As you likely know, many areas in North Central Washington and our entire state have been experiencing affordable housing challenges. Having stable housing is so fundamental to success in other areas of life, including successful careers and family stability. Washington state has an increasing number of programs focused on homelessness and very low-income housing, but very few on “workforce” housing.
Workforce housing programs are programs that support people in our communities earning 60 percent to 120 percent of the area’s average income, often involving people owning the homes but not the underlying lands to maintain affordability. The workforce helps provide key services to our communities to keep our economy strong. Many of these individuals and families, unfortunately, are unable to afford to live in the communities where they work. This is particularly true for the communities of Leavenworth, Chelan and some larger communities.
I am proud to be partnering with Leavenworth Mayor Carl Florea and others like the Chelan Valley Housing Trust on a bill to secure a reliable revenue source to address local workforce-housing challenges. My Senate Bill 5513 would provide municipalities in Chelan County flexibility to use up to 1 percent of their existing lodging-tax revenues on “workforce” housing projects.
The lodging tax, also known as the “hotel-motel tax,” was first implemented by cities and counties years ago and varies from a 3-to-5 percent surcharge on overnight stays. Permitted uses of these tax revenues include tourism marketing, special-event promotion, or capital expenditures of tourism-related facilities as well as some limited uses for very low-income housing. My bill would allow Chelan County and its cities to dedicate up to 1 percent of their existing lodging tax revenues to “workforce” housing for the next 10 years, if approved by commissioners or a city council.
Mayor Florea reached out to me with sincere and deep concerns about Leavenworth’s ongoing affordable-housing struggles, especially the city’s “workforce” housing issues. I share those concerns. We developed a bill idea that does not create a new tax, but rather provides the city with additional flexibility for use of existing tax revenues. The city of Leavenworth is in a unique situation because, in many ways, it isn’t struggling to attract tourists. The real struggle now is that people providing essential services in the city cannot afford to live there and any available houses are quickly being purchased as second homes or short-term rentals.
The circumstances are becoming increasingly more urgent. With every passing month, Leavenworth — and other communities throughout our state — are essentially losing their sense of community. That’s heartbreaking. While my bill doesn’t create a new tax and would be a local option for city councils to decide, I expect the bill to have some opposition because the existing lodging tax revenue stream has been enjoyed fully by the tourism promotion industry for many years. Those organizations do very important work and should be supported but both tourism and housing are critical to our region’s success. The challenge will be to find creative ways to invest in both so that we can support each other.
Working on this workforce housing bill won’t be the first time I have partnered with Leavenworth and others on legislation. You may recall that back in 2018, the Legislature approved and the governor signed my Senate Bill 6055, which provided Leavenworth expanded ways to dispose of brush and yard waste following boundary changes to the state’s apple-maggot quarantine area. I am hopeful that we will have similar success this legislative session with Senate Bill 5513. Along the way, passage or not, we plan to continue to urge the Legislature to develop creative ways to solve this growing challenge.
Brad Hawkins is the state senator for the 12th District.