Homeownership is a key determinant in increasing economic mobility and building generational wealth.
Families are more financially secure when they are living in a home they own. But as homeownership becomes further out of reach for a greater number of families, achieving the American Dream can seem a distant fantasy to many.
The homeownership rate in the United States has not fully recovered from the Great Recession. Between 2007 (just before the recession) and 2019, homeownership overall in the United States fell 4.2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey/Housing Vacancy Survey.
Younger adults have been impacted more significantly than the population at-large. During that same 12-year period, homeownership rates for individuals under the age of 35 dropped 6.3%.
In Washington state, we are likely to see a more profound impact on homeownership rates as home prices continue to increase faster in our state compared to nationwide trends. Just between 2019 and 2021, the medium home sale price in Washington grew 40%, compared to 30% nationwide.
While the issue of homeownership and housing market trends are bigger than any one community, county or state, there are steps we can take at the local government level to improve conditions close to home. Here in Snohomish County in Washington, we have taken a number of proactive steps to address housing affordability and availability.
In 2022, the Snohomish County Council passed three pieces of legislation aimed at increasing the availability of housing and lowering the cost of new homes.
The first of these ordinances encourages the production of more “missing middle” housing (Ordinance 22-016). “Missing Middle” housing refers to townhomes and other housing that is denser than traditional single-family developments but less dense than mid-rise apartments. Townhome style housing can be a good option for first time homebuyers looking to enter homeownership when other options are less affordable. It also provides a valuable ownership alternative to rental apartments.
We have also taken steps to reduce bureaucratic red tape and streamline regulatory processes. Ordinance 22-037 allows for categorical exemptions to the State Environmental Policy Act in situations where the proposed development is roughly equal to what is called for in the comprehensive plan. This reform reduces the timeline and cost for new development reviews by county planning staff.
One of the significant drivers of housing costs are the time and expense on the part of home builders to get development applications approved. Those increased costs are ultimately passed down to the home buyer, so any steps we can take at the local level to reduce bureaucracy will have a direct impact on residents’ ability to purchase a home.
Another factor impacting housing availability for younger homebuyers is that aging homeowners are not downsizing. Lack of affordable options for aging residents results in many of them keeping larger houses that they may no longer want or need. One option to address this issue is accessory dwelling units.
In Snohomish County, we have passed multiple ordinances to allow for attached and detached accessory dwelling units in unincorporated areas of the county. These ADUs and DADUs can be a great option for aging parents or grandparents who want to downsize but don’t want to live in the same house as their children or grandchildren. By creating more options for aging homeowners to downsize, more of the existing supply of homes can come on the market for new homebuyers.
The steps we’ve taken at the local level here in Snohomish County may be relatively small in the grand scheme of such a significant nationwide issue, but they represent positive steps in the right direction that work to make home ownership more attainable for residents of all ages and income levels.
Local government has an important role to play in setting the tone for the conversation around how we can address housing affordability in our communities.
The author is a housing policy expert in Washington stateNate Nehring is the vice chair of the Snohomish County Council in Washington state, representing District 1. He chairs the County Council’s Planning and Community Development Committee and was recognized by the Snohomish County-Camano Association of Realtors as “Citizen of the Year” in 2022 for his work on local housing policy. This commentary was provided to the News-Press by The Center Square, a nonprofit dedicated to journalism.