Affordable housing a major concern

Port Townsend aims for higher density in zoning changes

PORT TOWNSEND — Members of the public urged the Port Townsend City Council and Planning Commission to ensure that changes to the city’s zoning code not only increased the amount of housing in the city but also made it affordable to more people.

In a joint meeting of the two bodies Monday night, several in-person commentators and a number of written comments to the council urged the city to pursue policies that ensured affordability for working-class people.

Port Townsend and many cities are currently updating their zoning to take advantage of a state law that allows those changes to be enacted without challenge or going through the State Environmental Policy Act process if they’re made before April 1.

Many of the changes being looked at by Port Townsend and other cities — Port Angeles held similar hearings last week — are looking at ways to increase the density of housing within city limits. But many commentators and city staff noted that increased density doesn’t always lead to increased affordability.

“It’s really hard to mandate any sort of affordability, that’s not lost on me,” said Port Townsend resident Kellen Lynch. “But to not mention it leaves a lot of us wondering, where is it?”

Several commentators, city staff and elected officials noted that the cost of housing in Port Townsend had risen significantly over the past decade, and that the lack of affordable housing was hampering hiring and retention efforts by local businesses.

All of the dozens of commentators to the joint meeting expressed support for changes to the zoning code and most called on officials to make affordability part of the city’s plans.

Among the changes being proposed to the city’s zoning are removal of regulatory barriers to constructing additional types of housing beyond detached single-family homes.

“I don’t know that we had a single conversation during our stakeholder interviews that didn’t include accessory dwelling units,” said Bill Grimes, a planner with SCJ Alliance who’s been hired by the city as a consultant.

Accessory dwelling units, sometimes called “granny flats,” are extra housing units placed on the property of another typically larger housing unit such as a single-family home.

“There was also the concession that they’re not necessarily an affordable way to provide a unit because construction costs really are still very high,” Grimes said of ADUs.

Other changes discussed included lowering minimum lot sizes for certain types of housing — notably duplexes, triplexes and tiny homes — removing setback requirements and eliminating some off-street parking requirements.

One proposed change was permitting recreational vehicles as housing units similar to ADUs, a proposal that generated pushback from the public when proposed in Port Angeles.

While noting the concerns raised in Port Angeles, Port Townsend Planning Commissioner Neil Nelson said permitting RVs was a cheap and effective way of adding additional housing.

“It’s one of the quickest things that we can do. It’s cheap,” Nelson said.

“And the argument that it lowers values or it’s not permanent living, it doesn’t hold a lot of water with me in that respect because RVs may be temporary, but it works.”

But throughout the meeting, officials noted that changing zoning for development would go only so far in providing affordability, and that things like the cost of construction and the housing market were additional barriers to making housing affordable.

“It’s only part of the equation to remove barriers,” said Emma Bolin, planning and community development director.

“We need all of the different players to come to the table,” she said.

Officials said the changes currently under consideration are ones that are easy for the city to make, and that more substantial changes, which may include amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan, could be made after April 1.

Bolin said the city had contracted a long-range planner who will be able to help with crafting policy strategies for affordable housing.

The Planning Commission will make final revision proposals at a March 9 meeting and put them before the City Council at a meeting on March 20.

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsuladailynews.com.

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