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WA Legislature poised to go big on affordable housing

Voters across the state want to see solutions. Lawmakers have at least a dozen.

In this 2017 file photograph, a completed Mercy Othello Plaza affordable housing development in Seattle's New Holly neighborhood is seen next to a small house along a portion of Martin Luther King Way that has been upzoned for growth. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

For Seattleites, housing affordability and homelessness have become perennial problems. But residents of the state’s largest city are not alone in their concerns. According to the latest Crosscut/Elway Poll, voters across Washington living in suburbs, small towns and rural areas are also concerned about the cost of housing.

When asked in an open-ended question what issues the Legislature must address in the 2019 session, the 502 respondents mentioned homelessness more than any other issue.

Voters were then asked to weigh in on particular agenda items likely to be addressed by the Legislature and rate their priority. Promoting housing affordability was named as a top priority for 70 percent of those polled. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s an issue particularly important to city dwellers, 73 percent of whom said it was a high priority. But it’s a top-of-mind problem everywhere. In suburbs, small towns and rural areas, a respective 68, 67 and 72 percent of respondents said housing affordability should be a high priority.

The findings are of little surprise to Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle. She said, “Democrats and Republicans alike, every legislator heard about housing affordability when they were running for office and back home in their districts.”

Macri is introducing several bills this legislative session to help tenants avoid eviction. They are just a few among a surge of bills meant to address a wide swath of housing and homelessness issues across the state. There will be legislation to increase funding for housing construction and to provide rental assistance to the state’s lowest-income residents, efforts to maximize denser housing development near transit, and attempts to create more rental and home-ownership opportunities for middle-income Washingtonians.

“The unaffordability of housing is something that cuts across the income spectrum,” said Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, a suburb in south Snohomish County. “There’s been so many good people working on this. I think we’re teed up to have a massive year for housing, both with policy and money.”

More money for affordable housing

In Washington, 51 percent of renters are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than a third of their incomes toward rent. Meanwhile, the statewide homeless population is growing. Part of the solution is fairly simple: build more housing that low and very low income residents can afford. The state’s Housing Trust Fund is critical in these efforts. Last year, the Legislature increased the fund, which is used to build subsidized housing, to $107 million, up from $72 million in 2017. This year, advocates are lobbying the Legislature to increase it to $200 million, slightly more than the fund’s historical, prerecession high.

Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, has another idea for funding this construction on the local level. She is reintroducing a bill that would allow cities and towns to keep a percentage of the state sales tax they collect if they use that revenue to fund affordable housing construction. Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, explained that cities could then borrow money against that sales tax revenue with bonds to further generate housing funds.

Advocates are also lobbying House Democrats to take up Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) reform, an idea proposed as part of a tax reform package last session. REETs are a tax on the sale of property. Washington currently charges a flat REET of 1.82 percent on all property sales. Housing advocates want to create a tiered REET that charges more than 1.82 percent for higher value properties (and less for lower value properties). The increased revenue from the higher REET could be added to the housing trust fund.

Thomas said the three reforms could result in a total of $600 million more for housing construction, enough to build 17,000 new affordable homes.

Keeping people housed

We talk a lot about building supply, and I agree that is important, but helping people retain the housing they already have is just as important,” said Rep. Macri. To that end, the first-term legislator is introducing three policy changes to increase tenants' protections from eviction. A 2018 report on evictions in Seattle found that a disproportionate number of people of color experience eviction and that there’s a strong link between eviction and homelessness. It also found that in many cases people were evicted because they owed $100 or less in back rent (and in one case a tenant owed $10).

The first change would require "just cause" for evictions. Currently, Seattle is the only city in Washington that requires landlords to provide a just cause, such as failure to pay rent.  Another policy Macri proposed would extend the time a tenant has to catch up on late rent from the current three days to 21. Finally, she wants to simplify the language on "comply or vacate" notices and give judges more room in their rulings besides evictions, such as creating payment plans or extending deadlines to pay back rent. Similarly, Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, is introducing legislation that would help people in mobile home parks when the land on which their homes are parked is sold.

Legislators are also working to boost safety-net programs that can help extremely low-income residents stay housed. Last year, the Legislature expanded the definition of eligibility for the Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) program, a fund that helps people with disabilities pay rent and utilities. Formerly available just to people with temporary disabilities, it is now open to those with permanent disabilities. But the Legislature did not raise the funding for HEN to account for the increase in applicants. Advocates have called for an additional $69 million to fund the program. Macri is leading that effort.

Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, and Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-Seattle, are also working on safety-net reforms. They’re sponsoring a bill that would make it easier to get on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the federal welfare program administered by the state. It would also extend the amount of time a family could stay on the program if they qualify. David Hlebain, campaign coordinator with the grassroots Statewide Poverty Action Network, said the changes in essence are a return to prerecession TANF policies. “During the Great Recession, unfortunately, our state Legislature made some policy decisions to balance the budget on the backs of the lowest-income residents in the state,” he said.

More homes for the middle class

In an effort to address a different section of the housing spectrum, legislators are also pushing a slew of bills meant to increase market-rate housing options for middle-income renters and home buyers.

Sen. Palumbo is introducing a bill to establish minimum density in neighborhoods around public transit. If passed, the law would require a minimum of 150-units of housing per acre within a half-mile of a transit hub. He also is introducing a bill to make “missing middle” housing, such as duplexes, triplexes, small apartment buildings and the like, legal to build near public amenities, such as parks, schools and hospitals.

Those may seem like odd priorities for a senator representing a suburban and rural corner of Snohomish County. But Palumbo said: “My district is the epicenter of the growth issues not happening as intended over 20 years ago when we passed the Growth Management Act. You have Seattle not upzoning, but people have to buy homes somewhere. We take growth from Seattle, but don’t get investment in roads, schools, transit. The lack of density in cities is breaking my district.”

In a similar effort to increase density in single-family zones, Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, is introducing legislation making accessory dwelling units, including basement apartments and backyard cottages, legal across the state and loosening regulations on their construction in municipalities such as Seattle where they’re already legal. As drafted, the bill would allow one basement unit and one backyard cottage per lot, eliminate the requirement to build parking spaces for each unit and eliminate the requirement that the property owner live onsite (meaning they could rent out both a house and the accessory dwelling units).

To create more opportunities for middle-income homebuyers, Rep. Senn and Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, are introducing legislation to weaken the Washington Condominium Act. Created in 1989 as a way to give condo owners some recourse for low-quality construction, developers say the act now is a guarantee that a builder will get sued by condo buyers. That inevitable lawsuit drives up the cost of condo sales because builders, developers and architects are all buying additional insurance and passing the cost along to buyers. Last year, Seattle’s median condo price was well above $500,000, out of reach for many buyers. If passed, the new legislation would tighten the definition of what constitutes a defect that a developer can be sued for and reduces the incentive to sue by protecting condo board members from being held personally liable if they choose not to go after developers.

It’s unlikely that every affordable housing and homelessness bill will pass this session or survive in its original form. But advocates are confident that the convergence of voter priorities and the simple unavoidability of the housing and homelessness crises in Washington will mean big things could happen this year.

“Every lawmaker coming to Olympia agrees that there’s a housing and homelessness crisis and that something needs to be done,” said Thomas of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “The question before Olympia is how bold they’re going to be and what are the right solutions.”

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WA Legislature poised to go big on affordable housing