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Warnick heads bill addressing low-income housing in rural areas

by Angelica Relente, Herald Legislative Writer
| February 11, 2021 1:00 AM

Lack of affordable housing has been an ongoing issue for many communities in Washington, if not other states in the nation. One local state legislator is hoping to begin a study of the issue with a bill she introduced in this year’s session of the legislature.

“We all want economic development for our communities,” Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said during a virtual legislative hearing Feb. 4. “I want it for my rural areas, but without housing, we can’t encourage development.”

Senate Bill 5375 would require the state Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee to conduct a study of publicly subsidized low-income housing development in urban and rural counties from 2010 to 2020, according to the bill’s text. The study must identify factors that influence housing development in urban and rural counties. The study would also identify funding sources for low-income housing.

Warnick is SB 5375’s primary sponsor. She said in an interview with the Herald many small communities in her district can attract more businesses.

“But in order to attract businesses, you have to have … housing for folks that might need to move in with (their) business,” Warnick said.

There are not a lot of low-income housing units available in most communities, Warnick said, even if there are opportunities for developers to build that type of housing. Developers are “not taking advantage” of those opportunities for some reason.

With SB 5375, Warnick said she hopes to find out what a developer needs to build low-income housing and why a developer might not build that type of housing.

“We hear a lot about what’s happening in central Puget Sound, but I’m trying to bring attention to challenges that we’re facing in rural areas,” Warnick said.

Marty Miller, executive director of the Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing, testified as “other” during the virtual legislative hearing. Miller said Washington, fortunately, has groups responsible for identifying housing issues and obstacles.

“From my perspective, a study may not be necessary, as many of these issues are already known,” Miller said.

One of the factors that may hinder the development of affordable housing is the difference in median incomes in various counties, which is a “major driver,” Miller said.

Lisa Vatske, director of multifamily housing and community facilities at the state Housing Finance Commission, also testified as “other” during the virtual legislative hearing. Vatske said the state Housing Trust Fund has helped develop affordable housing over time, but it may not always suffice.

“Obviously, these investments are still falling short of the needs of our rural communities,” Vatske said. “Developers have something like four times as many shovel-ready projects than we can finance with state and federal resources.”

Vatske said there is a resource issue apparent in the state, but she said she is not sure a study would help alleviate the housing problems in rural areas.

Senators had not voted on SB 5375 as of Wednesday.