As Density Bills Move Forward, It’s Statewide Housing Goals vs. “Local Control”

1908 apartment building in Seattle. Source: Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0 license.

By Ryan Packer

At the halfway mark of the 2023 legislative session, the state house and senate are both moving ahead with a number of bills that would change land use in cities across the state, with the goal of increasing the supply of new housing over the coming decades. But the two chambers have gone in starkly different directions when it comes to the specifics, with the house leaning harder into pro-density proposals.

When House Bill 1110, one of the highest-profile bills dealing with local zoning this year, passed its final house committee last Friday on a bipartisan vote, the core idea of the bill was still intact despite a few major amendments: Cities must allow more density in areas that are currently zoned for single-family use. 

Specifically, the bill would require many smaller cities to allow duplexes in residential areas, and cities with more than 75,000 people, or suburbs of large cities like Seattle and Spokane, would have to allow fourplexes everywhere and six-unit buildings within a quarter mile of frequent transit stops, major parks, and public schools. The amended bill is a downgrade from the original version, which would have allowed more density in even more cities across the state, but would still represent a significant increase in the amount of density allowed in cities across Washington. 

The bill has come under intense criticism from local elected officials who don’t want to lose their ability to restrict development in some of their cities’ lowest-density neighborhoods.

“I’m just really concerned with the impact to the character of our neighborhoods,” Bellevue Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis said in January.

“This bill completely disregards critical local context and will surely lead to untold and unintended consequences,” Woodinville City Manager Brandon Buchanan told the house appropriations committee last week. Woodinville, Edmonds, and Mercer Island have all adopted formal resolutions or written letters to lawmakers opposing the legislation, while individual officials in other cities have also criticized the bill. “I’m just really concerned with the impact to the character of our neighborhoods,” Bellevue Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis said in January. Despite this pushback, the bill is moving toward a vote on the house floor.

The bill’s supporters contend that it doesn’t interfere with local control. Instead, they argue, it allows property owners to do more with their land, with a goal of increasing the “missing middle”buildings that are larger than a single-family home but smaller than an apartment complex. Older examples of these buildings  exist in many neighborhoods but can no longer be built under modern zoning rules.

“We have to make it easier to build housing,” Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia), the prime sponsor of HB 1110, said at the bill’s first hearing in January. “As a former city councilmember and planning commissioner, I can tell you that the majority of cities make it either illegal outright to build middle housing throughout the majority of their residential land use areas, or they make it infeasible by creating things like minimum lot size or minimum set back requirements.”

The senate companion bill to HB 1110, sponsored by Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), did not move forward. Instead, the senate Ways and Means Committee advanced Senate Bill 5466, Senator Marko Liias’ (D-21, Edmonds) bill that would require cities to allow higher-density apartment buildings, condos, and office buildings near transit. That bill has seen fewer tweaks so far, and currently would require cities to allow buildings of around five stories in height for three-quarters of a mile around any transit stop with service every twenty minutes during peak hours, and larger buildings, around eight or nine stories, closer to the most frequent transit like light rail. 

With the Washington Department of Commerce now projecting that the state will need an additional million new housing units to keep up with population growth over the next two decades, no single approach to increasing supply will be enough to meet the demand. An analysis of HB 1110 by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that the changes in the bill could produce just over 200,000 new housing units in the central Puget Sound region, where most new housing will be concentrated, in the next 20 years—a fraction of the need, but a start.

The house and senate are approaching density differently in other zoning legislation as well, including a pair of bills intended to remove barriers to building backyard or basement apartments, known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs). House Bill 1337, sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33, Burien), would require cities to comply with at least three of four guidelines for new ADUs: no off-street parking requirements, no on-site residency requirements for people who build an ADU on their property, a limit on impact fees, which can discourage homeowners to build ADUs, and allowing two ADUs per property.

In contrast, Senate Bill 5235, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham), would allow cities to limit the number of ADUs on small lots, and allow cities to require parking for all ADUs except for a quarter-mile from major transit stops. The bill would ban owner occupancy requirements, but not when a homeowner wants to use their ADU for a short-term rental.  Shewmake, a former state representative in her first year as a senator, sponsored a similar bill last year in the house that didn’t make it to the senate floor, but this week the senate resoundingly approved this year’s version of the bill, by a vote of 42-6.

“I support both bills, and if I could have signed onto [Gregerson’s] bill I would have…I just think we need to do things that are also going to pass.”—Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham)

The house let its companion bill to SB 5235, HB 1276, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46), die ahead of a committee deadline in February, focusing instead on HB 1337. “This is the strong one… the one that will get things done quickly,” Rep. Andy Barkis, (R-2, Olympia), one of 1337’s sponsors, said at a hearing on both bills. HB 1337 is facing opposition because it’s much more prescriptive about what cities have to allow.

“I support both bills, and if I could have signed onto [Gregerson’s] bill I would have…I just think we need to do things that are also going to pass,” Shewmake told PubliCola. “Maybe Mia’s will be the one that passes, because she has that bipartisan support, or this will be the one that passes, and they can be folded one into the.”

