Local issues were infused with national politics as King County Executive Dow Constantine made a visit to the Snoqualmie Valley last week to speak at the January 25th Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce luncheon – in what was billed as a discussion about the “critical aspects of commerce and economic vitality in the Valley.”
Those who live in the Snoqualmie Valley recognize the area has grown from a once mostly rural, farming area considered “so far away” from Seattle or a place where urbanites escaped to hike and enjoy the outdoors.
As more people move to the Puget Sound region for jobs and the housing supply shrinks and home prices skyrocket, many are forced to live farther from work. As a result, the Valley has become a suburb to Seattle and Bellevue and home to thousands. With that has come growing pains – evident to many local residents, as well as community and city leaders.
Umpqua Bank Manager and Chamber member Rob Wotton began the luncheon by discussing two critical issues facing the Valley: transportation and affordable housing, connecting the two issues many times.
According to Wotton, many who work in the Valley can’t afford to live here, but said they would if they could, and save thousands on yearly transportation/commuting costs. He spoke of traffic pressures on the I-90/SR 18 interchange, the large amount of residents who commute out of the area for work and shopping, and the large amount of non-resident employees commuting into the Valley from areas where they can afford to live.
While Constantine’s speech did not directly address Wotton’s presentation, it did address issues like homelessness, affordable and workforce housing and road infrastructure needs on a broader, county-wide level. He also stressed the importance of Snoqualmie Valley farms and protecting the county’s natural areas, including those located in the Valley.
Constantine also touched on policies of the new presidentialal administration that might impact our region – alluding to recent executive orders and saying that our area prospers when the environment is protected and climate change is not denied. He also noted the area’s role as an exporter and trade hub, saying the region suffers with trade wars and prospers with strong international ties.
Constantine commented that King County cannot allow things occurring in “the other Washington” to block the “things we need to do for our region to be successful.” He added, “The region can be impacted by the decisions of a president, but doesn’t have to do what a president says.”
Rapid Population Growth of ‘Metropolitan Region’
With 200-300 new residents coming to King County each day, the executive spoke about the demands for infrastructure and housing, but also noted the role to protect the county’s natural areas. He said with growth comes the ability to protect things important to the area – and the need to be smart about urban planning.
Constantine noted that solving transportation infrastructure needs hinges on looking at the area as one large metropolitan region – not just small areas connected by roads that those areas are responsible for maintaining and upgrading.
Through supporting the Savor Snoqualmie initiative, the Snoqualmie Valley Winter Shelter, local arts and heritage museums, Constantine recognized the accomplishments of a County-Valley relationship.
Some new items are on the County’s agenda this year, including running a renewal of a Veteran’s Service Levy which supports and helps local vets get out of homelessness. There may also be a cultural access initiative on the ballot, something the King County Council is still exploring, to expand access and equity to arts, science and heritage organizations county-wide.
Homelessness is, as expected, a big issue for King County. Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the county $34 million to move people out of homelessness and “into housing and stability.” But Constantine warned that money doesn’t go as far as some think – that the $34 million grant only gets about 164 people permanently off the streets. That is because housing is only one component to solving homelessness – social and job services are also needed.
According to Constantine, this is why the county is a proponent of what he called “upstream solutions,” which focus on keeping vulnerable families in their homes, something he described a less expensive solution. Funds from the recently passed Best Starts for Kids levy are directed toward such programs that can provide what a family needs to stay housed. Programs that show good results keep the funding, if not, the money is redirected.
More Affordable Housing and Regional Affordable Housing Agenda Coming
Affordable housing is also an issue in King County as supply and demand issues face off. With an exploding population and shrinking housing supply, home prices and rents have risen dramatically over the past six years.
Constantine said the county is helping the King County Housing Authority (not part of county government) secure low-cost financing to acquire and/or build 2,000 units of affordable housing.
The county is also planning to work with local cities to advance a King County Regional Affordable Housing Agenda that will address and fund the critical need for affordable and workforce-income housing across the region.
Constantine warned, though, that with the population growth King County is experiencing, government subsidized or “artificially priced” housing alone won’t fix the affordable housing demand, noting the need to get the private market working so that builders can succeed and profit at building homes for those other than the top of the market.
In closing, King County Executive Constantine’s speech circled back to national politics, saying:
“We face an uncertain time in our country’s history…the person occupying the White House is unlike any of his predecessors. What we have accomplished here gives me the confidence that we are on the right path. Together as this metropolitan region, we will continue to move forward; to look outward to the international world of the 21st century; to embrace the future and to uphold that American notion that we are a nation of hope and that we are a nation of opportunity for everyone.”