WA looks to address housing shortage with density, zoning changes

A 'strange bedfellows' political alignment has brought together Democrats, Republicans, business, labor and others in search of a fix.

Homes and apartments in the Queen Anne neighborhood seen from the Space Needle.

Homes and apartments in the Queen Anne neighborhood seen from the Space Needle on Friday, May 20, 2022. Washington lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee are working on a host of proposals to reshape housing policy amid the state's dire affordability and homelessness crisis. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut) 

UPDATE: On Tuesday, April 11, 2023, the WA Senate passed HB 1110. Read more on the ruling here. 

As Washington lawmakers in recent weeks rushed through the perennial frenzy to pass legislation off the House and Senate floors by a key deadline, something unusual happened: A slate of big-picture housing legislation, some of which had languished for years, was brought to the floor and passed by wide margins.

House Bill 1110, sponsored by Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, which would provide for more duplexes, fourplexes and other multi-unit housing in Washington cities with more than 25,000 people, passed the House with a wide bipartisan vote of 75-21. A pair of Republican-sponsored proposals passed nearly unanimously: House Bill 1245 would allow homeowners to split larger lots to build a cottage or additional home, while House Bill 1293 is intended to streamline the permitting process for housing construction in urban growth areas. Senate lawmakers meanwhile passed two Democratic-sponsored key bills by wide margins: Senate Bill 5235, to allow for accessory dwelling units like backyard cottages, and Senate Bill 5466, to increase housing density near transit.

This initial – and by some accounts, surprising – success comes as Gov. Jay Inslee’s ambitious housing-bond proposal is also seeing signs of life. If passed by the Legislature, the proposal would ask Washington voters in November to consider approving a $4 billion bond sale, outside the state’s debt limit, to build more housing.

Taken all together, lawmakers this year have a real shot at delivering an ambitious package of reforms intended to fix one of Washington’s most pernicious societal problems: a lack of affordable shelter.

Washington is currently short hundreds of thousands of homes and apartments, driving up prices for both home ownership and apartment and house rentals even as state residents contend with higher prices for other goods like gas and groceries. Legislative leaders have said another 1 million units of housing will be needed in the next two decades. Housing and rental costs are also a key part of pushing people living on the socioeconomic margins into homelessness.

This year’s progress in the 105-day scheduled legislative session comes as Democratic and Republican lawmakers have come together to find housing solutions. They have been aided by a coalition of Washington’s biggest businesses, labor unions and political advocacy groups from across the political spectrum who signed a letter agreeing on the need for bold steps.

That letter came from a meeting convened by Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, and Democratic Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, which produced a statement calling for lawmakers to take “strong state action” to boost housing.

In an interview, Heck said that if he had been told last year about how much progress could be made in tackling the problem, "I would have been gobsmacked.”

"There's been a sea change in perspective," Heck said. "People understand there's a housing problem."

That coalition began to coalesce after two key bills – Bateman’s previous “missing middle” proposal and a backyard cottage proposal – stalled last year.

But big hurdles remain. Housing reform can generate opposition because it eats into local government control of planning and zoning, and some contend that a blanket approach could be harmful or counterproductive. Meanwhile, reforms can be a sore spot for people who already own homes and who may not want to see changes in their cities. 

Known as the “missing middle” housing proposal, House Bill 1110 is scheduled for a public hearing Friday in the Senate Housing Committee. In its current version, the bill creates some density requirements for cities with at least 25,000 people to, among other things, build duplexes, fourplexes and sixplexes.

Bateman said the conversation around housing solutions is changing swiftly as more and more Washingtonians get locked out of home ownership, wealth-building and stability.

“Like my little sister who's 27 and a pediatric nurse,” said Bateman. “And she can't afford a family home in Seattle, with a combined income.”

As the problem worsens, thinking about the prospect of multifamily housing next to your single-family home becomes less scary, she added.


