Maybe Metropolis: Outdated Environmentalism Stalls Pro-Housing Legislation in Olympia

Despite his old-school, anti-development environmentalism, Accessory Dwelling Units fit right into Rep. Pollet’s North Seattle district. He should stop stalling them in cities statewide.

By Josh Feit

Back in 2017, the environmental group Futurewise had an “OK Boomer” moment when it came to light that two of their board members, Jeffrey Eustis and Dave Bricklin, were independently suing the city of Seattle to stop two affordable housing initiatives: The city wanted to increase the production of accessory dwelling units (also known as granny flats) and upzone a small portion of Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones to accommodate more density.

The old-school, anti-development environmentalists (Eustis against ADUs and Bricklin against zoning increases) didn’t grok that Futurewise’s up-to-date vision of environmentalism now prioritized urban density as a component of equity and sustainability. After years of process monkeywrenching, Eustis, representing the Queen Anne Community Council, and Bricklin, representing the Wallingford Community Council, failed to stop Seattle’s zoning changes. In an appropriate denouement that signaled its shift forward, Futurewise replaced the anti-development pair (who were both founding board members) with new faces, including Angela Compton, the young woman who actually led the grassroots campaign to pass the city’s upzone agenda. Ouch.

Futurewise, currently advocating for a slate of pro-density bills in the state legislature, may be experiencing yet another “OK Boomer” moment, as longtime North Seattle State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) has already tabled a Futurewise-backed bill that would have encouraged more ADUs in cities statewide.

Clinging to outdated anti-development tropes, Pollet (who got some naive positive press last week for denouncing a boneheaded Building Industry Association of Washington propaganda video) has been the number-one opponent of the inclusive, pro-housing agenda in Olympia over the last several legislative sessions.

For three years straight, Pollet, the chair of the pivotal House Local Government Committee, has sabotaged a series of pro-housing bills that would have reformed ADU laws in urban areas by prohibiting owner occupancy requirements, eliminating parking mandates, loosening minimum lot size and square footage requirements, and getting rid of street improvement mandates. The urban planning nerds at Sightline get into the weeds of the latest ADU bills here.

By the way, I understand that cities need to do something more dramatic than add ADUs to housing stock if they want to successfully address the affordable housing crisis, but it’s a necessary first step to dismantling exclusionary zoning rules.

And the numbers in Seattle, Tacoma, California, and Oregon show that reforms like these  do increase ADU production. For example, after Seattle adopted new rules in 2019 to allow two ADUs per lot and eliminate parking and owner occupancy mandates, the numbers soared. In fact, ADU production grew 69 percent in Seattle in 2020 compared to 2018. The fact that this swift growth represents an increase from 227 new ADUs to 566 just illustrates the need for more far-reaching pro-density policies.

A quick history lesson: In 2019, Pollet watered down a pro-ADU bill proposed by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33, Kent) and supported by Reps. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), and Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle, Vashon Island)—to the point that the policy architects behind the bill, Sightline, pulled their support. After that, the legislation died.

In 2020, after Gregerson passed another sweeping pro-ADU bill through Fitzgibbon’s Environment and Energy Committee, Pollet voted against it in the Appropriations Committee (even though it was watered down), and it eventually died in the Rules committee.

The legislature did pass another pro-ADU bill that year. However, it was dramatically watered down; the original bill would have gotten rid of owner occupancy requirements, allowed two ADUs per lot, and eliminated parking requirements for ADUs within a half mile of transit. The final bill got rid of the first two reforms and sliced down the new parking rule to a quarter mile.

This year, Pollet’s committee tabled yet another best-practices ADU bill that was proposed by Gregerson and supported by Seattle progressives like Macri and Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-37, Seattle). And then, last week,  Pollet and his committee gutted SB 5235, an additional pro-housing bill, this one sponsored by Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Mukilteo); Liias passed the legislation out of the senate 46-3 with support from Seattle progressives such as Rebecca Saldaña (D-37, Seattle) and Joe Nguyen (D-34, Seattle).

The bill, which Liias spins as a renters’ rights bill, set out to do two things. First, separate from the ADU issue, it gets rid of limits on the number of unrelated occupants that can live together, a bizarre and paternalistic housing requirement that ignores the realities of modern living arrangements. Liias also wanted to ban owner-occupancy requirements for ADUs, which are based on the belief that renters require supervision to live in single-family neighborhoods.

Pollet passed the bill out of his Local Government committee last week, but only after getting rid of the pro-ADU change.

Liias is correct to spin dropping the ADU owner occupancy requirement as pro-renters’ rights. Think about it: Apartment building owners don’t have to live on site. Why then, should public policy enforce babysitter rules specifically for neighborhood infill housing like ADUs?

“You get to [Pollet’s Land Use] Committee and…there was just not an understanding of the housing crisis that we have.” —Cathy MacCaul, Policy Director, AARP WA.

