It’s Past Time to Re-Legalize Affordable Homes in Washington

Historic fourplex in Seattle.
Sightline Institute: Missing Middle Homes Photo Library, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Patience Malaba

Look around an older neighborhood in just about any city in Washington state. Hidden in plain sight is a century-old secret that can help us find our way out of today’s housing crisis.

Scattered among single-family houses, you’ll see old corner stores with homes tucked above or behind, Craftsman duplexes here and there, and maybe a small, brick apartment building.

But in most newer neighborhoods, that variety of homes is missing. Smaller-footprint, less-expensive housing is missing because about three-quarters of our cities’ residential areas now allow only the most expensive type of housing: big, detached houses on large lots. Everything else is prohibited by law.

Companion “middle housing near transit” bills in the Senate and House would empower Washington’s cities with a range of options for allowing more homes in established urban areas and lifting restrictions on homes that more people can afford.

From Bellingham to Walla Walla, and in cities all over Washington state, neighborhoods where working-class families can afford to live are vanishing. Week after week, year after year, we’ve all heard the news stories: home prices climbing ever further out of reach for Washingtonians who lack multigenerational wealth. Tenants facing the worst rental shortages in decades. Too many of our neighbors living unsheltered or just one paycheck or hardship away from homelessness.

This is the displacement that befalls our communities when there aren’t enough homes available. Bidding drives up prices, and escalating prices drive people with lower incomes further and further out, resulting in cities increasingly segregated by race and income.

Sadly, this zoning system is working exactly as originally intended. Starting in the 1920s, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that affordable home types, such as apartment buildings, were “mere parasites,” cities started to restrict what housing could be built. By the 1960s, most cities had banned even duplexes from half their residential areas.

I’m not typically nostalgic for the policies of the past. But to add the homes Washington families need today, it’s time to reverse that history of downzoning near our job centers and re-legalize a range of modest, mid-sized homes in our cities. The one-size zoning we’ve got now isn’t working.    

When we don’t allow the homes we need near jobs and transit, near our schools and centers of culture and commerce, fewer people can afford to live in the communities where they work, resulting in diminished opportunities and longer commutes. And it costs us all. We suffer more traffic and pollution, more sprawl, and more loss of habitat, farms, and forests. If we want mixed-income communities, then we need mixed-price neighborhoods. To stabilize prices, we need enough homes to go around.       

So, what’s holding us back?

Constrictive zoning on the books locally, city by city, is at the root of Washington’s housing shortage. But no city can fix this alone. Our statewide housing crisis calls for state-level solutions.

The best time to re-legalize middle housing was 100 years ago. The second-best time is right now.  

Washington legislators have the chance this session to act on behalf of all 7.6 million of us to set basic inclusivity standards for local zoning. Companion “middle housing near transit” bills in the Senate and House would empower Washington’s cities with a range of options for allowing more homes in established urban areas and lifting restrictions on homes that more people can afford, like duplexes and townhomes, especially near major public transit. It follows in the steps of recent bipartisan legislation to expand “missing middle” housing in bigger cities in Oregon, California, and Massachusetts.

This solution wouldn’t pay off overnight; adding the homes we need, and the variety of homes people can afford would be gradual. And it isn’t the only thing we should do for housing prices and to protect housing-insecure Washingtonians.

But state leadership to allow middle homes in our urban neighborhoods would open a door for cities and towns across Washington to build their next vibrant chapters. It would lay a foundation for stabilizing prices and preventing sprawl into our treasured natural places. And most importantly, it would welcome home the families and individuals eager for the opportunities a stable, affordable home supports.

The best time to re-legalize middle housing was 100 years ago. The second-best time is right now.

Patience Malaba is the Director of Government Relations and Policy at the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County- a membership association of more than 200 organizations who seek to advance housing stability. 


15 thoughts on “It’s Past Time to Re-Legalize Affordable Homes in Washington”

  1. Seattle currently has all the zoned capacity it needs to absorb the growth that’s planned under the Growth Management Act in its Urban Villages and Hub Urban Centers, without rezoning all neighborhoods. Let’s make it easier and cheaper to build ADUs. With three units allowed per residential lot, Seattle has no single-family zoning. It’s called neighborhood residential.

    1. Yes, the recent change from SF to “neighborhood residential” was the opening shot in the direction of these bills IMO.

    2. I am not convinced we need more landlords, pegging their rents to whatever wages Amazon or Facebook or Google or Apple are offering. Seattle also has a lot of unused/underused land that could be developed without further enriching Seattle’s propertarians,

  2. We wouldn’t hear so much about “Washingtonians who lack multigenerational wealth” if land weren’t so expensive, if the value of land was taxed appropriately (low rates on residential property, higher on commercial to recoup the investment made by the people who live and work to create that value). Arguing for high housing costs as the norm — so high that intergenerational wealth is created through that appreciation which simply keeps housing costs high — seems not to be what we want.

