programs like housing choice vouchers and the low-income housing tax credit?  Of course. Subsidize rent? Absolutely. Look at related issues like immigration policy, behavioral health, trade policy, and tariffs on construction materials? Indeed.  

These things are far outside our direct purview, but we do have some more direct local levers, so what can we do?

Three things we can focus on right now:

First, let’s continue collaboratively on the work underway now so each project is a success and unlocks the next success.  

An example is a meeting of leaders I convened recently from our remarkable local housing provider agencies: Bayside, Community Build, Dove House, Habitat for Humanity, Housing Solutions Network, Jefferson Community Foundation, OlyCAP, Olympic Housing Trust, Peninsula Housing Authority, and sister agency Jefferson County.  We’re working together on how to advance a vision for the Evans Vista property that the city recently purchased with a state grant to deliver on workforce housing.  Learn more and, better yet, get involved with one of the organizations above to lend your time and energy. Or follow the work of the rebooted Housing Fund Board that continues to allocate city and county funding to housing/homeless initiatives.

Second, let’s make a compelling case for change and think outside the box with new tools, policies, and partnerships to innovate our way forward.  

For instance, we can strategically modify our zoning code and development regulations, and these can really influence the form and function of our community and region.  

I say strategically because doing so should incorporate where the market is so we’re not putting in huge efforts on things that won’t make a difference. 

I say region because what we do in the city limits – or don’t do – has a wider impact.  

For instance, our efforts to increase and concentrate housing in the urban area – and, importantly, to increase and concentrate what’s possible on lots – has a direct relationship to whether we can counter sprawl and steward agricultural, forest, and open-space lands in rural areas of the county and beyond.  

This came up in a recent meeting with the Jefferson Land Trust, and I’m glad they are as passionate about housing – in the right places – as they are about preserving open space and habitat. They are one in the same.

Join us with ideas and support the work through the Planning Commission, committees and city council. Stand together courageously as a community to share why housing is in our collective interest and help change NIMBYs into YIMBYs: “Yes in My Backyard.”

Third, let’s push hard for state and federal resources to amplify positive impact. These last few weeks Mayor David Faber and I have spoken about our housing and infrastructure needs with the offices of our Congressional delegation – Teams Cantwell, Murray, and Kilmer – as well as the Governor’s Office and our state representatives. They need to hear from you, too.  

What’s challenging for any community is that action inevitably means change, with the possibility of impacting things we all care about.  Density doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Thoughtful, PT-scale, PT-style density done well is our ticket. We all benefit from ensuring we have affordable, available, and quality housing; housing that matches our community’s values, history and unique identity, and makes our community more inclusive, healthy, and connected.   

John Mauro is city manager for Port Townsend.

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