Hemp may solve WA housing crisis

In February, Governor Jay Inslee traveled to the WSU Pullman campus to meet with researchers and tribal and industry leaders to learn how hemp could play a role in combating the state’s housing crisis.

A survey by the Puget Sound Regional Council and the Washington Department of Commerce found housing costs and homelessness are state resident’s top two issues. Seventy-seven percent of people said rent is too high, 75% said it costs too much to buy a home, and 64% said government agencies should be doing more to provide housing not being built by the market.

The survey also found that of the million new homes Washington needs to build, more than half need to be affordable to people earning less than 50 percent of their area median income. Of those, more than 20,000 need to be affordable to the lowest-income Washingtonians and those exiting homelessness.

“Housing has become a major issue in the state of Washington,” said David Gang, director of the Center for Cannabis Policy, Research, and Outreach (CCPRO) and professor in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. “Gov. Inslee stated that he is committed to finding a solution to combat homelessness and our state’s affordable housing crisis.”

With the need for additional housing comes the question about cost. Lumber tripled in cost in 2021. Other building materials also increased in price. That’s where hemp comes in. Hemp fiber could become the building block to the future of green living. Hemp can be more cost-effective than other materials and Washington state growth conditions can facilitate its use.  

Hemp is a carbon negative plant. So, growing it in Washington state increases soil health while decreasing emissions of carbon into the atmosphere. Hemp is also a fast-growing crop, which is naturally resistant to many pests. This means hemp farmers can grow hemp organically without the need for pesticides and herbicides.

“While looking for solutions that connect both soil health and the housing problem, we realized that hemp could solve both of these issues,” said Gang.

Hemp is also an ideal material for several reasons. It is strong, durable, and lightweight while also resistant to common issues such as mold, rodents, and pests. Building products made from it, like hempcrete, can also be fireproof. Additionally, most building products used in building a house can be made from hemp, from the flooring to the insulation to the siding.

“Anything that is organic in nature can be built out of hemp,” said Gang.

The conversation with Gov. Inslee included Snohomish-based Bio Fiber Industries and leaders from the Tulalip and Yakima tribes, two of the largest tribes in the state.

“There is a significant housing shortage on many of our state’s tribal lands,” said Gang.

Hemp cultivation has been tested on several reservations in the state, where it has grown very well. Now both tribes are interested in learning how they can turn a crop of hemp into a solution to combat their housing issues.

While the conversation about use of hemp in construction of new housing is just beginning here in Washington and across the country, the use of hemp in green housing isn’t a new concept to other parts of the world.

In 2012, Paris Habitat inaugurated the city’s first hempcrete development. With hemp being more frequently used in new construction in France, more buildings have boasted the use of hemp as an eco-friendly housing option. In 2022, the Pierre Chevet Sports Center in France is the country’s first all-hemp building, a 4,000 square-foot facility that uses hemp panels that were grown roughly 300 miles from where the building is located. In Zimbabwe, the government secured a $63 million line of credit from an African fund to develop eco-friendly buildings to help the country meet its target of raising 220,000 housing units by 2025.

Gang says that the time is right for turning hemp into building products here at home. Four years ago, there was only one processor in the U.S. for fiber hemp. Now, there’s nearly 20 across the country, but none in Washington. The agriculture and soil in Washington are optimal for growing hemp. But in order to turn hemp into a product used in housing, the state will need to invest in a hemp processing plants and support growth of hemp throughout the state’s agricultural landscape.

“With research highlighting why hemp fiber is a great alternative to wood and plastic products and industry interested in moving forward on utilizing hemp fiber in products, we felt like this was the right time to get state support for research and industry, so we can move forward with this effort,” said Gang.

Replacing fiberglass with hemp fiber also aligns with the state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act, which commits Washington to an electricity supply free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Hemp could replace fiberglass in a variety of other products beyond those used in construction, such as wind turbines used to generate wind power.

“Gov. Inslee seems willing to take more risks to develop this industry and other clean energy industries in order to solve our housing problem. We are excited to continue the conversation and work to advocate to make hemp products a reality,” said Gang.

Spokane’s KREM 2 News met up with the group when they met in February. Check out the article and video.