The lament is laced with confusion and angst. “I’ve got a decent job. Why can’t I afford to buy a house? Or even rent a nice apartment?”
It’s not an isolated complaint. From the Seattle-Tacoma area to Spokane, the Palouse, and other cities across Washington state, the clamor for affordable housing has risen to the breaking point.
According to a recent report by Up for Growth, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit research firm, the Evergreen state logged a shortfall of 225,600 homes between 2000 and 2015—eighth worst in the nation for housing underproduction.
Indeed, housing for low- and middle-income families is in short supply in many areas of the United States. Add that to rising construction costs, stagnant wages, and a complex set of other factors, and America is now facing its highest population of cost-burdened and homeless citizens since the Great Depression.
Cost-burdened means having to spend more than 30 percent of family income on housing, with subsequent difficulty affording food, clothing, transportation, child care, and medical care. Severely burdened households dish out more than 50 percent of income on rent.
Seattle has some of the highest rates of cost burden in the nation according to The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies’ 2018 State of the Nation’s Housing Report. More than a third of Seattle families with incomes under $75,000 struggle to pay the rent. It’s a number surprisingly similar to sparsely populated Whitman County, where the Palouse Regional Housing Assessment estimates 37 percent of area residents are cost-burdened.
Though cost burden can lead to homelessness, today’s housing crisis is also about low- and middle-income citizens holding down two or three jobs and still not being able to make ends meet. It’s about teachers, firefighters, and full-time staff at Washington State University priced out of finding a safe, comfortable, and secure house—or even apartment—of their own.
The housing crisis is fundamentally a crisis of affordability, which, after many years in the making, has grown to the point that it threatens middle class stability. The solutions, unfortunately, are extremely complex and difficult to implement. The best estimates are it will likely take decades to produce enough homes to meet projected needs.
Ryan Smith, however, doesn’t want to wait that long. As director of the WSU School of Design and Construction in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, he is boldly taking steps to tackle the affordable housing problem. Working with a diverse team of faculty researchers, students, and community partners, Smith is reshaping our vision of housing with solutions ranging from exciting modular construction concepts to high-efficiency Habitat for Humanity homes.
The story begins last November at an all-night hack-a-thon.
It was five o’clock and already dark. A few stubborn leaves rattled in the wind outside the entrance to Carpenter Hall on the WSU Pullman campus. Inside the classy old architecture building, the lights were bright, and corridors filled with the excited voices of nearly 100 students who gave up their Friday night to partake in WSU’s first Hack-A-House competition.
Smith organized the event with the help of Matthew Melcher, associate professor of architecture. It was sponsored by Ivory Innovations, a housing affordability incubator at the University of Utah. The center was started by Ivory Homes, Utah’s largest development firm.
“Hack-a-thons are traditionally idea competitions or ‘sprints’ where people get together to hack a problem,” says Smith. “In this case, Ivory Innovations had the idea to do a 24-hour competitive sprint centered on solutions to affordable housing.”
Ivory’s first competition was held at the University of Utah in 2018 and focused on solutions for the Salt Lake City area. Smith, previously a professor at Utah, was asked to take part. The event was so successful, Ivory decided to expand to other universities in 2019, including WSU last November.
For Pullman’s hack-a-thon, Smith invited graduate and undergraduate students from both WSU and the University of Idaho to submit ideas for innovative housing solutions in the Palouse area.
“We put them into teams of 4–5 students,” Smith recalls. “Each team was assigned their own private room to brainstorm and create a slide presentation. We provided food, coffee, and snacks, and also had speakers, including Jennifer Wallace from Palouse Habitat for Humanity, who helped frame the problem.
“The next day, the students made three-minute business pitches which were judged by a panel of local jurists,” he said. Ten thousand dollars was awarded in prizes including $5,000 to the overall winner—a team of WSU graduate architecture students who proposed building modular housing on Palouse farmland that is too steep to cultivate.
Coleman Coddington, and teammates Ezekiel Nelson, Gabe Hernandez, and Jake Monroe designed a “housing unit that could be prefabricated and replicated to cut down on cost. The units could potentially be stacked and would fit right next to each other,” Coddington explains.
“We inserted these units on steep farmland and extended the adjacent farmland over the top, giving farmers more useful land than they had before. The owners of the units would rent their roof space back to the farmer allowing them to lower their cost of rent. The farmer would also gain subsidies from the government based upon the number of these units they built on their land.”
Smith says all of the teams came up with innovative ideas. “The students just raved about the competition and I really hope we can do something like it again next year.
“The winning team was so excited, in fact, they wanted to keep going,” he said. “So, we’re working with some of the same students on a home design for Palouse Habitat for Humanity that will be built this summer. We plan to monitor the project for energy efficiency and affordability.”
The building-block concepts in the winning Hack-A-House design are familiar to Smith, a modest man who is widely recognized as a leader in the emerging field of offsite construction and modular housing. Recently, he and Ivan Rupnik of Northeastern University formed a consulting company called MODX which holds events all over the world.
Last February, MODX held a Northwest conference in collaboration with Seattle’s Housing Development Consortium, a nonprofit organization led by executive director Marty Kooistra.
