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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Our ‘red-hot’ housing market is freezing cold at the bottom

UPDATED: Mon., March 29, 2021

New construction continues in the Timberlane Terrace development in the rolling hills of Spokane Valley last August. Spokane County’s median home price soared to a record $325,000 in February.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
New construction continues in the Timberlane Terrace development in the rolling hills of Spokane Valley last August. Spokane County’s median home price soared to a record $325,000 in February. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

There are a lot of dramatic numbers involved in Spokane’s “sizzling hot” housing market.

Here’s one – $325,000.

That’s the median price of a home sold in February, an increase of 21% from last year, according to the Spokane Association of Realtors. Five years ago, it was $200,000.

Here’s another – 133.

That’s the number of properties listed for sale in this market at the time of the February report, down 70% from last year. Five Februarys ago, there were almost 1,700 properties on the market.

Yet another – 1.1%.

That was the fall vacancy rate for all apartments in Spokane, according to the University of Washington Center for Real Estate Research. And rents are rising at about the same rate as the home prices.

And here’s one final figure – 0.

That’s how many low-income living units there are currently available for those who need federal help paying the rent.

None.

The city’s housing crisis – which is tied so closely to homelessness – has deepened and deepened. The supply shortage is a major reason for all that market heat. It makes for interesting anecdotes about speedy sales and home-buying strategy, and it has resulted in the kind of skyrocketing home prices that have been more typical in hotter cities around the region.

But the hot market is brutally cold at the bottom, and those aren’t separate issues.

“They’re very connected,” said Rob McCann, the CEO of Catholic Charities.

With the end of the pandemic moratorium on evictions looming – a moratorium that has kept people housed but also put incredible pressure on landlords – the prospect of a deepening crisis of homelessness is, as well.

McCann fears that as many as 4,000 people could be evicted in Spokane whenever the moratorium ends. Those are people who have fallen a month or three behind, people who have fallen several months behind, people who have fallen a full year behind.

Already, McCann said, it’s very hard for someone who’s employed without a blemish on their application to find a place to live. If thousands more people lose their housing, it will represent a “humanitarian crisis” in the city.

“Low-income and homeless people already have almost no chance of finding housing in Spokane,” he said.

Spokane Housing Ventures, a nonprofit that develops and maintains affordable housing, has about 800 units on its roster – and a waiting list of three and a half years, said Ben Stuckart, the director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Coalition and chairman of the Continuum of Care Board, which oversees millions of dollars in federal homeless program funding.

“You could do everything right in our system and wind up on a wait list for three years,” said Stuckart, a former City Council president and mayoral candidate.

That blockage is among the biggest factors underlying homelessness in Spokane. All the accountability talk in the world won’t move the needle if there are simply no places for people to live.

The homeless system is overflowing in Spokane. A big part of that relates to the pandemic, during which the state emergency orders cut shelter capacity in half. The city’s plan to respond with more shelter beds – and particularly a shelter for young adults – has largely not materialized, after a lot of high-profile attention when it was announced by Mayor Nadine Woodward last summer. People who work closely with the homeless just spent another frustrating winter trying to sound the alarm about these shortages with little concrete response.

This train has been coming down the tracks for years. People were concerned about the inventory of properties for sale five years ago – back when it was more than 10 times the size of the current market. Leaders have talked about various solutions – with some putting more emphasis on trying to require or incentivize affordable housing, some pressing for more housing developments on the fringes and outside the city – but the general trend hasn’t changed and a wealth of new housing, from the top of the market to the bottom, has not materialized.

For Stuckart, who’s seen the issue up close and from a variety of angles, a lot of the problem comes down to NIMBYism – and not just the kind where neighbors resist a shelter project in their neighborhood.

Like most cities, Spokane’s neighborhoods are zoned for single-family housing and city leaders have been reluctant to make any changes that would bring duplexes, townhouses or apartments into single-family zones. They’ve also been reluctant to impose higher costs on surface parking lots, which might drive housing developments into the scores of empty lots downtown, he said.

The state’s Growth Management Act puts boundaries on community growth in an effort to limit sprawl. But when there’s not corresponding housing density within those boundaries, it’s a recipe for crisis.

“If we’re not going to do these things pretty quickly,” Stuckart said, “the only option is to spread out.”

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