House Democrats Cede Ground on Density, Scaling Back Transit-Oriented Development Bill

By Ryan Packer

In the final weeks of the legislative session, the future of one of the year’s most substantial housing bills is in doubt.

The legislation, SB 5466, would have allowed dense development near public transit, but Democrats in the state house significantly changed the scope of this transit-oriented development bill last week—a surprise move, given the resounding 40-8 State Senate vote in favor of the bill just a few weeks earlier.

The original bill, sponsored by Marko Liias (D-41, Edmonds), would have loosened density restrictions within a three-quarter-mile walking distance around light rail, Sounder, and bus rapid transit stops, and also around bus stops with service running at least every 20 minutes for most of the day. The bill would have also allowed residential and commercial five-story buildings within the entire three-quarter-mile area, while also allowing buildings eight to nine stories tall within a quarter mile. Developers would not have to build parking within any of those footprints.

“I think this is the smartest way for Washington to address our housing challenges,” Senator Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) said before the senate passed a version of the bill, which scaled back the density allowance for local bus service to a half-mile walking distance. But several state representatives said the process essentially started over in their chamber.

“The scope of the bill was really large, and we also heard from a lot of our constituents, from a lot of our colleagues, that when we included not only light rail but bus rapid transit, and frequent bus stops, that the scope of redevelopment was a little unnerving for many.”—Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds)

Following complaints from local elected officials that the bill applied too broadly, the slimmed-down version moving through the house would only apply to an area within a half-mile of light rail and Sounder stations, and to a quarter-mile around bus rapid transit stops. Meanwhile, frequent local bus service would no longer trigger density bonuses. The bill still bans mandatory parking minimums in the areas where it would still apply, though cities will be able to petition the state for an exemption to require additional parking.

“The scope of the bill was really large, and we also heard from a lot of our constituents, from a lot of our colleagues, that when we included not only light rail but bus rapid transit, and frequent bus stops, that the scope of redevelopment was a little unnerving for many,” Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds), chair of the house housing committee, told PubliCola. “So we wanted to scale that back, to come up with something that might be more of an iterative process.”

Supporters of the original bill saw its broad scope as the best way to encourage both housing development and public transit investment.

“Based upon how you’re developing [housing] around frequent service, a lot of time those [bus stops] turn into BRT stations,” said Bryce Yadon, a lobbyist with Transportation Choices Coalition and Futurewise, which have been advocating for the senate version of the bill. “We want the best transit service across the region and the state … and to do that, you make fast, reliable, frequent service, and then you make sure that there is developable land around that service.”

The most significant change house Democrats made in the housing committee, though, was adding an extra requirement called “inclusionary zoning” for developers hoping to use the additional zoning capacity. Under his requirement, developers would have to set aside at least 20 percent of new units for households earning less than 60 percent of the area median income, which works out to $62,160 for a family of two in King County.

In addition, house Democrats reduced the maximum density, in most cases, to just three or four stories.

“We really wanted to put a bigger lens of affordability onto the bill,” Peterson said. “This was not only true for the Democrats on the housing committee, but also a lot of stakeholders that got involved: cities, the [Washington] Low Income Housing Alliance, and others.” But many housing developers, including those who build affordable units, argue that the new affordability provision is prohibitively high, and will have a chilling effect on the construction of new units.

“The bill that came over from the Senate was a very strong bipartisan bill. This legislation really rolls back generations of policy efforts to create inclusive communities. It will separate the haves from the have-nots.”—Rep. Peter Abbarno (R-20, Centralia)

Developers argue that requiring too many affordable units in otherwise market-rate buildings often means that a project that would make financial sense can no longer be built at all, leading to underdevelopment. “When we do things like say, ‘We’re only going to build new housing if it’s affordable’, we are making the problem worse because that housing has to be subsidized, and therefore cannot be built,” Ben Maritz, founder of Great Expectations, which specializes in constructing buildings with smaller-than-average units that can be rented for below market-rate rents, told PubliCola.

Maritz pointed to the Cornus House, a 199-unit building that Great Expectations is building near the Tacoma Dome Sounder station. If 20 percent of the units had to be affordable to people making 60 percent of the area median income, he said, the company would need to charge more than $2,300 for a 400-square-foot apartment, something that isn’t feasible in today’s market. On top of that, the new density provisions in SB 5466 wouldn’t allow 199 units on the lot, which would lead to even higher market-rate rents. “When we restrict housing, we make housing more expensive, which just makes the problem harder and harder. It’s an unworkable approach to solving our housing problem,” Maritz said.

The house Democrats’ rewrite has sapped Republican support, in a year when most housing bills are passing with bipartisan backing. “The bill that came over from the Senate was … a very strong bipartisan bill,” Rep. Peter Abbarno (R-20, Centralia) said just before every Republican on the house capital budget committee voted “no” on the bill. Abbarno argued that relying on public investment to build affordable units close to transit would create income-segregated areas. “This legislation really rolls back generations of policy efforts to create inclusive communities. It will separate the haves from the have-nots,” he said.