    The issue isn’t housing but land…land is finite and increases in value the more economic development takes place on it and the more people want access to it, whether to live on it or start a business. You can’t have affordable housing without affordable land. And land can be made affordable through ground rents/leases and pay more into the city treasury at the same time. The mayor’s office accepted a fee simple purchase of $149M for the Mercer megablock development over $1B (with a B) in ground rents offered by the developer. That works out to about $12M a year over the 99 year lease, meaning that $149M purchase was met in less than 13 years, with 86 years left to run on the lease.

  3. Seattle allows backyard ADUs. Permitting contributes significantly to construction costs and time. I would love to subdivide my home or build an ADU but am not feeling confident this will be an easy or affordable process. How can the state support mom and pop private market enterprise on this one? I think communities would be much more receptive to this small scale, local economy solution.

  4. Two comments to Pat Simon. Both general economic principles and the experience in Seattle say that increased supply leads to lower prices. Letting more people live close to transit will reduce traffic, not increase it.

    1. Classic supply-side economic theory works with widgets, but not with housing. It’s more complicated. Amazon hired 25,000 high-paid tech workers who all wanted to live downtown. They absorbed the available supply, displacing lower-income workers. Rents just increased. No low-income affordable housing is built without subsidies.

  5. These proposals (House and Senate bills) will do nothing to house the neediest because they will be market rate. That means that they will exacerbate the shortages for those who really need them. The bills have no definition of “affordable” and they will allow the wealthy in neighborhoods with less transit to continue to enjoy their peace and tranquility in SF neighborhoods while burdening all the rest of us. For those of us who live near transit (I live 1/2 block off Aurora near Greenlake), we will be visited with hulking behemoths that require loss of trees and that will block the sun. Greenlake would be lined with highrises. No requirement for parking will mean congested and impassible streets. Traffic will become unbearable. For those like me who cannot travel by bus, bike, or foot, we will be trapped and have to move in order to be able to drive to grocery stores, pharmacies, and other places. Seattle already allows backyard cottages and ADU’s. That is sufficient.

    1. Curious about your situation described thusly…”For those like me who cannot travel by bus, bike, or foot, we will be trapped and have to move in order to be able to drive”

      Greenlake need not be “lined with high-rises”…could be just a few stories and in more places, like along Aurora, but it’s not 1990 or whatever. Seattle has 750.000 people, up 25% since the turn of the century. Unless there is a plan to set a maximum population and evict those who exceed it (people complain about bidding wars for property now…they’ve seen nothing yet), they have to live somewhere. Seattle wanted workers; it got people instead, as the saying goes. It seems wrong-headed to expect people to move to your city and add value but force them to commute in from Kent or Stanwood (I know people who do both every day).

      1. I used to commute to Tacoma because that’s where my work was. I chose not to move there. People can make choices, and I don’t consider it my duty to sacrifice my peace in order to expand their choices. I’d like to live on the beach at Alki, but I can’t afford it. So I can whine “poor me” or I can change my situation, or I can be happy with what I have. I choose the latter. I don’t care if people move here or not-that’s not in my control. I don’t have to like it, nor do I have to enable it.

        Greenlake “need not be lined with highrises,” correct, but it will be if these bills are enacted into law. And I live 1/2 block off of Aurora, so that affects me as well.

        I don’t care about bidding wars, either. If I tried to move to Alki I would expect to become involved with one, which is one of the reasons I wouldn’t likely try it even if I could afford it.

        I appreciate that people can disagree about these issues. My posts are simply my opinions. So far I haven’t seen anything to change them.

        Here’s an interesting take on this that I think captures my opinions:

    2. So you feel it’s reasonable to restrict housing production in a large city because you prefer driving? Oh I forgot you also mentioned that the housing the non wealthy can afford is unsightly and offends your sensibilities due to being visible.

      My, your taste must be extraordinarily refined and discriminating.

    3. You talk about Green Lake lined with apartments as if it was a bad thing. Green Lake is a wonderful park and I sure wouldn’t mind seeing it out my front window. Every apartment building you put there means dozens or hundreds of people can have exactly that. Wouldn’t a city where we put our homes next to our parks be better than the status quo where most of the denser development is restricted to car sewers like Aurora, 85th St, 15th Ave NW, etc.?

      1. The same people who complain about this would love to live on Central Park W in NYC or in any of the neighborhoods in Paris or Berlin that overlook or adjoin parks. Instead we get 1000s of private parks with houses on them, with the owners making bank from scarcity, either as rentals (1/5 of the houses in Seattle are rentals) or in windfall appreciation.

        The rejection of Forward Thrust in the 70s was prophetic…Seattle didn’t want to be a city then and still doesn’t now, preferring to remain a collection of car-dependent suburbs around a small downtown core.

Comments are closed.