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Murray, McMorris Rodgers call for action on affordable housing at Fairchild

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 4, 2021

A KC135 shuts down its engines after landing on Oct. 16, 2019, at Fairchild Air Force Base.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
A KC135 shuts down its engines after landing on Oct. 16, 2019, at Fairchild Air Force Base. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Two of Washington’s senior politicians are calling for a new study in an effort to alleviate the housing shortage for servicemembers at Fairchild Air Force Base.

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers want the Air Force to do what it calls a “housing requirement and market analysis” at the base. That study would give the Air Force up-to-date information on Fairchild’s housing needs.

Murray and McMorris Rodgers say the study is necessary because too many Fairchild servicemembers are struggling to find an affordable place to live.

The housing shortage has been affecting all of Spokane County, not just Airway Heights and the West Plains. Demand for housing is high, supply is low and prices keep rising.

Fairchild does have 635 homes on base. All but 14 of those homes are occupied, though, and 13 of the empty ones are pre-leased. The on-base housing wait list is 149 families long.

A few thousand servicemembers work at Fairchild, so the vast majority have to look off-base for housing.

“I’ve heard of people living in RVs,” said Kristy Hamby, the owner and designated real estate broker of Windermere West Plains.

Most servicemembers aren’t from here. That gives them an added disadvantage when looking for housing. They can’t stay with their families while they’re hunting for a place to live.

And servicemembers trying to buy a home don’t have much leverage when competing in Spokane County’s home-bidding wars.

Hamby said most servicemembers don’t make more than $80,000 a year. That’s not ideal when the median home is selling for $400,000 and many buyers are willing to pay cash.

Airway Heights Mayor Sonny Weathers said the city is trying to build as much housing as it can to keep up with demand, but there’s only so much it can do.

He explained that virtually all of the land within Airway Heights’ urban growth boundary zoned for residential use has either been developed or is slated for development.

“We had, I think, it was less than 50 acres of undeveloped residential land at the beginning of the year and all of that at this point has been designed, engineered and platted to be built out,” Weathers said. “What we have to offer in that equation is quickly being gobbled up, and so we find ourselves kind of on our heels.”

Airway Heights is working to adjust its urban growth boundary in order to allow for more development, Weathers said, and the city is also looking at making zoning changes to increase housing density. Those tweaks could address the shortage to an extent, but they won’t solve the problem.

Weathers said Airway Heights takes pride in being a bedroom community for Fairchild. He said the city genuinely wants to be able to offer affordable housing for servicemembers.

“That’s something we try to protect,” he said. “The housing market as it is today is really challenging that.”

Murray and McMorris Rodgers say the Air Force hasn’t done a full housing requirement and market analysis in 16 years, although it did “validate” the 2005 study two years ago.

Fairchild was the site of the Air Force’s first housing requirement and market analysis back in 2002. Ironically, that study may have played a role in the Air Force deliberately scaling back on-base housing throughout the country.

“The Fairchild study was a real eye-opener,” Brigadier Gen. Del Eulberg said in a 2004 Air Force press release. “It gave us our first glimpse at how much the communities had grown around our bases. The study determined that the local community could support a significant number of our military families. The Air Force could rely more on the local community to house our families and therefore we could reduce the number of housing units we needed to maintain on base.”

The local community has kept growing. Airway Heights now has nearly 11,000 residents and its population grew 76% in the last decade. Unfortunately for servicemembers, that growth hasn’t given the West Plains a greater ability to house them.

Hamby, who used to live at Fairchild, hypothesized that a new study might be the first step in getting the Department of Defense and the Air Force to build more on-base housing.

Maybe “that’s the formal process that we have to go through for them to make a change,” she said.

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