Councilmembers consider options for addressing city’s housing needs, spar over race and social justice job

The Lynnwood City Council on March 8 discussed a draft bond ordinance for $60 million to fund the planned Community Justice Center.

This story was updated March 11 with corrections to the proposed funding for the Community Justice Center.

As the demand — and price — for housing continues to rise across the region, Lynnwood city leaders Monday invited the Alliance for Housing Affordability to review the city’s housing options.

For years, the Lynnwood City Council has been looking for ways to bring much-needed housing to the city. At its March 8 business meeting, the council invited AHA Program Manager Chris Collier to contribute to the ongoing discussion regarding the issue.

Later in the meeting, councilmembers also got into a heated discussion about the ongoing delays in filling the city’s race and social justice coordinator position, and further discussed a proposed $60 million bond to fund a planned Community Justice Center.

Regarding housing, with Sound Transit’s light rail expansion headed toward Lynnwood, developers have flocked to the city to build multifamily housing complexes — few of which offer affordable housing — to prepare for the corresponding population growth. According to city staff, Lynnwood is projected to have a population of more than 60,700 residents by 2040.

“I don’t think that COVID is going to slow that down,” Collier said. “It’s going to be a blip that lasts for a year or two at most.”

Collier began the briefing by saying Lynnwood is not the only city facing housing shortages. 

“Across the region, we are fundamentally out of housing units,” he said.

Over the years, Collier said Lynnwood has maintained a housing surplus that managed to survive even the 2008 recession, but housing availability has been on a steady decline since 2015.

The primary reason the city needs more housing options, Collier told the council, is some people simply cannot afford to live in Lynnwood. Using survey data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he compared housing prices in Lynnwood and surrounding cities to income levels from Snohomish, King and Pierce counties to review who could afford to live in the city. 

According to Collier, more than one million occupants in the Puget Sound region earn a median average of less than $85,000 a year.

Based on Collier’s presentation, the average single-family home in Lynnwood costs $560,000 and requires a $132,000 annual income to purchase. According to the same information, townhomes/condos in Lynnwood cost roughly $290,000 and require an income of $82,000 a year. Using the beginning and average salary for various jobs — in this case, an emergency management director job, which has a starting and median salary of $95,000 and $115,00, respectively — Collier explained how residents across a variety of professions would likely not be able to afford to own a home in Lynnwood.

Unable to afford to purchase a home, many are left to rent, which Collier said comes with its own challenges and can be more expensive in the long run. During the meeting, he said rent for a one- and two-bedroom apartment in Lynnwood is about $1,451 and $1,722, respectively. This means, he said, that a firefighter — who makes $72,000 to $86,000 annually — could possibly be able to afford to rent in Lynnwood but would not be able to purchase their own home.

In addition to firefighters, Collier said many other jobs – including administrative law judge, middle school teacher and plumber — do not pay enough to meet the required salary income needed to buy a home in Lynnwood, leaving them left to rent.

“These are good jobs that pay well, that we should be proud…to have in our communities, but increasingly (people who have those jobs) cannot afford to live here,” he said.

Collier added that the issue is the same for many dual-income households that still do not meet the income requirements to buy a house in Lynnwood.

One solution, Collier said, would be to build more affordable multifamily complexes with fewer units per building — like townhomes and condominiums — instead of single-family homes or large multifamily developments with more than 50 dwelling units. Since 2006, Collier said multifamily developments with fewer than 50 units have only accounted for 6% of the city’s new housing.

According to Collier, a lack of multifamily developments with fewer than 50 units is not just a Lynnwood problem. Across the Puget Sound region, these developments accounted for 21.2% of all housing and the fact that there are few of these developments could possibly be a national issue.

“I think it’s an American mental gap that we forget there’s something between ‘small’ and ‘huge,’” he said.

Collier concluded his briefing by warning the council that if they do not address the issue, rising housing costs could price out future generations who would be unable to afford to live in Lynnwood, seniors looking to downsize to smaller homes would have difficulty doing so, and higher rents could cause people to move out of the city entirely.

