Guest Commentary: Summit Aims to Tackle Tough Problem of Available Housing

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Lewis County has a housing problem.

And it’s not just people who are homeless and seeking shelter during a cold, rainy night on one end of the spectrum or a developer not able to find the zoning and afford the needed water and sewer infrastructure to build single-family homes or low-income housing. It is the widow who has lived in a comfy neighborhood for decades who would sell but can’t find a quality single-level home or a senior living center near her neighborhood, or even in Lewis County. It is the person who just got a job but can’t afford first, last and deposit on a rental, let alone water, sewer, garbage and electrical charges. It is the young family hoping to buy a home but without the required 20 percent down.

And that doesn’t include the people many of us think of first when considering housing issues: those with substance use disorders or behavioral health care needs. Yes, many of these folks, too, need a safe place to stay and services before they can start looking for an apartment, or addressing their underlying issues, or entering the workforce. With less inventory comes even less of a reason for landlords to take a chance renting to someone trying to turn their life around. What if they don’t?

In a report released by BERK Consulting this year for the county, several factors reveal Lewis County has systemic problems. If demographics don’t change, if policies and agencies and elected officials and their staff don’t step up, we will continue to suffer from housing shortages. The supply of homes in Lewis County, according to the report, is “extremely low.” Between June 2012 and June 2021, Lewis County has realized a 69% decrease in the supply of homes for sale. Typically, a region needs 4 months of houses-for-sale inventory for stable prices. Lewis County has only 1.1 months of supply.

The limited housing inventory in turn causes a supply and demand nexus that drives up home prices. In that same time period between 2012 and 2021, the median sales price of a home in Lewis County has soared dramatically. In a disturbing and unsustainable trend, Lewis County housing costs are rising faster than median incomes. For renters in Lewis County, 48% pay more than 30% of their total income toward rent; 24% pay more than 50% on housing costs. For those in lower income brackets, an approximate supply of about 1,100 low income housing units just can’t supply for all that qualify.

There is hope, however.

We are both involved in an effort, led by the City of Centralia and the County Commissioners, to host an initial Housing Summit for elected leaders across Lewis County set for Dec. 2. The initial meeting aims to build a common understanding of Lewis County’s housing needs and challenges (authors of this column are Greg Lund, real estate broker for Century 21 and consultant, and one of the featured speakers at the summit; and Lewis County Public Health and Social Services Director JP Anderson, who is part of the team organizing the summit).

The summit also aims to assess the county’s available policy solutions in anticipation of additional housing shortage meetings. In a planning document for the summit, it states “We plan to look at housing challenges collectively so that jurisdictions set policies that address housing needs across the county and share both the opportunities and responsibilities for ensuring a strong housing pipeline in our area.”

We’ll get into details on speakers and topics in an upcoming column, but for now, we are proud that county leaders are spending serious time and effort to address our housing difficulties.

This is a challenging effort and a big problem to solve across several spectrums. As Theodore Roosevelt said in 1910 and it still is relevant today, “Nothing worth having comes easy.” We’re proud our elected leaders are making this a priority.

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Greg Lund is a Realtor broker for Century 21 and consultant. JP Anderson is director of Lewis County Health and Social Services.