Back to his policy roots

Elected to the lieutenant governor’s office in 2020, Heck spent many years prior serving in Congress, which included work on housing issues. Since becoming lieutenant governor, Heck’s office has produced a series of reports outlining and clarifying the extent of Washington’s housing problems. One 2021 study highlights how restrictive and exclusionary local zoning laws, “not in my backyard” attitudes and costly permitting processes and regulations may have stymied progress on housing.

A February 2022 report highlighted housing costs as the most substantial impediment to the state’s business climate.

A third report details how the wealth gap between white Americans and people of color is essentially a product of housing discrimination that has left Black, Indigenous and Latino Americans in particular underrepresented among homeowners.

“The adverse impacts of the racial wealth gap do not stop with Americans of color,” that report continues. “When a large swath of our population is kept from homeownership and from full economic participation, the entire economy suffers.”

House Bill 1110 seeks to address that problem by potentially helping to add 200,000 more housing units statewide in the coming years, Bateman said, citing a a figure from the Puget Sound Regional Council.

According to a legislative analysis, the bill would allow for more multi-unit buildings of different sizes in cities of more than 25,000 people, with a couple different pathways for those cities to achieve that goal. Among other things, it would include incentivizing multifamily housing near transit stops.

The bill does not apply to lots that are designated with critical areas or buffers, or to a variety of watersheds, according to the analysis. Meanwhile, cities can still deny building permits to lots that won’t have an adequate water supply. And the proposal also wouldn’t stop cities like Seattle from pursuing their own affordable-housing plans, according to Bateman.

The bill can also preserve single-family zoning in up to 25% of a city’s lots if certain conditions are met.

“And if they do the underlying bill, then they get safe harbor from growth management hearings board litigation,” Bateman said, and they also can charge fees to developers to pay for costs for infrastructure.

For Bateman, that combination to develop more housing in cities is a win-win.

“Infill housing is the most cost-effective type of housing, the most energy-efficient type of housing, and we also get the ancillary benefits of people living closer to work, groceries, so it helps us reduce” carbon emissions, Bateman said.

The Association of Washington Cities, a nonprofit organization representing 281 cities in the state, has in recent years resisted such proposals, which take away some local control, according to Carl Schroeder, deputy director of governmental relations. But the organization has met with Bateman and others for the past year to try to find areas of agreement, such as more density around transit stops and city amenities. 

Amendments that altered HB 1110 as the bill moved forward got it "closer to what we are going to be able to support and will hopefully be able to offer support,” Schroeder said.

Others remain unpersuaded, like Everett City Council member Ben Zarlingo. While missing-middle housing is one answer to the crisis, he said, “Generally, my concern is a one-size-fits-all” approach by the state.

Zarlingo pointed to efforts Everett is making to improve density, including projects that will create scores of new housing units. He worries that providing more housing all across the city could strain resources: “We aren't set up for that in terms of the streets, the services, the parking.”

“For example, the idea that you would mandate fourplexes and sixplexes in large chunks of the city doesn’t do anything to concentrate density to the best place where we can handle it,” said Zarlingo, who works on planning issues for the city.

Rep. Andrew Barkis, a Republican from Olympia who works in property management, is sponsoring the lot-splitting proposal, HB 1245; co-sponsoring Bateman’s bill; and supporting the slate of proposals.

“It's Econ 101, it's supply and demand,” he said. “And our demand is outpacing supply.”


Eclectic collaboration

This year’s momentum comes after Bateman’s middle housing bill and another piece of legislation to expand accessory dwelling units both stalled last year. After that, Bateman began meeting regularly with the Association of Washington Cities and others to hear their concerns.

Meanwhile, Trudeau and Heck gathered a bunch of eclectic and often opposing groups across the political spectrum in what he described as a classic political “strange bedfellows” situation.

The result was a strongly worded letter urging lawmakers to recognize that the lack of affordable shelter “manifests in several ways harmful to our state and its citizens.”