The MODX program included a visit to Katerra’s cross-laminated mass timber factory in Spokane Valley. There were also talks by Seattle architects and industry leaders. Smith says their goal is to introduce local builders to offsite modular construction, including ways to manage the industry’s inherent challenges.
“Modular construction is a really good solution for affordable housing because it is fast and cost-controlled,” he says. “Also, if you can buy in bulk, you can potentially get the cost to come down.”
Smith says offsite construction is defined as any project that uses elements built in a factory and then brought in and installed on the job site. There are two types of offsite construction and the first is called panelization.
“Instead of framing a home with sticks—2x4s or 2x6s—we’re making panels and then bringing them to the job site,” he said. “These can range from open panels to those enhanced with sheetrock and insulation, preinstalled windows, or pre-wired.”
The second type is modular. “Here, the factory builds three dimensional boxes that when stacked like Legos on the job site make up the entirety of the project,” Smith said. “Those boxes usually contain one unit and can be completed up to 60 to 90% in the factory.”
Theoretically, offsite construction delivers a higher level of quality control and consistency than can be achieved by building a home at the job site. By using the same labor force to build unit after unit, the crew grows increasingly skilled and efficient.
As for cost savings, Smith says they are still trying to calculate exact numbers, but a recent study was revealing. His team analyzed 17 modular projects and reported an 11% cost savings on average. The greater finding, however, was that projects were completed 42% faster.
“That’s a big thing for construction,” said Smith. “Finishing sooner means you get rent money sooner. So, even if the project goes over budget, they’ll get a schedule savings.”
Though the national market for modular homes is still in the early stages, Smith says we’ll likely be seeing more of them in the near future.
“I think modular is still seen as a risky proposition because it’s unknown, but I don’t see a way to build the amount of housing we need in this country in the time we need it without using more productive and faster methods to deliver it.”
Kooistra and the Housing Development Consortium recently organized an offsite construction task force, which is testing five modular pilot projects in the Seattle area. Smith is also on the team and hopes to publish the outcomes as a how-to guide to help other builders successfully incorporate modular techniques into affordable housing projects.
The sooner the better for Kooistra, who says King County is suffering a shortfall of about 156,000 affordable homes.
“That number is quite staggering and if you project it out, it gets worse,” he said. “We will need to build at least 45,000 homes that are affordable to low-income households every five years until 2040 to catch up.
“In the greater Puget Sound region, the population is projected to grow by another 1.8 million people by 2050. So, however you slice it, a lot of the housing here is no longer affordable to lower income households.”
Kooistra lays the blame on a laundry list of causes such as high land costs, a regressive state tax structure, lack of public funding, and constantly increasing rent costs.
“Incomes haven’t risen commensurately with rent hikes,” he said. “It’s a problem that extends statewide, including rural areas. For a lot of people, the economic revenue coming into the household just doesn’t meet the high cost of living anymore.
“On top of that, the construction industry is experiencing a shortage of workers, which drives up contractor and subcontractor costs. A couple years ago, we were at least 300 carpenters a day short in Seattle.
“So, we need strategies to develop the workforce or use methods like cross-laminated timber, modular, and other offsite construction,” Kooistra says. “We can change building methods to decrease costs.”
In the big-picture view, the housing crisis can be traced to the 2008 Great Recession when, after years of artificially inflated home prices, loose lending practices, and subprime mortgages, the housing bubble collapsed in stunning fashion, causing millions of Americans to lose jobs and default on home loans.
“Going into the recession, we had a surplus of single-family houses because it was all based on speculation,” says Smith. “When the recession hit, builders stopped producing product until about 2012. But we still had population growth so there’s a lot of pent-up demand.
“Then, coming out of the recession, when developers started building again—if you look at the numbers from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae—it’s pretty clear that we will likely not return to the single-family housing production levels that we had prior to the recession. That was an unhealthy speculative market that the government has developed regulations around, and we just won’t return to that.
“So, many developers moved into the multi-family home market,” he says. “What we see, especially in California, and in mid-size cities like Spokane, Salt Lake City, and Denver, are low-rise, light wood-frame apartment buildings like Evolve in downtown Pullman. You see this California model everywhere—to provide housing where people can’t afford single-family homes.
“The reason modular is taking off right now is because of this low-rise, multi-family real estate market,” says Smith.
It’s a market that includes many millennials who, thanks to the recession, can’t afford down payments on homes. And, baby boomers who are downsizing—selling their energy-inefficient homes and moving into multi-family housing complexes that offer attractive amenities.
Kooistra says after the recession, housing prices rose dramatically in Seattle.
“Without a construction work force that could keep up with demands, pricing went even higher. We’ve really underproduced while we grew and it’s led to significant costs, whether renting or buying, for consumers.
“And, we know when rents increase significantly, say about $100 per month, it has huge impacts on the numbers of people who become homeless,” he says. “There’s solid data showing there’s a direct correlation.”
Indeed, a 2017 Zillow report shows that even a five percent increase in rent would force an additional 3,000 people into homelessness in New York City, 2,000 more in Los Angeles, and 260 in Seattle.
