by Doug Mah, Doug Mah and Associates and Thurston Chamber Public Policy Director
The greater Thurston region is in the midst of a housing crisis primarily due to a lack of affordable housing across the region. Elected leaders agree.
Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder is credited in the Olympian as writing, “In Lacey, the need for affordable housing is more significant than ever. Unfortunately, several factors are working against those efforts.” (the Olympian, February 15, 2021).
The Thurston Chamber agrees with Mayor Ryder. Significant factors working against affordable housing are well-intentioned but costly regulatory and construction requirements. Our elected leaders are recognizing that competing community ambitions are creating difficult public policy trade-offs.
In Olympia, the City Council discovered that building some new Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs (mother-in-law apartments) included a requirement for a fire suppression sprinkler system that could add more than $8,000 in additional costs to a project. As a result of this finding, the City Council voted to exempt ADUs from the fire sprinkler requirement if the primary house is not required to have them. The Council, in this instance, placed housing affordability and housing goals over fire protection goals.
In Lacey, the City Council found that new State energy codes could add $10,000 to $30,000 to the cost of new homes. As a Statewide building code, the law required Lacey City Council to adopt the new costly regulations. However, the cost impact prompted the City Council to vote to send the Governor a request to delay implementing the new energy code. In effect, the City Council is asking that the State place immediate housing affordability and housing goals over long-range climate change mitigation goals.
What is significant about these separate actions is that it appears that the City Councils used the fiscal impact of the proposed building policies to inform their decisions. Knowing and understanding how public policy impacts housing affordability creates an opportunity to discuss and debate community priorities and trade-offs.
State agencies must estimate the cost of any proposed law as part of the State government’s legislative and budgeting process. The analysis must identify what part of the proposed regulations will add or save money and clearly outline the assumptions used to estimate the fiscal impact. These fiscal impact statements, or “Fiscal Notes,” are profoundly important for lawmakers and help ensure lawmakers understand the added cost or savings of any proposed policy change.
The Public Policy Division of the Thurston Chamber believes that local decision-makers need to have the equivalent of a “Fiscal Note” for every proposed change to public policy that influences the cost and equity of housing across the region.
Now is the time for every jurisdiction to start using valid, reliable, transparent, and shared calculations to ask: “Does this policy proposal have a negative or positive financial impact on how affordable our future housing will be?”
Let’s enable our elected officials to have better discussions and debates around community priorities and trade-offs by asking for a local housing Fiscal Note.