Leavenworth and Affordable Housing—A flawed approach?

Like many communities in Chelan County, Leavenworth has been faced with a shortage of affordable housing and with local home seekers competing heavily with short term rentals and a strong second homeowner market. In order to tackle the issues, the City of Leavenworth took action–establishing a Housing Task force in 2016, leading to a Housing Needs Assessment in 2017, and forming a Council Housing Committee in 2018 to address housing needs. With that, the City embarked on substantial changes to its zoning codes in order to increase density in the residential areas and increase the housing supply. Initially, the City made several changes to support additional housing for all economic levels including permitting Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), allowing zero lot line development, and updating Planned Development regulations to make development easier. It is important to note, the majority of these changes were made with little or no public input, during COVID quarantining.

To further identify and address issues, the City worked with a consultant to develop a Housing Action Plan (HAP), approved by the City Council in Spring 2021. The HAP identified 12 recommendations for the City to consider in their efforts to increase housing options, including examining adjusting building codes for driveways, parking and lot size coverage, evaluating converting RL12 zone to RL10 and exploring triplexes as a permitted use in traditional single-family zones. Since the approval of the HAP, the City has undertaken significant actions and additional code changes, to densify lots within the City and Urban Growth Area, making changes far beyond the HAP recommendations they were given to consider.

The City worked with a local architect to design preapproved ADUs that are streamlined in the permitting process. The move to rezone RL12 was decided to include RL10 (much of which is located in the UGA), and create a much smaller R8 lot size. The community began to take notice with these changes, and in spite of considerable opposition to the methods the City proposed to accomplish their goal to increase housing options, community voices have been ignored. Even though Planning Commission Meetings and the Public Hearing Zoom meetings were packed with citizens speaking against the wholescale rezoning of RL12 and RL10, the City Council went ahead and approved the rezoning.  When public outcry against towering 35’ plus dwellings was expressed, a minimal compromise of 35’total height at the roof peak was approved by the Council. Simply put, public comment has largely been ignored throughout this process.

In addition to disregarding community input on code changes, it appears that the housing being built under the new codes is not only aesthetically incompatible with homes in the surrounding neighborhood, but is also not accomplishing goals for affordability. Cost on the new smaller lots have actually escalated, nearly doubling in price from $140,000 per lot to almost $300,000 per city lot.  New construction towering to three stories is being built on narrow lots with 5’ setbacks. Multiple homes are being built together on a zero lot lines and often including an ADU on the same lot. Home prices on new construction lists at an average of $750,000 per dwelling.  Parking is tight on small lots or relegated to the street. Vegetation on these lots is minimal. In addition, ADUs are now turning into permitted B&Bs at a rapid rate to serve tourists. The result of the City’s decision has been a market increase in density in its residential zones but no guarantee of increased affordability. For example, two developments are currently being permitted–a 300 apartment complex built by Weidner (the same company who opened a 200 apartment complex in the City two years ago) and a 70 lot planned development at the edge of the city limits off Ski Hill.  Neither of these are providing assurances of affordable housing and will greatly impact the City’s infrastructure of roadways, water and sewer in the Leavenworth community within the next two years.