A deep dive into the Walla Walla Valley’s housing landscape revealed 41 percent of renters and homeowners across the region spend a disproportionate amount of their income to cover their monthly leases and mortgages.

According to data included in a more than 30-page Affordable Housing report from nonprofit Community Council this week, 51 percent of renters and 31 percent of homeowners in 2017 paid more than 30 percent of their households’ pretax income to cover their monthly rent or mortgage, plus utilities.

Households are considered “cost burdened” when they spend beyond 30 percent of their pretax income on housing costs, according to the benchmark established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The local data provides a sense of how far-reaching the affordable housing challenges are in Walla Walla. But members of the Community Council said the effects of spending so much income on housing has complex effects in a community.

When residents with a moderate income can’t find homes within their means, they may “down-rent” by moving into units that cost less but are available. Doing so makes it that much more difficult for lower-income households to find homes, said Community Council Study Chairwoman Meagan Anderson-Pira.

The more income residents consequently spend to have a roof over their heads, the less they have for other needs, from health care to groceries. Lack of housing has a reverberating effect, the Community Council report explains.

“Access to safe and affordable housing is an essential foundation of a vibrant and healthy community that offers opportunity to all,” the report opens.

“Students with unstable housing have difficulty focusing on their schoolwork and are at greater risk of dropping out. When employers have difficulty hiring because potential employees cannot find affordable homes, economic development stalls. Individuals who forego medical care in order to pay rent exacerbate heath issues and strain the public health system. When high housing costs result in long commutes, not only are transportation costs added to household budgets, but individuals also have less time to be involved in their communities.”

The report includes a glimpse at what makes the issue difficult, including the imbalance in the increase of median-home prices with median incomes, the mismatch of existing inventory to household demographics and needs, and the booming costs of developing new housing with the prices of land, labor, materials and fees.

The study does not, however, directly address homelessness. “By focusing broadly on safe and affordable housing, this study also aims to contribute to efforts to prevent homelessness,” the introduction states.

The information for the report release Wednesday was gleaned in an exhaustive 26-week study process. The 34-member study committee spent 17 of those weeks hearing from speakers who represent nonprofit organizations, local government, elected officials, builders, mortgage lenders and many more, Anderson-Pira said. From that they generated findings, which were narrowed to establish conclusions. That work resulted in 28 recommendations designed to help increase housing inventory at a range of prices.

The recommendations are the Study Committee’s specific suggestions for change.

The first was already in the works Tuesday as the Community Council made a call for participants in its multi-jurisdictional task force of elected officials, community leaders and industry representative with a goal to reduce the number of cost-burdened households.

Many of the recommendations advocate for education and policy change that could ease regulations for developers and builders. Among them: reduce capital facility charges/systems development charges to encourage infill and multifamily development; explore the development of a single rental application process; explore ways to better use housing vouchers; increase the production of mixed-use development by locating housing in proximity to employment, transit, education, retail services and amenities.

The task force to lead this will be headed by Gustavo Reyna, a Colorado transplant who came to Walla Walla last summer after serving as mayor pro tem in Lafayette.

“No answer is simple, but we move little pieces at a time,” Reyna said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, vickihillhouse@wwub.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/VickiHillhouse.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.

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