Using Seattle as an example of what inaction can cause, Collier pointed out that 75% of the city’s residential area is zoned exclusively for single-family homes. He also said Seattle’s attempts to resolve the issue have been in vain.

“As much as Seattle has thrown money at the problem, they have not changed the fundamentals of the problem that there are no units available,” he said. “Seattle continues to have zero units available basically anywhere.”

Also during the meeting, councilmembers revisited the topic of the proposed race and social justice coordinator – a position they have twice voted to delay filling. In a letter read during the meeting’s public comments, Assistant City Administrator Art Ceniza urged the council not to delay the hiring any longer.

The coordinator position was approved in the adoption of the 2021-22 biennium budget with funding coming from another vacated city position that’s also part of the mayor’s office. However, before voting to adopt the budget, the council voted to add an amendment stating that the position would not be filled until there was further discussion with city staff about the job’s duties.

Last month, city staff — joined by members of Lynnwood’s diversity and equity teams and commissions — provided the council with additional information about the job. Still unsatisfied, the council voted 4-3 a week later to delay filling the position, this time until the job description could be identified within the city’s budgeting for outcomes model and pending the results of a planned community equity survey.

In his letter, Ceniza pointed out that the position is supported by the city’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission, the Racial Equity Advancing Lynnwood (REAL) team and the Lynnwood Employees Embracing Diversity (LEED) team and the council should allow the mayor to fill the position.

Ceniza also wrote that the requirements for the council’s most recent motion may not be met until the second half of 2021, since plans for the community survey are still in their infancy and will not be presented to the council until June.

“As a member of the city’s diversity committee I was very disappointed in the council’s motion and expressed concerns,” he said. “I’m also concerned the council got too far into the weeds on details for the coordinator position.”

Councilmember Shannon Sessions agreed that the council was getting too involved and did not have time to take on the added responsibility. Since serving on the council is a part-time job (and most members have other full-time jobs), Sessions said the position would likely never get filled if left in their hands.

Sessions also cautioned the council about the appearance of conflict of interest and asked why councilmembers are so much more invested in this position than coordinator positions.

“I think it brings up more questions than answers and I worry that the public is going to question (a) conflict of interest on this,” she said. “I just don’t think that’s necessary for a position that’s needed and wanted and I think we need a place to start.”

Under new business, Sessions asked City Attorney Rosemary Larsen what legal precedent the council had to delay hiring the coordinator position. However, Larsen said it would be difficult to answer questions while the council was in the middle of an open session. 

Speaking generally, Larsen explained that the council has the authority to create employee positions and to fund positions through the budget and has the authority to place conditions on the spending, sometimes called budget provisos.

“However, once that’s been done, the mayor has the authority to fill positions,” Larsen said. “In particular when the condition — if there was one put on the spending — has been filled.”

Sessions then repeated concerns about the appearance of conflicts of interest and she felt the council was being “sneaky” by delaying the hiring process.

Her comments did not sit well with some. During his heated response, Councilmember Ian Cotton — who voted both times to delay filling the position — said he took personal offense at being called “sneaky.”

“I have the highest level of integrity for myself,” he said “I don’t like hearing that kind of language —  that’s backhanded (and) accusatory.”

Instead of “sneaky,” Sessions said after the meeting that “disingenuous” was a more accurate word. According to Sessions, those voting to delay hiring a coordinator may speak positively about the position but that’s as far as their support goes.

“After we were presented all the information they asked for regarding this position from administration, human resources, staff who are part of our diversity and equity teams — many of whom are part of the BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) community, and even the leaders of our own (diversity, equity and include) commission, then to turn around and bring an unnecessary motion just so they can vote against it, seems disingenuous to me,” she said.

In other business, the council continued its discussion regarding ways to fund the future Community Justice Center, which is expected to cost $64 million.

The council is considering financing $60 million of the project through the issuance of limited tax general obligation (councilmanic) bonds, which are similar to voter-approved bonds, but repayment of the debt and interest is made with general government dollars rather than a voter-approved property tax levy.