Shewmake said she saw the two competing ADU bills as a bellwether. “Figuring out what we can get off the floor with this ADU bill is going to be important for figuring out what we can do generally on housing,” she said. In other words, if the senate doesn’t pass HB 1337, it’s probably not going to consider even more substantive changes like HB 1110.

Rep. Julia Reed (D-36, Seattle), who has signed onto HB 1110 and also sponsored the house version of Liias’s bill, HB 1517, told PubliCola, “You kind of have to have both…because of the way our cities are quite spread out, in Washington State, and because of the types of homes that people are looking for. …Not everybody wants to live in a multi-unit apartment building. Some people are really looking for that fourplex, that townhouse, [or] the duplex model just fits their family and their lifestyle better.” 

House Speaker Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle) conceded that local control can be in tension with statewide housing goals. “Cities have a tough job, and we recognize that, and we want to make that job easier by making a floor for jurisdictions, small, medium and large… knowing that Seattle is not the same as Moses Lake, but the housing shortage impacts every part of our state,” he said during a press briefing in late February. 

One of his counterparts on the senate side, Deputy Majority Leader Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), pushed back on the idea that the senate was being more conservative and timid about changing local zoning. “I’m not sure I would say that the senate is more deferential to local control versus the house,” she said. “But I think that is a struggle that is always front and center.”

15 thoughts on “As Density Bills Move Forward, It’s Statewide Housing Goals vs. “Local Control””

  1. New Urbanists freaking loathe small-d democracy. Got it. Thanks for ensuring that Republicans get more votes from centrist types in swing districts, smuglords – just don’t come crying to us when Obergefell goes the way of Roe v. Wade after swing voters decide they’re sick of your crap.

  2. “House Speaker Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle)…”

    Fitzgibbon in the Majority Leader in the House; Laurie Jinkins (D – 27, Tacoma) is the Speaker of the House.

  3. Cities have had all the local control they could dream of for decades, and they failed spectacularly.

    They proved time after time that they’re incapable of meeting the demand for housing. Local elections aren’t structured in a way that allows leaders who can face facts to win or pass an agenda. Local control means the delusion that housing is always someone else’s problem, and that government exists to defend this novel and undefinable phantom called “character”.

    Sure, sometimes “character” mean whiteness. We all understand what that is. But when it doesn’t mean that, it means absolutely nothing, or everything, or anything. Whatever it needs to be for housing to be someone else’s problem.

    1. Consider too…govt must maintain its tax base…so higher property values are favored

    2. Um, there are more than a few BIPOC who have been displaced by the rising tax bill and rising rents that have happened over the last 30 years. Tearing down affordable housing and upzoning (which increases property value) will only accelerate the trend. Zoning does not create affordable housing.

      1. Govt wants higher property values cause it brings higher taxes…And why?…Compare govt salaries to working class…THATS WHY!

      2. Thinking bout how the govt does shit…I worked for city of tacoma dept of public works one summer….mostly I rode around in a 5yard dump truck with “Cookie” the driver/boss and another guy…Lots of riding around…..lots of coffee breaks at cafe’s….Once I spotted a street sign that had been pulled out of its post hole and was laying there…I said “Hey…Cookie….Stop and let me put that street sign back in the hole..”
        He said “No no no….That’s Sign Crew….We’ll report it”
        Not really my cup of tea…being a scab most my work career…but that was how they did things…🤣
        Show quoted text

      3. An obvious short term housing affordability solution is to occupy RVs on private property….Not allowed in most counties…..often citing sanitation concerns….Tho it could be regulated and permitted to alleviate those concerns….Still…Codes usually only allow “temporary” occupancy…

      4. RV occupancy could provide affordable housing…However…RVs do not increase tax base..

    3. Seattle has upzoned and built tons of housing and largely kept up with it’s population growth. Building is still continuing. Shoreline and Lynnwood also hugely Upzoning and building. We don’t need State Control like they do in Russia and other Communist Countries.

      Citizens deserve a day in how their neighborhoods grow and this can only be done at the local level.

      1. Yeah we don’t need state control like they have in Russia and other communist countries. The state (city government) should stop telling me what I can do with my own land. Seattle 2035? Smells suspiciously like a stalinist five year plan to me….

        Property owners have a better understanding about how market conditions affect their land and the state should stay out of the damn way.

  4. Much cheaper and easier to upgrade services like water, sewer, electrical where they already exist than to build them in a new suburb, in addition to having to construct new roads in the suburbs. Then there is the climate change emissions caused by people having to commute in for an extra hour or two from these new suburbs.

    1. Luckily we are paying for link light rail so people can easily commute in to Seattle from all suburbs – or so we’ve been told! We also have Sounder Trains and Bus routes that get you to downtown from Lynnwood in one hour.

    2. How’s about we get real about where people choose to live and subsidize job creation out there? I’ve been around long enough to remember when Seattle elected officials said that we’d save the suburbs from themselves if city property owners just taxed themselves enough to pay for all of this new density. How has that worked out?

  5. On site services like water pipes, sewer pipes and electrical infrastructure are sized for only so much useage… as dictated by population density….being debated…

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