Lest you think I’m simply on an anti-Boomer rant: One of the biggest supporters of the pro-ADU agenda is the AARP. Cathy MacCaul, advocacy director for the AARP Washington State, says ADUs became a top issue for her group nationally three years ago as a significant portion of the population is settling into old age. AARP believes ADUs can be a great option for seniors who want to stay in their communities (“age in place”) while living in more affordable and smaller housing.

“It’s becoming really expensive for people to have options,” she said. “ADUs became a big idea for us. ‘Wow, this could really address a lot of issues for older adults.’” Back in February MacCaul signed up to testify in favor of Gregerson’s bill in Pollet’s committee, along with a diverse coalition that included Futurewise, SEIU Healthcare 1199 NW, Association of Washington Cities, and yes, those bogeymen from the Building Industry Association of Washington.

As I said, Pollet killed the bill. MacCaul said she was disappointed to get to the hearing with her broad coalition only to discover that the committee lacked “an understanding of the housing crisis that we have.” She says she hopes Pollet will “be at the table with us,” in the future, concluding: “He plays such a pivotal role, he could be such a huge driver to move housing choices forward.”

There are other pro-housing bills still in play this year, including HB 1157 (creating financial incentives for cities to build more missing middle housing), HB 1220 (making sure affordable housing is part of the Growth Management Act), and HB 1099 (making climate change—and thus efficient, dense housing—part of the Growth Management Act). These are good bills that prompt more housing, but unlike the specific ADU reform bills, they only offer incentives or establish planning goals without mandating immediate changes to land use that will put new homes on the ground now. In fact, HB 1157 passed the House yesterday, but only after Pollet and his Land Use Committee stripped out the key language in the bill that had required cities to plan for more housing types and required additional density in urban growth areas (a minimum of six net dwelling units per acre).

I understand the old-school suspicion of development and the feeling that things like ADUs will lead to wild developer land grabs, but even according to the findings of the very environmental impact statement the Queen Anne Community Council demanded in its appeal against Seattle’s pro-ADU proposal, those fears were shown to be unfounded .

Look, I’m not a Boomer, but I am an oldster, and even I understand that Joni Mitchell’s “They paved paradise” politics fail to answer one important question: Whose paradise? Keeping development out of single-family zones is one way to keep the answer to that question stuck in the inequitable past of exclusion. For his day job, Feit works at Sound Transit.

6 thoughts on “Maybe Metropolis: Outdated Environmentalism Stalls Pro-Housing Legislation in Olympia”

  1. The problem with this type of ADU legislation is its trying to pass a zoning change in disguise. I’m sure it’s backed by Developers – in other words – big bad big business. Instead of trying to get our State Legislature to approve duplex zoning on all single family lots in the state, they instead try to sneak duplexes in as ADU’s! Brilliant! Sly as a fox! Why don’t they just come out with the true legislation they are trying to hide?

  2. JudyB 43rd: The developers must love you Josh. They want to make the fast bucks, forget about the homeowners. The Seattle City Council’s intent was to permit ADUs so that not-so-rich homeowners could get some extra cash or provide housing for multi-generational families. One of the major consequences of not only ADUs but the rapid tear-down development has been the loss of affordable housing and the decimation of tree canopy, our major pollution and heat control safeguard against global warming. You might also want to take a look at sewer capacity (with a 100+ year old system that can’t handle what we have now). Look at the data at all the overflows going into Puget Sound, Lake Washington and the Duwamish.

  3. Josh should ask Rep. Pollet the reasons for his opposition before Josh poses as a journalist. Publicola should offer Rep. Pollet the courtesy of a reply.

  4. Josh wrote: “In fact, ADU production grew 69 percent in Seattle in 2020 compared to 2018. The fact that this swift growth represents an increase from 227 new ADUs to 566 just illustrates the need for more far-reaching pro-density policies.”

    As one of those 2020 ADU permits, I can say it represents no demand for more far-reaching density policies. Homeowners don’t make decisions based on urban land use. Instead it represents a bottled-up demand on my part to finally legalize my ADU now that off-street parking is no longer required. Josh should stop imputing motives to others and, rather, ask for a quote.

    Another example is his assuming that homeowners opposed removing the homeowner occupancy requirement because we need to supervise tenants. This is ridiculous. As usual, Josh writes from the developer perspective. Homeowner occupancy for two years would mean the profits f developing an ADU would accrue to the homeowner. Mike O’Brian negotiated us down to one year and then sold us out by allowing developers to come in, tear the house down and develop three new units. Now they want to subdivide the lot into three. Why the AARP supported this anti-homeowner position I don’t know. The City provides no help to the individual homeowner, who must jump through all the permits and code require of a much larger project. It cost me $1,000 to hire an architect to submit my site plan (unchanged) and project plan digitally. A dedicated ADU staff or navigator within
    Permitting is needed.

    1. Yup – Mike O’Brien did this for big real estate developers like Blackrock. They buy up houses and it increases prices so that normal families who want a house can’t win the bidding war. Why doesn’t Publicola find out how many houses are owned by these type of companies in Seattle?

      Competing against developers plus Real Estate Investment Trusts really makes it hard for people to afford a house.

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