The Community Justice Center project includes renovating the existing Lynnwood Police Department building — located at 19321 44th Ave. W. —  as well as expanding east to the adjacent vacant site. After multiple space needs studies determined that the department, jail and municipal court have outgrown their current facility, city officials decided to renovate the existing building as well as expand east to the adjacent vacant site. The redevelopment would also add a new public entry for safer public screening, another courtroom and a private assessment area.

Digital 3D rendering the future Community Justice Center (Images via Mackenzie)

Last week, the council heard from the city’s financial advisors PFM about the draft ordinance, which is proposing a maximum bond of $62 million that would also cover the cost to issue the bonds. The proposal would also set the maximum interest rate at 5% (and maximum true interest rate at 4%) through Dec. 31, 2050.

During the Monday night briefing, PFM financial consultant Steven Amano — who presented last week — provided more details about the proposed bond ordinance. According to Amano, the draft includes two provisions — the first stating that the interest rate on any mature bond would not exceed 5% and the true interest cost would not exceed 4%.

According to Amano, the city is estimating a 3% interest cost based on current rates and includes an interest rate “cushion” for market movement between now and the bond pricing date, which he said is expected to be sometime in May.

“We’re showing about $3.165 million in annual debt service related to the bonds from years 2023 to 2050,” he said.

Additionally, Amano said in 2021 and 2022 there would be interest only on the bonds while the project is in its construction phase. The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2022 or into early 2023.

“These parameters have some cushion to allow for some flexibility and for changes in the market,” he said.

Amano also said interest rates are near historically low levels and the market has stabilized since impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

“This project will never be less expensive than it is right now,” he said.

After the briefing, Council President George Hurst asked how much debt capacity the city would have if the bond was approved. In response, Amano said approximately $19 million in non-voted capacity would remain.

The council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance at its March 22 business meeting. During the Monday meeting, Council Vice President Jim Smith suggested a vote that night and Councilmember Sessions said she was also ready to vote on the ordinance.

However, Hurst said he was hesitant to make any decisions two weeks early, because it was listed on the March 8 business meeting agenda as a “discussion.”

“Now we’re going to vote — I hesitate about that,” he said.

After Hurst’s comments, Councilmember Smith withdrew his support for his own proposal.

In response to a question from Sessions about the legality of voting two weeks early, Nancy Neraas, an attorney from Seattle-based Foster Garvey, said the bond only required one reading. However, she also said waiting two weeks worked well for the project’s timing.

Councilmember Cotton said he supported the ordinance but agreed the council should wait two weeks before voting. Ultimately, the council decided to delay the vote on the proposed ordinance.

While the city prepares to expand the police department, courts and jail, some still worry law enforcement is not receiving enough support. During the public comments portion of the March 8 meeting, former city councilmember Ted Hikel said the department also needs more social workers. Currently, the department has one embedded social worker, funded by a grant from the Verdant Health Commission.

“I think it’s very important that we support the police department (and) that we hold them responsible for good behavior,” he said. “We don’t get along in any community without a dedicated and honest police force, which we luckily do have.”

Hikel then said he has noticed several businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic have been posting temporary signs and banners lately, which he said requires a license and fee payment made to the city under its municipal codes. He then asked what the city is doing to ensure companies are paying license fees.

In addition to praising the police department’s work, Council Vice President Smith also stated concerns about the police department not receiving enough funding and repeated concerns about calls at both the local and national levels to “defund” the police. During his comments, Smith said the department needed more officers — a concern shared by others during past council meetings.

In 2016-17, a police services study was conducted in Lynnwood that examined the department’s staffing levels and concluded that it was the right size for the city’s population. Currently, the department has one unfunded vacancy, said police spokesperson Joanna Small. 

“(The study) looked at calls for service versus uncommitted time analysis and indicated that the police department is generally the right size,” she said. “Future requests for staffing will be based on continued analysis and available budget.”

During the meeting, Smith also said the number of vehicle prowls and petty crimes in Lynnwood neighborhoods had risen recently. When asked after the meeting what he based his statement on, Smith referred to comments he read on a community webpage for Ring, the Amazon-owned home security company, and comments made to him by residents.

Smith also referred during the meeting to a local post office that he said has started closing its lobby early due to multiple break-ins.

–By Cody Sexton

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