Commentary: Summit Plans to Address Lewis County Housing Shortage

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Lewis County has a housing shortage.

As elected officials, we are assisting an effort to find solutions to the whole housing pipeline — how we shelter people lacking housing, how to move people into permanent housing including helping people into rentals and home ownership, and how to provide high-end housing to add to the county’s tax base.

We are putting together an all-day Housing Summit slated for September in hopes of finding a coordinated approach that generates solutions across the county. The summit will begin with expert speakers and panelists in the morning and move into policy work in the afternoon.

Prices have been spiking across Lewis County, from soaring second homes in Packwood to an expected massive population growth in Winlock to a shortage of available homes for sale in the Twin Cities.

Homes going for $300,000 just a year ago are now going for hundreds of thousands of dollars more in today’s overheated Lewis County market. For real estate agents lucky enough to have a home listing, the properties are flying out the door, often with multiple offers and competitive bidding, something common in the Seattle area but new in the past year to Lewis County.

It used to be the American dream of owning a home took a single breadwinner putting down 10 percent. Those days are long gone. Today it takes a decent down payment and often two incomes to pay the mortgage.

We still believe in the American dream of home ownership and hope this Housing Summit will help lead to more affordable housing being built in Lewis County to make the dream within reach to more residents.

Key to the success of the summit is the buy-in and cooperation by jurisdictions across the county. We're focused on practical outcomes that policy can help: how do we keep housing prices down, how do we get housing built quickly and how do we support people at various stages.

A successful Housing Summit will first define the housing situation in Lewis County and the economic drivers behind our housing crisis. Our goal is to develop a policy toolkit for area cities, the county and other applicable jurisdictions.

Participants will include county government elected officials and support staff; city councilors, city managers and community development leaders; economic development organizations such as the Lewis Economic Development Council and the ports of Centralia and Chehalis; school board members and superintendents; and social services leaders.

We will explore what is affordable housing, low income housing and permanent supportive housing; locations and number of housing across county cities and towns; housing trends; and myths and facts about low-income housing. The summit will examine causes of homelessness; racial and social issues related to housing (namely race and poverty); historical trends shaping current levels of housing; the tax revenue, emerging trends and the connection between housing and economic health; a panel of people who have suffered from homelessness; the rental market; and finally, to develop the policy toolkit that will allow local leaders to help manage the housing needs in our community.

Housing is an issue that touches every city, town and unincorporated lands across Lewis County. We hope this summit will lead to consistent and collaborative efforts from all agencies and jurisdictions in our county.

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Kelly Smith Johnston is a Centralia city councilor. Sean Swope is a Lewis County commissioner.