MOUNT VERNON — As the city of Mount Vernon works to update its comprehensive plan, some feel the plan does not adequately address the problem of affordable housing.
A group of housing developers, property managers, architects, nonprofits and community members, calling themselves the Housing Availability and Affordability Task Force (HAATF), have repeatedly raised concerns regarding zoning and density rules that they say keep housing from being affordable to build, and therefore not affordable to rent or own.
“(HAATF) people want their expertise to be valued,” said Joan Penney, a member of the task force and community activist. “We just want a seat at the adult table.”
According to Skagit County data, 37 percent of county residents struggle to find affordable housing, and the county would need about 3,700 more affordable housing units to meet the needs of the community.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development classifies “affordable housing” as costing less than 30 percent of the renters’ income, including utilities.
Though affordable housing is a countywide problem, task force members say Mount Vernon has a special responsibility in addressing the housing crisis because of its place in the county.
“It’s the seat of the county,” Penney said. “It’s where the services are.”
Mount Vernon is home to county government offices and many services for those who are homeless or have low incomes, including the Department of Social and Health Services.
The task force is calling for more public involvement in the discussion on affordable housing, and the city has responded by adding more opportunities for comment on the issue.
But some task force members claim the city is refusing to meet with them. Mayor Jill Boudreau said that isn’t the case.
Rebecca Lowell, senior planner for the city and the architect of the comprehensive plan, said the city has been listening and has adapted the plan based on comments made by task force members.
The current draft of the comprehensive plan calls for an up to 75 percent density increase — the number of housing units allowed per acre — for affordable housing projects and opening up more land for multifamily development.
“That’s why this is in here,” Lowell said. “To tell (HAATF) ‘we hear you.’”
Comprehensive plans done by cities and counties don’t directly change rules and codes, but help shape policy and set the direction for how governments should operate. They are rewritten every 10 years per state law.
The documents plan out the next 20 years and address economic development, transportation, health and more, Lowell said.
The task force is only one group offering input. The city has also formed an official Citizens Advisory Group to help with the process.
The housing issue
While housing is one section of the comprehensive plan, it has drawn the most attention because it’s a problem in Skagit County.
Mount Vernon developer Dan Mitzel founded the task force with Mount Vernon Community and Economic Development Director Bob Hyde’s blessing last fall, with the goal of representing affordable housing stakeholders to the city.
Mitzel said the city can address its affordable housing shortcomings by being more friendly to development and by rethinking its zoning and density practices. That’s a claim echoed by other members of the task force, who see the comprehensive plan as the time to change Mount Vernon’s direction on these issues.
Mount Vernon has two multifamily zones, but neither allows more than 15 units per acre, according to the city’s zoning map. Lowell said the city doesn’t have a density cap in the downtown area, but much of that land is already built upon.
“(Developers) can’t make it pencil out to build multifamily in Mount Vernon,” Mitzel said.
Mitzel sees small studios as a potential way to alleviate the demand in housing for young professionals.
“If I had 100 studio apartments in the city, I could sell them in a week,” he said.
Melanie Corey, director of the nonprofit Housing Authority of Skagit County, has been looking for land on which to build affordable housing in Mount Vernon for five years.
The housing authority’s waiting list currently sits at 1,800 families. As of May 31, the four low-income complexes operated by Catholic Housing Services in Mount Vernon had two vacancies among their 131 units, according to the organization’s website.
“We’re all having the same problem,” Corey said. “We haven’t been able to develop in the cities, where affordable housing needs to happen.”
As a nonprofit, Corey said the housing authority has limited resources. She said higher density per acre is important to most effectively use those resources.
Corey estimated she would need densities of about 25 units per acre to break even on a multifamily development.
Land at that density doesn’t exist in Mount Vernon. Corey said the city needs to collaborate with developers to identify land to change that, she said.
“We can’t purchase 20 acres and build duplexes,” she said. “It doesn’t pencil out.”