Seattle lawmakers, including Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34) and Julia Reed (D-36) have taken center stage in the negotiations around SB 5466 in recent weeks. Alvarado previously served as the director of the Seattle Office of Housing as the city was implementing its Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which offers developers slightly more zoning capacity in exchange for building on-site affordable units or paying a fee to subsidize them elsewhere, and has been an outspoken advocate for the affordability mandates in the bill. 

“This is, in its essence, about creating more affordable homes for those with the lowest incomes alongside homes for people with higher incomes,” Alvarado said before voting “yes” in committee. “It is, in and of itself, about fostering inclusion, and opportunity, and diversity—particularly in the communities like [those] across my district where we invest in our transit.”

The session’s other main housing bill, HB 1110, sponsored by Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia), is also seeing some heavy tweaks as it moves toward a final vote. As originally introduced, it would have required cities to require at least four units on most residential lots in the state’s urban areas, regardless of the population of an individual city. Most recently, an amendment by Sen. Mullet scaled the bill back so that it only requires cities with fewer than 75,000 people to allow duplexes on most residential lots—ceding a lot of ground to complaints from local leaders in cities like Mercer Island who had pushed back on the bill, arguing that their low-density areas couldn’t support more development.

Housing advocates saw both bills as necessary to address the state’s shortage of housing. But with 1110 retaining support on both sides of the aisle, and Democrats deciding to go it alone on transit-oriented development, it looks increasingly likely that only one will make it through this year.

20 thoughts on “House Democrats Cede Ground on Density, Scaling Back Transit-Oriented Development Bill”

  1. I’m very happy that this bad bill has finally been scaled back. It treats a bus stop 5 minutes from Seattle’s core the same way it treats a bus stop 1.5 hours away. We don’t need monstrous apartment towers so far form the city center as all that will do is destroy neighborhoods, clog residential areas as the parking requirements are waived, increase traffic as nothing that far from seattle will ever be car independent, and hurt affordability given the typical cheap home next to a road that sells cheaper due to noise, will be come a luxury mega tower that first time homebuyers will never buy. Not to mention, as we see from school closures, towers = less families with kids which leads to bad schools for everybody, causing people to move farther away and for more single family housing to be developed and compounding urban sprawl.

    this bill is as misguided as it gets. typical

  2. Meanwhile, ST has postponed its ST3 parking due to fiscal constraints. Instead, ST should cancel its ST3 parking. The land next to frequent transit should have dense housing not car storage; the transit funds should be used to provide shorter headway and waits and not to build garages.

  3. This story reads like a horror show. Bill passes the stricter Senate with support from both parties only to go to the House and get butchered for no reason. That lame-o excuse by storm Peterson is beyond feeble. Can see why the distance from the transit locations were reduced, .75 of a mile is like 10 blocks both directions, .5 is 6 blocks, .25 is 3, etc. Think starting on the street where the transit runs and maybe a block or two each direction would be a good beginning and then move steadily into the SFR a block or two every five years or so. If you increased the requirement of the bus trips be it # per hour or # of hours running that would reduce the scope to only the most busy and suitable locations. But the killer is the total banning of frequent local bus service housing!!. News flash, people want to live in the city where jobs and culture are. Being marooned on the outskirts of town blows. Who made the call to sabotage this thing so brutality? Just Storm? We here in Seattle got the shaft once again.

  4. Fools in Olympia not listening, as usual. Hopeless feeling to see the distance shrink and shrink and then do away. No real explaination just some bunk claim by that Peterson guy that the bill was scary. What a joke…on us. New blood needed badly in Gov. These bozos just don’t get it.

  5. Copy of my email sent to Olympia. Please do the same!


    What are you thinking taking out the frequent bus service locations from this law? That makes absolutely no sense and ruins this whole deal. Can see how the half mile radius idea freaked out some hayseed towns but a quarter mile is 3 blocks, an 1/8th a block+…not that much.

    How about you allow apartments just on the actual streets with the 4 bus trips per hour for 10 hours? Those streets are no way single family and this would not impact the NIMBYS a street or three away. Face it, if dozens if not hundreds of busses pass by your house everyday you are not living in a single family zoned location. Fix this please!!

    James Dunbar
    RESPONSE: You have requested a response from Sen. Noel Frame, Rep. Julia Reed, Rep. Liz Berry

    1. Sent an email to our reps and Senator (she did a good job and the House ruined it) giving link to this story and my opinion on their betrayal of their constituents. Hope they read it and maybe these comments. Hopefully they are not living in too much of a bubble because what they are doing is not what the people want. How a clean bill that even the hard to convince republicans agree to gets mutilated is mind blowing.

