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Cover Story | Our housing crisis: Finding a way out

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Levi Buchmann, Wenatchee, places a pressure-treated board on the foundation of a house being built by Ace Bollinger on Autumn Crest in Sunnyslope on Dec. 7. He started working in construction two months ago, moving here from Moses Lake to make more money than he did there as a personal trainer.

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WENATCHEE — Building high-end custom homes is keeping Bollinger Construction hopping these days.

Third-generation home builder Ace Bollinger, who took over the company from his father, Jay, about eight years ago, builds five or six custom homes a year.

We’re not trying to set the Guinness Book of World Records on building houses,” he said. “We are focused on the quality and value to our customers. That’s what it’s all about.”

That’s not to say things couldn’t be better, said Bollinger, who was part of a 40-member group that in October made 18 recommendations for “common sense” changes to help solve the Valley’s housing crisis. The group — Our Valley Our Future Housing Solutions Group — is in the process of presenting its findings to city, county and state policy makers.

To be honest, things are crazy right now,” Bollinger said of the home-building industry. “The cost of goods is all over the board. One day you have tariffs on there. The next day you don’t.”

And don’t get him started about finding workers. “Everybody is like, ‘I can go to Seattle and make $15 an hour flipping a hamburger, so I need to make $15 over here,’” he said. “It would be nice to have a little bit of a repositioning of costs and labor and everything else.”

High materials costs — which Bollinger attributes in part unpredictable tariffs and transportation — and shortage of labor in the construction trades are two factors identified as contributing to the Valley’s housing shortage. Particularly hard hit is affordable housing.

Included in the report is a “white paper” outlining home construction costs here and some reasons for them, including materials costs, housing types, regulations and zoning and a shortage of labor and land.

Bollinger helped identify short-, mid- and long-term efforts to improve the supply of housing overall, especially for the mid-market — affordable to families making $50,000 a year.

The premise is that adding mid-market housing would free up low-income and entry-level housing. Families currently down-buying and down-renting would move into the mid-market homes, opening up the lower-cost housing options for others.

Other key recommendations in the OVOF housing report include looking at ways to encourage a greater diversity of housing types — tiny houses, cottages, duplexes and multi-generational homes. For builders and developers, proposed incentives range from tax breaks to streamlining regulations between jurisdictions, reducing upfront costs and promoting programs to encourage more people to get into the construction trades to ease the labor shortage.

All of those would be good, Bollinger said, but home buyers and the community need to embrace the effort.

If they’re just talking about building a bunch of 1,000-square-foot tiny homes, it’s not going to work,” he said. “I think people move to Wenatchee because they want a little bit of elbow room. I think deep down, people want that three-bedroom, two-bath house. They want a garage. Otherwise, they’d still be in Seattle. That being said, it’s getting harder to afford those homes.”

Customer preferences have changed over the years, he said.

Western Heights was in the process of being built when we moved here” in 1995, he said. Bollinger was in his early 20s then. “Randy Gold was building a lot of houses there and there were a few other builders.”

The Bollingers built their first custom houses up Fifth Street, off Stephanie Brook.

Everyone wanted 2 acres and a shop, Bollinger said.

Ten years later, it was maybe just an acre. Now, it’s like, ‘I don’t want all this grass because I want to go out and golf on Saturday and go wine tasting and ride my mountain bike on Sunday,’” he said. “But they still want a little bit of room.”

Many looking to build now want to include an apartment over the garage or a kitchenette in the basement to accommodate aging parents or a caregiver for the homeowners.

People are thinking about that more in the last five or 10 years than they were in the early ‘90s,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s part of the retirement mecca or people realizing that we’re all going to get old.”

He also is seeing an interest in “smaller” homes — 2,500 square feet rather than 4,000 square feet.

But they want it nicer than the 4,000-square-foot home. They want all the luxurious touches, the neat, new technology in a smaller, tidier package,” he said. “They want a well-built house for the least amount of money. They want the very best deal.”

Moves to streamline permitting processes and regulations would help industry-wide, he said, but builders and developers need to do their part.

Most of the plans we turn in get permitted in two or three weeks,” he said. “What it comes down to is submitting a complete plan and knowing what they want to see on that plan. … If you submit a complete plan or application and have your ducks in a row, it’s pretty easy to do.”

He credits those working in the planning departments, a perspective that comes, in part, from his experience serving as a member of the city’s planning commission.

When my dad retired I took his seat. There’s been a Bollinger on there probably longer than the city would like,” he said, laughing.

The post allows him to address issues he faces as a builder and developer and see how they look from the regulation and policy side.

We have a lot of great people who work in the city and county,” he said. “They have to put up with what the state and federal government say. Their hands are tied. A lot of it is red tape,” he said.

And they have to deal with the public.

If you yell and you scream, rant and rave, it’s not going to help,” he said. “Things go a lot smoother when you work with people.”

The challenge is to figure out how to be “the least invasive as possible to get done that we need to get done, and work together. Ultimately, the people who know what’s best for Wenatchee are the people who live here.”

Reach Nevonne McDaniels at 509-664-7151 or .