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Washington lawmakers aim to focus on housing, workforce shortages in upcoming session

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Gov. Jay Inslee speaks about addressing homelessness in Washington during the legislative session media preview in Olympia on Jan. 5, 2023. (Brennen Kauffman, The Daily News)

The Legislature preview session Thursday in Olympia focused on housing, employee shortages and crime.

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee released last month his $4 billion budget proposal to build new housing in Washington, starting with 7,500 new units over the next two years. The biggest new feature of the package is requesting a public referendum vote to allow the state to bond for more money than the current debt limit allows.

“We need to have supportive services but first, if I may, we need to have a roof for people and that means we have to build in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.

Inslee said his proposal doesn’t focus on any specific types of housing. The longterm focus was on building new homes at multiple different price points, but Inslee supports tiny home developments as a crucial step up from sprawling encampments or large shelters.

“Once you give them privacy, even though it’s an 8-by-10 small pod of wood or fiberglass, it can become very, very successful. And that’s why I have advocated to give opportunities for local communities to do these tiny home villages,” Inslee said.

Recently, a similar pallet home village replaced a tent camp on Alabama Street in Longview. Longview officials say housing is a priority in the legislative session, as they aim to eliminate regulatory barriers that delay creating affordable housing, according to a city report. Longview officials say they are looking to create housing stock for all income levels.

Homelessness was one of the top three concerns for voters in the state as the legislature plans to convene, according to a Crosscut/Elway poll released Thursday. Western Washington was the most pessimistic region in the poll, with only 36% of respondents saying the outlook for Washington or the United States was getting better.

The biggest partisan split over new housing is about how much building and converting of properties should be done by the state. Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, leader of the Senate Republicans, said the current cost of building homes made it economically impossible for the state to have a major role in the housing market.

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said the focus should be on easing permitting regulations for local government, potentially changing sections of the Growth Management Act.

“If we focus on that level of reform, we would get better and faster cures than creating new levels of bureaucracy,” Walsh said.

Workforce shortages and crime

The Crosscut/Elway poll shows a third of Washington voters picked the economy as their biggest concern in December.

During the party sessions Thursday, Braun and state Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, shared a broad interest in reforms that would boost the number of nurses, mental health experts, law enforcement and other high-demand workers.

“There are things across the spectrum where we could do a better job of getting folks in, whether it’s a permanent solution or a temporary solution, to try and get people into professions,” Braun said.

Approaches mentioned Thursday included interstate deals to let nurses from other states transfer their license to Washington or expanding training and vocational programs.

Inslee also said he was “one of 50 governors” dealing with an increase in crime rates last year. His public safety proposals included regional training centers for law enforcement — an idea Cowlitz County cities have voiced support for — and new gun restrictions that have been widely opposed by Republicans.

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