To compete for federal and state dollars it is necessary to have a completed plan in place, Corey said. And a completed plan requires land on which to build.
“The city shouldn’t just allow multifamily (development), but facilitate it,” she said.
Lowell said the Housing Authority would benefit by coming to the city earlier in the development process, and that Catholic Housing Services has had success with collaborating early and often.
Catholic Housing Services, a nonprofit developer whose complexes in Mount Vernon house farmworkers and others with low incomes, is looking for more opportunities to build, said Division Director Steve Powers.
“The easy thing to do is to blame Mount Vernon, but it’s a problem every city in Western Washington faces,” he said.
Powers said he thinks Mount Vernon is doing a good job of addressing housing problems. His organization works with cities throughout Western Washington, and he said the city’s acknowledgment of the problem is a big step.
He spoke highly of the city’s recent comprehensive plan draft, saying it paves the way for code revisions, which will make development of denser multifamily housing easier.
Lowell said the majority of the feedback she’s received on the comprehensive plan has been positive. The criticism she has received has been from what she calls a “vocal minority” calling for more public input.
Once the comprehensive plan is completed and City Council starts to consider city code amendments, there will be public hearings. Those will offer more opportunities for comment.
“I could address code issues as (HAATF) brings them up, but my council could adopt a comp plan with contrary goals, policies or objectives,” Lowell said.
She said she was concerned with the task force influencing policy, as many members profit off housing development or management. She said she is implementing parts of the task force’s message that she agrees with, but said she has some “fundamental disagreements” with the group.
The task force’s call for increased density is one-dimensional, Lowell said, and wouldn’t fix the housing problem on its own.
“As staff, I’m not going to take an idea I think is fundamentally flawed to council,” she said.
Hyde said the task force has had a significant impact on the comprehensive plan, and its work and constant pressure has helped the city determine the scope of the housing problem.
“The tension is a good thing. It makes us better,” he said.
He described the idea to explore more mixed-use development, such as commercial space below an apartment complex, as a direct result of the task force’s input.
Once the comprehensive plan is completed and the city begins to consider revisions to things such as zoning codes, Hyde said the task force will take on a more prominent role.
“More than likely, we’ll bring them in to help write the code (changes),” he said.
City Councilman Bob Fiedler understands the task force’s concerns, saying he feels the city is ignoring a valuable resource and violating its policy of public participation.
“(HAATF is) a broad, diverse group, and we’re not allowing them to participate,” he said. “It’s sad.”
Fiedler said he feels as if the task force and city staff disagree on the size and scope of the housing problem, and while the task force likely doesn’t have all the answers, he thinks more communication and compromise would lead to a stronger Mount Vernon.
Fiedler was on the City Council during the last comprehensive plan revision in 2006, when the city hired a consultant to help gather public opinion. This time around, Lowell is doing the lion’s share of the work on her own.
He said the process of writing a comprehensive plan is daunting, and is likely more than one person can handle.
“I’m not always a fan of hiring stuff out, but this is one of those things that you have to get right,” he said.
Kirk Johnson, a planner for the county, is a member of the Citizens Advisory Group. Although he doesn’t represent the county on the group, his job gives him experience with comprehensive plans.
Although there is some disagreement about the role of the advisory group, Johnson said he sees its role as one in which it reviews documents written by staff and raises issues, but does not dictate the direction of city policy.
Johnson said he feels city staff are listening to and using the group’s input.
“Some people are looking for instant outcomes, and aren’t seeing the process that makes (results) happen,” he said.
Also, he said, many issues concerning zoning and density are not in the hands of Lowell or the Community and Economic Development department, but are the responsibility of the city planning commission or city council.
Johnson said commercial and industrial land is generally considered a revenue source for the city, while residential land is not, so it makes sense cities have been protective of their commercial land.
With the comprehensive plan deadline fast approaching and members of the public still clamoring to speak, Lowell said she doesn’t expect to finish the housing element in time. The city scheduled two more public hearings to include discussion on the housing element, on June 21 and 29.