ARLINGTON – City Council members and planning commissioners met recently for a Monopoly-style event they called the “Game of Homes.”
The unusual growth-planning tabletop exercise involved surveying enlarged zoning maps and dropping clusters of houses in the scant spaces where new homes are permitted.
The name was a cheeky take on the popular HBO drama “Game of Thrones” about inter-rival conflicts and a web of alliances vying for limited territory among kingdoms.
While Arlington’s housing situation is a far cry from conquests among squabbling kingdoms, the stakes are high in an area where space is at a premium for meeting future housing needs.
The Cascade Industrial Center is poised to create over 25,000 family wage jobs over the next 20 years. Local mayors hope those jobs are filled by Arlington and Marysville residents to relieve people of two-hour commutes that tie up freeways and steal time away from families.
But all those jobs beg the question: Where do you find housing for them?
The exercise was a light-hearted way to answer that question, and gain insight into what the city is up against if it doesn’t plan ahead, diversify the affordable housing available, and look at zoning changes that would add flexibility for moderate densities.
Elected officials and planners are puzzling over how to house 7,000 more residents and 3,500 new housing units over the next 20 years using available land within current city limits, based on Vision 2040, a Puget Sound Regional Council plan. The draft Vision 2050 plan, now available for public comment, forecasts even bigger numbers – 14,000 more residents and 7,000 more homes over 30 years.
Participants placed color-coded houses on the map where those densities were allowed; small green for single-family; yellow, red and blue for apartments; purple and large green for town homes; orange for vertical mixed-use; and white for live/work units.
“The exercise was really eye-opening for the council and commissioners,” said Marc Hayes, city planning and economic development director. “It really made them think, and it was great to watch.”
If community members were asked how many acres of undeveloped land exists in Arlington, they would say plenty, Hayes said.
They would be wrong: the answer is only 22 acres.
That excludes the 337-acre East Hill area, a master planned neighborhood that will allow only two units per acre on 20,000-square-foot lots until utilities are extended to the privately owned land. Nor does it include under-utilized property in Smokey Point, along Highway 530 and pockets around Gleneagle and Old Town that bring 723 more acres to work with for residential.
The first exercise was a lesson in futility.
“They had to go through and figure out how to do it, with the existing zoning,” Hayes said. “They couldn’t.”
When a second exercise included zoning changes that gave participants options for mixed use and more room for density – seven to 18 units per acre, up from six for moderate and medium density, and 19 or more units for high density, up from seven, they had a much easier time.
“That made a huge difference. Then they got a lot more units out of it and were able to accommodate housing needs by doing some tweaks on the zoning,” Hayes said.
Mayor Barb Tolbert serves on the county executive’s Housing Affordability Regional Task Force. Tolbert said Arlington’s housing market is tight, and the challenge is not enough undeveloped land to meet the need. That’s where mixed-use zoning comes in.
Mixed use allows for commercial and horizontal or vertical residential housing to be combined, with the intent to create a more livable, walkable community, Hayes said. Smokey Point Boulevard north of 172nd is a pivotal corridor where mixed use is being touted.
Hayes added that town homes are one type of housing the city is aggressively pursuing with developers, and unit-lot subdivisions are being pitched to address the middle housing market in hopes of creating more affordable homes with a smaller footprint on a smaller lot. That increases units and drives construction costs, giving developers a higher yield on the same land.
Arlington is seeing plenty of multi-story apartment activity, with more to come.
The Villas at Arlington is moving along with construction of 312 senior and family apartments in Smokey Point, as is the 170-unit Affinity at Arlington senior community behind the Safeway Shopping Center.
Two more recent proposals, Centennial Park at 172nd Street NE and 67th Avenue NE and The Reserve at Arlington at Highway 9 and 204th Street near Bartell Drugs, are seeking conditional use permits for 206 apartments (with mixed commercial/retail space) and 150 senior living apartments.
Housing tax exemption?
Councilman Mike Hopson said the exercise was enjoyable and educational. However, the strong voice for affordable housing said there are too many cost-burdened households in Arlington, making home ownership harder for many to attain.
He is pitching a mixed use property tax exemption for builders in residential targeted focus areas outside and away from the CIC, similar to the exemption offered for Opportunity Zones inside the CIC.
The program would offer a 12-year ad “valorem tax” exemption – for the building structure only, the property would still be taxed – to applicants who commit to renting or selling at least 25% of multi-family housing units in Arlington’s focus areas as affordable housing. That would also apply to mixed-use projects.
The purpose would be to “increase affordably-priced residential opportunities in Arlington, where compounded by the advent of the Cascade Industrial Center, insufficient housing for low- and moderate-household incomes exists.”
According to the Housing Snohomish County Project Report, rents increased 28.4 percent between 2013 and 2016, while at the same time wages decreased. The rental vacancy rate went down from 5% to 4%, indicating a shortage of rental housing.
Countywide, 18% of households pay more than 30% of their income to housing, which is the amount at which a household will start sacrificing things like health care and food to be able to pay rent.
“This is considered to be a cost-burdened household,” Hopson said.
In Arlington, the 80% AMI low-income group is divided into household incomes of $35,000-$49,000 and $50,000-$74,999. The moderate income group – 115% AMI, represents household income from $75,000 to $89,700, a county housing study states.
From 2010-2017, the 80% AMI households that were cost burdened increased 61%.
The numbers suggest that for households with an income greater than $75,000, affordable housing exists, Hopson said. For those below that, it is increasingly difficult to live affordably in Arlington.
Professionals want a mix of housing, affordable housing for low-income people and market rate for those with middle-class incomes.
“Although there is no ‘silver bullet’ that will solve the housing dilemma in Arlington,” Hopson said, a mixed-use tax exemption program based on state laws passed by the Legislature can be an optional incentive for developers to address this issue.
Tolbert said she has asked neighbors in the past that at today’s value, could they afford to buy their home today? The answer too often has been “no,” so she is concerned about displacement.
“The important thing we don’t want to happen is to have people displaced from low-income housing, for example people on fixed incomes,” she said.
Your try at Game of Homes
Hayes said the Game of Homes exercise was so well received, they plan to bring it to open houses. “When you actually have to do it for yourself, it makes all the difference in the world,” Hayes said.
The exercise is an early opportunity to prepare for the 2023 comprehensive plan update sure to be the city’s most significant in history.