After much debate, council moves forward to develop Housing Action Plan

The Bainbridge Island City Council moved forward to prepare a consulting scope of work for developing a Housing Action Plan and a cost estimate for a housing needs assessment and inventory, but not without some disagreement among council members.

The first motion at a recent meeting relating to the housing plan narrowly moved forward with Kirsten Hytopoulos, Christy Carr, Leslie Schneider and Joe Deets voting in favor, and Michael Pollock, Rasham Nassar and Brenda Fantroy-Johnson opposing it. The second motion regarding the housing needs assessment and inventory moved forward with a vote of 5-2, with Pollock and Nassar voting against it.

“I can’t support it,” Mayor Nassar said. “Since I’ve been on the council and before, I’ve watched council vote to hire consultants to develop plans that have produced zero units of affordable housing. I understand the data is old but the problem hasn’t changed, it’s gotten worse. I don’t think we need to go out and collect any data. I think the problem is very real.”

Nassar mentioned having the council focus on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) and tiny homes “so we can actually make progress on affordable housing and actually deliver affordable housing stock to our community. So far, we have literally done nothing.”

Fantroy-Johnson said they first need to figure out whether there’s actually an appetite for affordable housing on the island and follow through on some of the plans they’ve already looked at.

“We need to keep that in mind first,” she said. “It’s like we had all these great ideas, but they didn’t go anywhere. I don’t know that creating another plan is what we need. It sounded like we had some good recommendations from the plans we already had.”

The affordable housing ad hoc committee — consisting of Hytopoulos, Schneider and Carr — reviewed examples of Housing Action Plans from other jurisdictions and information from the state Department of Commerce and believes an action plan is the “best planning framework and path forward for addressing the City Council’s affordable housing objectives,” documents read.

“The City Council has not taken meaningful action on implementation of the 2017 Comprehensive Plan Housing Element,” documents state. “The 2018 recommendations of the Affordable Housing Task Force have not been advanced in a significant way. Both of these planning efforts intended to increase a diversity of housing types and decrease the number of cost-burdened families on the island. Cost burdened families include 34 (owning homes) to 40 (renting homes) percent of our islanders – there is an urgent need to address this issue for our current residents.”

According to documents, such a housing plan provides a strategic framework and identifies implementing actions designed to achieve affordable housing objectives. The planning process includes a review of housing needs, existing housing inventory, and unique community and market factors, and is informed by a robust public engagement component.

“We suspect that having a Housing Action Plan is going to set us up to be ready to respond when new funding comes through for affordable housing,” Schneider said. “This is kind of getting our ducks in a row, doing our research. This is making the commitment to do exactly what the mayor said, which is making a commitment to ADU’s, making a commitment to tiny homes. That will be part of this process.”

As with other council initiatives like the Sustainable Transportation Plan and Climate Action Plan, documents read that a planning effort is an effective means to elicit and document policy decisions and direction. Several cities have received grants from the Department of Commerce to create housing plans, a result of legislation passed in 2019. It is anticipated that similar funding will come out of the 2021 legislature.

“If we have a political will, colleagues, we can get this done,” Deets said. “Look at the Climate Action Plan for instance; that took years to do.”

The city’s work plan includes a number of housing-related projects. Since many are policy-oriented with dependencies on one or more other work plan items, the committee recommends addressing them within the context of the Housing Action Plan. These include:

  • Consideration of ordinance to allow RV’s as permanent housing
  • Consideration of tiny homes on wheels as ADUs and tiny home villages
  • Consideration of changes to ADU regulations, including common ownership
  • Consideration of Inclusionary Zoning
  • Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Program Improvement/Implementation
  • Winslow Master Plan (housing element)

“I think a Housing Action Plan will help the community and the council define affordability,” Carr said. “I don’t think that we’ve done that. Consultants aren’t going to tell us what to do. The council and the community are going to tell them what to improve in the Housing Action Plan.”

Nassar responded to councilmembers in favor of the plan by saying she was in favor of implementing these items but the “approach needs to be changed.”

“We have these conversations about planning but when push comes to shove, I haven’t seen the council take a lot of action,” she said. “I’m not interested in spending more money and adding to the black hole of affordable housing dollars that (have) walked out of this city and produced zero units.”

Documents state that strategies and actions are based on data (housing inventory and needs assessment) and community input. It is anticipated that the plan will be a 12-18 month effort, so the committee recommends initiating or continuing work on some housing-related work plan items. Some have shorter timelines and could be completed by the end of this year. These include:

  • Complete Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE) program
  • End Floor Area Ratio (FAR) interim zoning control; adopt Planning Commission recommended ordinance (if/as modified by council) – FAR will be addressed in Housing Action Plan
  • Pursue religious properties density increase ordinance (per state mandate)
  • Inventory public land for suitability of affordable housing
  • Consider short-term vacation rental ordinance

The immediate next step is to move forward with gathering information to understand the process and costs for developing a Housing Action Plan. The plan will be discussed at a future council meeting.