Kris Johnson Commentary: It’s Time to Go Big or Go Home on Washington’s Housing Crisis


Washington’s housing affordability crisis hurts every corner of the state. We’ve all heard stories. Nurses and grocery store employees can’t afford to live where they work. Young people are priced out of their hometowns. First-time homebuyers can’t afford a down payment. Seniors struggle to downsize in retirement.

We need solutions at scale for a crisis this big. Legislators have an opportunity this session to pass a historic package of housing legislation. Bipartisan support is helping move dozens of proposed bills to the finish line.

There’s a theme: We need more houses. All types, all kinds, everywhere and for everyone. We need to encourage more middle housing and speed up permitting for builders. We need more affordable starter homes, like townhouses and condos, and we need more housing near transit. The Association of Washington Business (AWB) supports policies that increase housing supply and opposes policies that would make housing more expensive.

Population growth and historic underbuilding has fueled the state’s affordability crisis, with prices increasing as demand outstrips supply. The state’s rental vacancy rate sits at 4%, below the 7-8% considered for a healthy market, according to a January report from Challenge Seattle.

Nearly 1 million Washington households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing and the AWB Institute’s Vitals dashboard shows that more than 22% of renters spend 50% or more of income on rent. Lower- and middle-income households are more likely to fall in this category and are often forced to choose between important necessities.

Buying a home in Washington is becoming increasingly out of reach. More than 85% of households don’t make enough to afford an average priced home, with median homebuyers needing at least $38,000 to close. On average, renters have just $1,500 in the bank.

The housing crisis is connected to the workforce shortage that many employers are facing. Many of our most common jobs, like administrators, sales and food prep employees, are most in need of affordable housing. Yet the gap between their wages and higher paid occupations is widening.

Housing is a top policy issue for 37% of the state’s employers, affecting their ability to recruit and keep employees. According to AWB’s 2023 Competitiveness Redbook, Washington has many competitive advantages for businesses, but we consistently rank as one of the most expensive areas in the country.

The Washington State Department of Commerce estimates we need to build between 20,000 and 71,000 housing units every year for the next 30 years to keep up with population growth, and according to the Challenge Seattle report, “Washington may need up to 2.5 million homes by 2050 to create a healthy housing market.”

We need policies that increase affordable housing in the short- and long-term. AWB urges lawmakers to pass a bipartisan housing package — and Washingtonians need it passed this year — that includes bills that encourage “missing middle” housing and condos and for more accessory dwelling units.

Housing has long been a priority in Olympia. What’s different this year is the urgency, bipartisan collaboration, and willingness to embrace statewide solutions. 

We need to go big on housing so all Washingtonians can go home.


Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.