The letter asserts that the current situation is damaging to low-income families and older adults on a fixed income, and points out that housing policy has systematically excluded Black, Indigenous and people of color. Meanwhile, the underproduction of new houses is a factor in slowing economic growth, and housing sprawl damages the environment and threatens the permanent loss of Washington’s food-producing agricultural lands.

The letter urged lawmakers to take “strong state action” to reform zoning laws through missing-middle housing, accessory dwelling units and other policy changes; to pass bills that reduce permitting and ease construction costs; and to invest state dollars in affordable housing, among other things.

The Building Industry Association of Washington, a powerful group and big donor to Republican political causes, signed on to the letter, alongside Seattle-based advocacy organizations like the Sightline Institute, Fuse Washington and Futurewise. Three branches of the Service Employees International Union – representing tens of thousands of nurses, education workers and daycare and home-care providers – put their mark on it, as did the Washington State Labor Council. Those unions are some of the most powerful backers in Democratic politics. Joining them were Microsoft, Amazon, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Master Builders of King and Snohomish counties.

American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit organization founded by farmers and environmentalists collaborating to preserve agricultural lands and save society from soil erosion – key tasks in an era of dire climate predictions and the precarious business of farming – signed on to the letter. So did AARP Washington and the Washington Build Back Black Alliance.

Trudeau sponsored the Senate version of Bateman’s bill, which was co-sponsored by Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia. Braun has praised lawmakers’ work on advancing housing proposals this year, even when he doesn’t agree with some of the specifics.

The first woman of color to be elected senator from the 27th Legislative District, Trudeau is now tasked with shepherding Bateman’s bill through the upper chamber. For her, the policy debate also must include a reckoning over the generations of systemic exclusion that people of color have faced when trying to buy a home, including through local zoning laws.

"We need to think about it equitably, especially because of the history. Why is it that lower-income and predominant Black communities are in urban cores?" she said. "That was intentional, as is single-family zoning for many of the same reasons."


Housing construction bonds

The governor in December announced his own go-big proposal, asking voters to weigh in on a bond proposal for the construction of affordable housing across Washington, along with supportive housing for individuals who may need help and additional shelter beds.

That plan would first have to pass the Legislature. Then voters would weigh in this fall on whether Washington could raise $4 billion beyond the official debt limit over the next several years by issuing bonds to boost housing projects.

Late last month, Inslee even called into a KIRO radio news program to make a pitch to citizens, according to Mynorthwest.com.

That proposal has picked up a little momentum, with House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, saying last month that its chances were inching up. Jinkins added that if the plan does move forward, she said, “The House will put its mark on that proposal.”

Bateman, who sits on the House Capital Budget Committee currently reviewing the proposal, said she supports Inslee’s measure.

Schroeder, of the Association of Washington Cities, said his organization supports that measure, or a proposed increase in the real estate excise tax (REET), sometimes known as the homesellers' tax, to boost housing construction.

This latter bill is House Bill 1628, the only legislation this year being sponsored by Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. The longest serving House speaker in Washington history, Chopp is known among other things for his lifelong fight to create affordable housing and shelter for those who need it.

“I think it would be a massive misstep if we did not get one of those two proposals passed in what’s supposed to be the year of housing,” Schroeder said.

At least one Republican is also willing to come to the table on Inslee’s proposal. Barkis said he would want to make sure the money in the bond proposal is spent for the “highest and best use,” but that he was open to supporting it.

“If in fact that comes to the table, I'm more than happy to be at that table. I can't speak on behalf of our leadership, but I would sit down with stakeholders,” Barkis said. “I would rather see something along those lines, rather than a REET increase or other tax increase.”

Meanwhile, as the housing bills move through the House and Senate in the remaining days of the legislative session, opponents “will keep chipping at them,” Barkis said.

“These are good policies that will start to create a foundation for getting at supply quickly,” he said. If the bills remain largely intact and get to Inslee’s desk, he added: “We will have taken some pretty significant steps on a pathway to start getting at this supply issue.”

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