You’ve heard about the housing crisis, right? This is the crisis created by inadequate housing supply and rising demand leading to higher prices and greater suffering among working families. Are we talking about Seattle? No. Eastern Washington. Knute Berger of Crosscut wrote that thanks to:

“... an influx of retirees, agriculture and health care workers, and families looking for more space, inventories of properties for sale have dropped dramatically and rental vacancies are down to 1 percent. We also heard complaints about Seattleites buying second homes here.”

Farmworkers, mostly Latinos and immigrants, are having a hard time finding places to live as demand for housing in Eastern Washington is growing. The 2016 state Supreme Court decision known as Hirst has made getting access to water more difficult, and the lack of action from Olympia is threatening to make the farmworker housing problem even worse.

Supporters of the Hirst decision argue that the proliferation of these small household wells is threatening rivers and streams. However, they fail to realize that these wells account for less than 1 percent of water usage statewide and that most water returns to the watershed. Without a legislative fix, the Hirst decision requires that new housing using a well must go through a long, costly process of proving that the new housing won’t have an impact. This is a function that local jurisdictions do not have resources or expertise to perform and rural landowners can’t afford.

For many years, rural housing has depended on wells for water access. It seems that the court’s decision is aimed at slowing or halting rural development. However, simple supply and demand dictates that when housing supply is short, prices will go up, and in Eastern Washington this means the hardest hit will be farmworkers as profiled in Berger’s article.

Is there a solution? A bipartisan fix, Senate Bill 5239 sponsored by Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, has been approved four times in the Senate. Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to approve this fix or any proposals to address this issue. We know that more housing is the solution for this crisis. For $3 million, the Growers League built housing for 270 farmworkers. Berger highlights this project, Brender Creek in Cashmere, as an example of a solution to the pressing need for more housing. Where is the State Commerce Department putting its housing dollars? Mostly in Seattle, where it approved Low Income Housing Tax Credits and state subsidies to build just 88 units in Capitol Hill for a staggering $47 million, or about $500,000 per unit. Compare that to the $11,000 per worker spent on Brender Creek.

Some think they’re supporting progressive environmental policy but by not addressing the problems created by the Hirst decision, they are actually hurting immigrant workers who power our state’s economy. This housing shortage contributes to the challenges faced by agricultural producers struggling to attract workers. While labor markets are complex, inadequate housing is something we can address by building more. Without workers, crops rot in the field, costing untold millions of dollars for farms, labor, and the state’s economy.

The Legislature needs to remove the brake on housing production in rural Washington by fixing state law and reversing the Hirst decision. This will help ease the farmworker housing shortage. They should prioritize agricultural and aquacultural workers with few housing alternatives for available state assistance, rather than spending huge sums to keep trendy urban neighborhoods affordable for city dwellers with higher incomes. Subsidies and regulation should balance cost with benefits; for hard working farmworkers seeking housing Hirst fails this test.

 

• Roger Valdez is the firector of Seattle For Growth, an advocacy organization for more housing of all kinds, everywhere it is needed and for people of all levels of income.

• Ranie Haas is the director of Regulatory and Industry Affairs at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

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