Seattle already claims the nation’s third highest homeless population with about 12,000 individuals seeking shelter on any given night in King County. That number is at least 1,000 for Spokane County.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Kooistra says. “People are getting physically displaced in our metro area here. There is also cultural displacement—people of color are disproportionately impacted.
“The harsh reality is solutions are not that easy to come by. We’re going to have to hunker down over the next decade and work together if we’re going to have any meaningful impact.”
A recent study looked specifically at the effects on older adults. WSU’s Metropolitan Center for Applied Research and Extension in Everett joined forces with King County and the City of Seattle Aging and Disability Services to assess the area’s projected needs for senior housing.
The 2018 report, “Moving Toward Age-Friendly Housing in King County,” found that the number of older adult-led households is on track to outpace the supply of accessible and affordable housing in King County. Half of senior households who rent are already cost-burdened, as are 40 percent of those with a mortgage.
“The challenge of finding places to live for a diverse aging population who are on a fixed income, who may have health or mobility issues, is going to be a significant factor of what we have to deal with as a community,” says Martha Aitken, Metropolitan Center assistant director.
The study team, which included Season Hoard, assistant professor at the WSU Division of Governmental Studies and Services, and Cory Bolkan, associate professor in human development at WSU Vancouver, targeted solutions for aging in place and equity, especially for the older LGBTQ+ population.
Their strategies ranged from updating land use policies to allow cottage clusters and accessory dwelling units to increasing funding for home delivery services. They also recommended building senior housing units near established services to provide for daily needs, socialization, and transportation.
Similar challenges are playing out in eastern Washington. The 2019 Palouse Regional Housing Assessment found housing expenses in Pullman are 44 percent higher than the national average.
Smith says Pullman suffers from artificially inflated housing prices due to a concentration of high-salary professionals working in a rural area. As a consequence, lower-income families are forced to move to outlying areas, which, in turn, displaces residents of other small towns—similar to what’s happening in Seattle.
And, while the Palouse has a high number of multi-family student apartment buildings, there is a significant shortage of single-family homes. It’s estimated that roughly 270 will need to be built every year for a decade to catch up.
In the meantime, the 2019 report proposes that Pullman and Moscow partner with outlying communities to set up rural housing transition zones. Other ideas are allowing tiny home neighborhoods and utilizing land trusts such as the Moscow Affordable Housing Trust.
On a drizzly January afternoon, I pull up to a muddy construction site in the tiny town of Palouse, Washington. As I make my way toward a new house on the corner, the door opens and a woman in pink waves a cheery hello.
Wallace, executive director of Palouse Habitat for Humanity, has agreed to give me a tour of their current project. The 1,200-square-foot, soft-green house has three bedrooms and two baths including a roll-in shower for a wheelchair. It’s energy efficient and airtight—and number nineteen for the agency, which has built homes in the region since 1992.
“Our typical mortgage is $500-600 per month and you get the entire house plus the benefit of home ownership, which can hopefully break the cycle of poverty by passing some wealth down to future generations,” Wallace says.
Standing quietly off to the side, the new homeowner Rick Kruger says, “My daughter actually applied for us and I never dreamed it would happen, that’s for sure. I was very surprised.”
“Rick’s whole focus is to have something better for his wife Roberta, who has multiple sclerosis and depends on a wheelchair for mobility,” says Wallace. “Together, they’ve put in over 400 hours of sweat equity with Rick helping build the house while Roberta worked on newsletters.”
Rick, 55, a U.S. Army veteran and Moscow city employee, explains that their rented house in Troy, Idaho, has long narrow hallways and 1910 newspapers in the walls for insulation. “Roberta can’t get around with her wheelchair, so we set up a hospital bed in the living room and she lives there with no personal privacy,” he says.
Their new home was specifically built to be ADA accessible with 36-inch-wide doors throughout. There is a front-loading washing machine, and the kitchen has been modified with lower cabinets and a stronger floor.
“Roberta’s so excited to be able to do her own laundry again,” Wallace says. “It’s the little things that give you dignity—it’s nice to give that back to her.”
Rick says it truly is a fresh start. “You have no idea—our old place was so cold and expensive to heat. I’m not going to know what to do with myself.”
The Habitat project is just the kind of community involvement and affordable housing that Smith champions.
Now, thanks to Jessica Perone, faculty consultant for the WSU Center for Civic Engagement who negotiated a meeting between Smith and Wallace, WSU and University of Idaho students will get a chance to take part.
Smith says the School of Design and Construction and WSU’s Rural Communities Design Initiative have joined forces with Palouse Habitat for Humanity. Their first project will be helping with Habitat’s 2021 house to be built in Uniontown.
Winning Hack-A-House team members Coddington and Nelson will be on hand to offer design expertise and install energy-efficient building materials. The partnership will also provide long-term opportunities for faculty research and energy use monitoring.
It’s one example of the small steps that, multiplied throughout the state and nation, are helping thousands of people close the gap between wistfully dreaming of a home and finally holding the key to their own front door.
(This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Washington State Magazine.)