State House Says Yes to Density, Senate May Be Tougher Audience

Washington State Capitol (Creative Commons)

By Ryan Packer

Late Monday night, House Bill 1110 passed the Washington House of Representatives on a bipartisan 75 to 21 vote. The bill, which has taken center stage this session as legislators focus on ways to increase the state’s housing supply, would require most cities in the state’s urban and suburban areas to allow a slightly higher level of density in residential neighborhoods.

“We need homes now, and we need action now, because we’ve seen so much inaction in local communities for so long,” Representative Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle), said on the floor before the vote. Alvarado, in her first term in the legislature, previously served as the director of Seattle’s Office of Housing. 

The City of Seattle has been supportive of the policy change statewide even as its own Office of Community Development has shied away from studying the most impactful changes to city zoning ahead of a required update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan next year. ”I don’t want to lock people out. I want to invite new neighbors in,” Alvarado said.

The bill now heading to the state senate had several amendments, with the biggest changes proposed by Rep. Tana Senn (D-41, Bellevue). Cities in her district, including Mercer Island, have loudly opposed the bill. “The upzoning of all single-family zones will force the City into an expensive and protracted planning process to study and right size infrastructure densities far beyond anything contemplated,” a letter addressed to the 41st district’s legislators and unanimously approved by the Mercer Island City Council in early February said.

”I don’t want to lock people out. I want to invite new neighbors in.” —State Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle)

Senn’s amendments mean cities with fewer than 75,000 residents, like Mercer Island, would only be required to permit triplexes on residential lots that aren’t close to frequent transit lines, no matter how close they are to a large city like Seattle. The previous version of the bill set the floor at four units. Larger cities, like Bellevue, would still have to allow four units per lot, and cities of all sizes would have to allow six units per lot near light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit stops. 

“All cities are different sizes, and have unique aspects,” Senn said as she introduced her amendment.

Senn also succeeded in passing an amendment that removed a requirement for cities of any size to allow six units per lot around large parks and public schools, treating these valuable “community amenities” the same as a frequent transit line.

Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle), who was chair of the house’s local government committee when a similar bill failed to make it to the house floor last year, also amended the bill. Pollet’s amendment would allow cities to hold off on any zoning changes for up to two years in areas where it considers residents at “high risk of displacement.” Pollet said those changes allowed him to support the bill, even with outstanding concerns over affordability.

“I’m disappointed that this bill still fails to bring housing to the people of Washington who need it the most,” Pollet said on the house floor. “Those are the people who do not earn $100,000 or $150,000 or $200,000 a year.”

In fact, the bill had already been amended to explicitly allow any city to add additional affordability requirements.

Now the bill heads to the senate, where it has fewer full-throated supporters. “I’m searching for other solutions better suited for Mercer Island than HB 1110,” Senator Lisa Wellman, who represents the 41st District in the senate, said in early February. “There may be more useful legislation in the senate right now.”

Wellman appeared to be referring to Senate Bill 5546, which would allow denser housing immediately around transit stations while leaving most single-family areas around the state untouched.

The night after the house approved HB 1110, the Mercer Island City Council voted to support SB 5466, in the explicit hope that HB 1110 would not move forward. That bill has already passed the senate and is now in the house.

9 thoughts on “State House Says Yes to Density, Senate May Be Tougher Audience”

  1. The Middle Housing bill was hatched by the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. It is a libertarian measure to allow the Master Builders to build and sell market-rate housing in more places. It provides no requirements nor incentives for affordable housing as defined in the bill itself. More than half of the need is for low-income housing for renters with incomes less than 50% of Area Median Income. No duplexes, triplexes or cute courtyard apartments will result. We will only get more townhouses, because that’s what’s most profitable. Townhouses are inaccessible and exclude seniors and families with toddlers. The Master Builders only build for sale, so no affordable rentals, or any rentals, will result. Density does not create affordability. This bill is bait and switch. Please tell your legislators to demand $400 million in the Housing Trust Fund for very low-income housing. This willl help alleviate homelessness.

  2. Pollet and others who oppose opening up SF zoning are not straightforward. They have dozens of reasons why doing so wouldn’t increase housing, especially for low- and moderate-income renters, but it finally comes down to “neighborhood character”, which is nothing but a continuation of the exclusionary attitude that instituted SF zoning decades ago. This is an equity issue, just as it was back then.

  3. Zoning should be done at the local level. Seattle largely has built fast enough to keep up with population increases. We have upzoned so that every single family lot can have up to 3 homes on it. State should incentivize other cities to upzone by providing money to help make housing affordable. Use the $15 Billion tax surplus from last year (instead of asking for a bond measure).

  4. Pollet was specifically bumped from chairing the housing committee because his obdurate and specious refusal to even consider opening up SF zoning meant it never really got a hearing. His amendment means that Seattle could forestall doing that for two years. Opponents to such legislation eventually get down to talking about “neighborhood character”, which said simply means “I don’t want Those People — renters — next door.”

    1. Well, zoning has been a local issue since Washington became a State. If local governments like Seattle City Council can’t get rezoning done, I wouldn’t hold my breath for the State Legislature to fix it either. Even if the State government does pass something, I doubt it will be around for long because heavy pressure from home owners (reliable voters) will make them change it next session. What lawmakers want is a bill that makes it look like the State is doing something about housing, and yet, keep things pretty much like they are. All these bills and amendments are all transit killers. If home owners can drive transit out of there neighborhood or town (Sumner Washington kicked out Pierce Transit years ago) there’s less growth. And less options for homeless campers to boot! Crank up the drawbridge Puyallup! Keep the renting riffraff away! The State GOP is licking their chops on this one.

      Inslee is the smart guy here… he came up with a plan to bond 4 billion in State money for affordable housing. Hooray!! Wait, 4 billion? That’s like maybe 8,000 units of low income housing at today’s prices. We’re not talking the 40,000 that are needed. And the State will take it’s own sweet time getting he money out to projects… so we’re talking years. High inflation. Political bullshit. Absolutely zero impact. But Inslee has his political cover now. He’s the pro-housing Gov!!

      1. The 40000 number is for permanent supportive housing. No blanket upzone is needed for that. And the Upzoning bill referenced here doesn’t supply any homeless housing.

    2. You can’t blame Pollet for everything. Even when he chaired the committee, there are legislative procedures to work around that.

      Writing that Pollet amended the bill makes it sound like he alone put a restriction in place. In fact, he only sponsored the amendment; the entire House voted on it, and a majority approved

      1. Pollet is actually more straight forward than many of his colleagues in Olympia…. Nobody wants to look like they’re anti-new housing but yet their voters are mostly….anti-new housing. So the State government will do a little dosey-doe dance and come up with something that looks good… but has minimum impact. And even if a zoning bill does actually have an impact, there’s always a “new and improved” bill next session to dial it back some.

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