A house under construction in Walla Walla

A house under construction in Walla Walla in January 2020.

One in five renters in Walla Walla County spent over 50% of their income on housing in 2018, according to the recently released draft of the Walla Walla Regional Housing Action Plan.

If housing expenses continue to rise faster than income levels, that number will grow.

Full-time workers need to earn $29.31 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Washington, according to the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. In the Walla Walla Valley, as with all of Washington state, affordable housing is hard to come by, and residents are struggling financially, especially post-pandemic.

In an effort to combat the Valley’s affordable housing crisis, city officials have drafted the Walla Walla Regional Housing Action Plan. What’s clear is that everyone has a lot of work to do, including the arduous tasks of potentially changing Urban Growth Areas to allow for more housing density in areas where it makes the most sense — something officials in both Walla Walla and Columbia counties would also have to get behind to make happen.

The action plan was finalized July 7 and presented at a Walla Walla Planning Commission meeting on July 12. Next, the plan will be presented to Walla Walla City Council.

The Walla Walla Regional Housing Action Plan is set to be adopted by the participating jurisdictions this fall, officials said.

Funded by a $110,000 housing grant from the Department of Commerce, the plan contains strategies and goals for the cities of Walla Walla, College Place, Dayton and Waitsburg.

The Housing Action Plan aims to address the demand for adequate, affordable housing that continues to outpace new housing production in the area by providing strategies to enhance the inventory of affordable housing available in Southeast Washington.

The plan uses feedback from a project advisory committee, stakeholder committee and survey input from over 400 residents. It can be used to inform future comprehensive plans, capital facilities plans, land use policies, development regulations, infrastructure spending priorities, permitting procedures and fee structures.

The Walla Walla region should plan to add approximately 4,685 new dwellings over the next 20 years.

The Housing Plan also included the results from another study, ALICE, measuring households that struggle to afford housing. ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, considers the complete cost of household essentials, such as child care, technology, food, transportation, housing, health care and taxes.

The Housing Plan states that in 2018, about 42% of the households in Walla Walla County were either in the ALICE category or in poverty. The statewide average is 33%.

The city in this region with the highest number of households in poverty and ALICE categories was College Place, with 50% of households there qualifying, while one of the lowest was Dayton, with 42% of their households in ALICE and poverty categories.

Walla Walla

Renée Rooker, executive director at the Walla Walla Housing Authority, has seen a high demand for affordable housing since she started her position, but that number has been even larger in the past five or six years.

“Lack of supply and the increase in rent and income is not able to match,” Rooker said.

The Walla Walla Housing Authority offers affordable housing for over 450 households. The organization’s mission is to provide families of low to moderate income with affordable housing.

When the organization is faced with extreme housing needs, such as now, staff rely on a process for constructing more affordable housing.

“We identify what the need is, we conduct a market study to figure that what we have identified is really valid, and with that then we submit applications for a variety of funding in order to make it a reality; then of course assembling and finding the land,” Rooker said.

The current amount of land zoned for multi-family structures appears to be inadequate to meet overall housing needs, even when assuming 55% of the net new housing will be constructed on infill and redevelopment lands, according to the housing plan.

The plan recommends that College Place and Walla Walla continue to work with Walla Walla County officials and regional housing advocates to ensure that new housing density can be optimized within current Urban Growth Areas and that new areas be identified for potential UGA expansion.

College Place

At a College Place City Council workshop July 6, Council members discussed a draft of the Housing Action Plan, presented by Jon Rickard, the city’s community development director.

Rickard discussed some of his takeaways.

“For me as a planner, it comes back to just simply having enough dirt for new development to come in and alleviate our existing housing inventory,” Rickard said. “So, we can’t rely on 60% of our growth over the next 20 years to be infill.”

Instead, Rickard said, the city needs to expand its urban growth boundaries, and the cornerstone to that is updating the 1993 countywide planning policies.

“Those countywide planning policies are how we all agree to do the math,” Rickard said. “That’s how, at that point, we will agree how much growth is going to be allocated to the urbanized areas.”

In a prepared statement, Rickard told the U-B that updating the countywide policies is crucial because they are what guide the methodology for determining the development capacity of existing lands, the frequency of reviewing UGAs and the allocation of projected new population growth figures.

“Since adoption of the countywide planning policies, allocation of population was established based on existing concentration of population,” Rickard said in his statement. “At the time, College Place was 15% of the county population, therefore the city received 15% of the projected growth.”

Logic should dictate that as the community evolves through the Growth Management Act, Rickard said, the population allocations would increase to the incorporated areas, while the unincorporated areas (rural Walla Walla County) would plan for less population growth.

“This has not happened,” Rickard said in his statement.

“Walla Walla County continues to allocate itself population even though the GMA says that growth should occur in urban areas where adequate public facilities and services exist or can be provided in an efficient manner. The majority of the projected population growth needs to be allocated to the urban, incorporated areas therefore allowing the cities to plan for more UGAs.

“Action is needed now by Walla Walla County to take the lead in updating the outdated countywide planning polices, as our next mandated Comprehensive Plan periodic update for the region is June 2026. In planning years, that is tomorrow,” Rickard said, stressing the urgency of getting this done right away.

In the July 6 workshop meeting, College Place City Council member Loren Peterson called the statistics “sobering,” and Council member Melodie Selby said she thinks COVID-19 is worsening the situation, and that the city will need to figure out how to climb out of it.

“For example, I don’t know that I am representative, but I took a 10% pay cut, my rent is going up by 14%, and if I went month-to-month, it would be going up over 40%,” Selby said.

“So it’s just unbelievable what people are being asked to do because the income is less, the rent is more, so people who were in the ‘I can afford to live here’ can, without doing anything, move up into ‘I can’t afford to live here anymore.’”

Contact the Union-Bulletin’s reporting intern Trinity Pierce at trinitypierce@wwub.com or Abby Malzewski at abbymalzewski@wwub.com.