City Council Candidates Address Housing Issues

Kate Grumbles, News Editor

This Friday, Oct. 20, ballots go out for the election of three city council seats in Walla Walla county.

The six candidates running for these seats have been reaching out to the community through various public forums. For each of the three open seats, there are two candidates left running after a primary round of elections was completed in August. Running for Seat #1 are Jim Barrow, incumbent, and Riley Clubb. Running for Seat #2 are Marilee D. McQuarrie and Yasmin Bahena. Running for Seat #3 are Devon Wootten, LLC manager and professor at Whitman, and Myron Huie.

Candidate Marilee McQuarrie. Photo by Taj Howe

This past Thursday, Oct. 12, an open forum was hosted by the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce. In addition to this, on Monday Oct. 16 there was a candidate forum held in Maxey Auditorium. At both of these sessions, a few issues came up repeatedly.

Among them is affordable housing in Walla Walla. Candidate Devon Wootten summed up the issue in an interview.

“Everyone agrees that the current stock of homes is insufficient, and also too expensive,” Wootten said. “For a town of 35,000 in far Eastern Washington, our housing costs are astronomical. At the same time, we have a relatively low median income for the state.”

Candidate Myron Huie. Photo by Taj Howe

While many of the city council candidates agree that there is an issue with affordable housing in Walla Walla, approaches to solving this long-term issue vary.

Jim Barrow, candidate who is currently an active member of City Council, spoke about zoning changes that can be made to allow for smaller, more cheaply built houses to be added to residential neighborhoods.

“Right now the council is actively considering modifications to the comprehensive [housing] plan, which would provide what I term, ‘mixed housing,’” Barrow said at the public forum. “I’m sure everybody is aware the city doesn’t build houses, so we can’t directly impact the cost of housing, that’s a matter for the marketplace and the people who build them.”

Riley Clubb, running against Barrow for Council Seat #1, responded to Barrow’s claim that marketplace has the largest impact on housing costs.

“If it was purely just a matter of the marketplace, we wouldn’t [have] this problem to begin with. What we need to do is get out of the way of supply. We create barriers to development, and then [we] end up having an imbalance between demand and supply,” Clubb said. “It’s one thing to act as if we have nothing to do with this, this is what the market has created, that’s not how I look at this at all.”

Along a similar vein, the issue of homelessness in Walla Walla came up during the most recent candidate forum as a question from the audience.

A new “sleep site” replaced the old homeless camp near the Veteran’s Center this past July, and candidates were asked their opinions about the new camp. While most candidates were quick to praise the new site, there wasn’t a consensus on whether there should be more or fewer services such as a “day center” offered to the homeless.

Marilee McQuarrie emphasized the benefits of the new site, but expressed hesitation about adding any more services for the homeless if their needs are already being met.

“I don’t know about expanding [the sleeping center] if it is working to meet the needs of those who go to it. I don’t believe that it’s totally the city’s responsibility to take on the homeless issue,” McQuarrie said. “One of the things I love about Walla Walla is all the nonprofits that we have here … making sure that a lot of the needs of people in our community are met through nonprofits is a good thing.”

Yasmin Bahena, running against McQuarrie, is also a kindergarten teacher in Walla Walla. She emphasized the city’s responsibility to provide resources. She also noted the effect homelessness has in her classroom.

“I’ve been teaching for seven years, and every year the homelessness increases in my class. On average, 30 percent of my kids are considered homeless,” Bahena said. “I know Walla Walla is working hard to solve this issue together as a team. That’s what Walla Walla does, once we see a problem we come together, and we pretty much do a good job.”

To vote in this election, you must be registered to vote in local elections in Walla Walla county. If you aren’t already registered, you can do so in person or by mail until the deadline for ballots. The ballots for this election are due by Nov. 7, 2017.