by Leo Brine
Last week, the state house and senate Local Government and Housing Committees held hearings on Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) and Sen. Mona Das’ (D-47, Kent) “middle-housing” bills, which would let cities build denser housing in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.
If passed, the bills would require all cities with more than 20,000 residents to allow multi-family housing such as six-unit multiplexes, row homes, courtyard apartments and other medium-density housing options in areas within a half-mile of frequent transit service—places where buses or trains arrive at least every 15 minutes during peak hours on weekdays. Cities would also need to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in neighborhoods further than a half-mile from transit. Under the legislation, cities would have two years to update their comprehensive growth plans to allow this type of housing.
Bateman’s and Das’ bills (HB 1782 and SB 5760, respectively) would dramatically change Seattle’s zoning laws, permitting denser housing options in most parts of the city. Currently, most of Seattle’s residential land is exclusively zoned for detached single-family housing. Many of these single-family-only areas are within a half-mile of frequent transit stops, meaning that if the bills pass, most of Seattle’s neighborhoods would have to allow significantly denser housing options. We’ve reached out to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development for a more detailed description of how the bills would alter Seattle’s housing landscape.
Seattle Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, and Dan Strauss all signed on to support Rep. Bateman’s bill at the House Local Government Committee’s public hearing.
The bills do offer an alternative option for cities that don’t want to allow denser housing in all single-family residential zones. Cities could instead meet average minimum density standards within their urban growth areas. If a city opted for this approach, it could theoretically allow a high-rise apartment or condo complex far away from single family neighborhoods, meeting average density goals without allowing a mix of denser housing development throughout the city. However, that opt-out alternative only applies to single-family residential zones more than a half-mile from transit areas; Seattle has few of those, so even if the city chose the alternate route—which would accomplish the opposite goal of increasing housing stock citywide, by the way—it would still have to permit denser housing options in most places.
Mosqueda said she supports the bill’s statewide approach to addressing both housing affordability and supply problems. “I think this will help ensure we’re building housing for our region so that fewer people have to commute hours into their jobs or into city cores,” she said. “That will be good for environment as well.”
Mosqueda, who’s been pushing to allow more density in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods, said that the legislation wouldn’t preempt or disrupt the city’s pre-existing Mandatory Housing Affordability law, which increased density allowances in some areas that are already multifamily (and slightly expanded some multifamily areas) while requiring developers who take advantage of upzones to build or fund affordable housing.
Sen. Das said, “there’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard.’”
Das, who has tried to pass state legislation requiring denser housing options for four-years running, addressed one of the persistent fears about upzones: gentrification. Rather than causing displacement, she argued, the legislation will give “BIPOC community members an opportunity to get in the [housing] market with a condo or a townhouse” in the neighborhoods they live in, rather than having to uproot themselves to find housing they can afford in other parts of the state. “There’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard,’” Das added.
Responding to concerns about displacement, Bateman pointed to last year’s HB 1220, sponsored by Rep. Strom Petersen (D-21, Lynnwood) and Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), which requires cities to adopt anti-displacement measures into their comprehensive plans. (Seattle’s next comprehensive plan update is slated for 2024.)
Despite Das’ assurances, there is still concern that new developments will result in high-income residents moving into new housing, gentrifying low-income and vulnerable neighborhoods. On the other hand, people are being displaced and priced out of Seattle already under our current, inflexible zoning regime, where rents continue to increase largely because demand (the number of people, particularly wealthy people, living in and moving to the city) eclipses supply (the number of new units being built).
While previous efforts to allow more density statewide have failed, this year, Governor Jay Inslee is firmly in Das’ and Bateman’s camp. In fact, Inslee recommended the bills this year, increasing the pressure on Democrats. Last year, Inslee vetoed sections of a bill allowing more accessory dwelling units (like backyard cottages) after house Democrats, led by slow-growth North Seattle Rep. Gerry Pollet, watered it down and a coalition of affordable-housing groups wrote the governor a letter urging him to take a stand against NIMBYism.
The bill has brought together a broad coalition of supporters, including groups like the Builders Association of Washington, environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, businesses like Amazon and transportation advocates like Transportation Choices Coalition who want to increase housing options throughout the state. The Sierra Club’s Jesse Piedfort told the House Local Government committee that increased housing options “allow more people the opportunities to rent or own near transit, jobs, and schools, reducing car dependence and climate pollution while expanding opportunities for new neighbors and existing residence alike.”
Leaders from other Washington cities, including Federal Way Mayor Jim Farrell and Spokane Valley City Councilmember Arne Woodard, oppose the legislation, citing the need for “local control” over zoning. At the hearing, they testified that they worry the legislation would preempt their homegrown plans to address affordable housing.
Meanwhile, Amy Walen (D-48, Bellevue) introduced a far more ambitious housing bill (HB 2020) last week. It would require cities to enact affordable housing programs that would result in nine-story high-rises within a quarter mile of a light-rail station or major transit hub.