  6. LOL transit oriented development but not transit in the cities where people work and want to be. Laughable if it wasn’t such stupid planning. Let’s give people no choice but to live where the only thing there is a train. Great planning guess we know the Marty Kaplan NIMBYS still run Seattle and want their worker bees living far away so as not to encounter them except when they are making them a coffee or stocking groceries. What a bunch of hypocritical, elitist, snobs. Way to go Rep Reed.

  7. So a Rep (Peterson) from the same town as the sponsor (Liias) of the bill destroys it? What is hard to grasp is that the thing they removed really only impacts Seattle and what they kept mostly impacts them. Claiming they are worried about growth then keeping light rail stations and rapid bus lines doesn’t make any sense. Those things are located away from the core of Seattle for people to get to work in Seattle. Rapid bus lines collect people in Edmonds, etc. and take the freeway down. So where do the units in Seattle go? Under the freeway? Plus the criteria for what a frequent bus stop is hardly ever happens in those towns because its a morning trip down, evening back and nothing in between thus failing the 4 per hour for 10 hours requirement. Something stinks cause there are no frequent bus service stops in those towns and if they somehow are they are only on highway 99 which is already zoned for that. Just sticking it to Seattle, plain and simple

  8. Everyone needs to tell those fools in the House to put back in the frequent bus stop part. That is where the housing must go, especially in the large cities. To put these apartments only where express busses and trains go is ignoring where the people are and where they want to be. No offence but living in some tower by a rail station or park & ride is just ghetto. Maybe that is the point of this.

    JT Parker

  9. Cannot process the why of removing the frequent transit stops category. Seems in city apartments on or near bus service routes is exactly what people want and what we need. People want to live in the city not in the shadow of isolated light rail stations. Seems Olympia want the worker drones living on the outskirts of Seattle where they take the train to and from the city to toil while their betters keep their suburbia in the city scam going. What a waste.

    1. This whole process stinks. Grab headlines and look like they are doing something but chicken out at the end. In essence they are allowing apartments around park and rides, express busses and light rail. Do any of those run within Seattle? Just a ploy to place those sleazy apodment prisions on the outskirts of Seattle where no one wants to be and do nothing where it is needed most, actually in Seattle. And that stupid 1110 bill will do nothing for affordability. A four-plex or a backyard cottage? Give me a break, expensive. Apartments bring costs down, nothing else does. Idiots in Olympia.

      1. Senate approved that 1110 Developer give-away today. Expensive townhouses but no apartments. 5466 will go down either tomorrow if House fails to pass it or later when Senate rejects their changes. Of course the one with affordable housing with apartments goes down and the one for rich tech people passes. Who run Barter Town? Amazon run Barter Town…do not forget.

  10. It is insane that the House removed the Frequent Bus service category. Reduced from .75 of a mile to .5 then .25 then .125 with a change of the definition (4 per hour instead of 3) and then totally removed. Seems the new red-lining is apartments allowed only next to light rail stations and the 15 minute City forgotten. How you can remove the most vital part of this is unbelievable! The Senate Bill has overwhelming Bi-partisan support but these clowns in the House butcher it. Disgusting.

    Brent Silver

    Seattle Urbanism Alliance

    1. What is jaw dropping about the destruction of this bill is that the Frequent Bus Service impacts Seattle more than 3x all the other cities combined. To let some hick town kill the 15 minute city for Seattle for something that won’t even happen in their one stop-light town makes no sense. If they allowed apartments ON the streets the Frequent Buses run that would be huge and create 1000s of units. Even the bus change from 3 per hour to 4 is not that big of a deal. But to disallow completely?

      Always thought NIMBY was in your own backyard but these are towns that this will not have this happen to denying Seattle desperately needed housing. Guess the House is now: Not In Your Back Yard. NIYBY

      To still call this a Transit Oriented Development Bill without the Frequent Bus Service locations is a pathetic joke.

    2. the distances were too far from the station and too far from the main labor centers. For example, why do you need to allow 8 story towers in Mukilteo just because you can take the bus to seattle (well 2-3 buses anyway). That makes no sense: density along corridors that are so far from population centers just becuse there is a bus isn’t the solution and isn’t something that the public will get behind. Ultimately the public called ther representatives (remember, we can vote them out) and told them to keep policies like these near seattle, but not in areas that will never be car independent due to the fact this isn’t Manhattan and you don’t need to build monstrous apartment towers next to old grandma’s sunset home that is a good 1hr away by car or bus from seattle. Enough is enough with these nut policies.

      1. To begin with, Cities that do not have the required bus service (4 times an hour for 10 hours) do not qualify. Your example no doubt would not meet the 10 hour part. Also the requirement of number of trips per hour and how many hours could be increased to further make this impact Seattle almost only. (Maybe 6 per hour, 12 hours per day?)

        The part that is troubling are the housing requirements for express busses. Those would horribly impact suburbs, exurbs, etc. as there is not the frequency requirement and those busses by definition run from smaller areas to the work centers. Poor planning by Olympia. 8 storey towers are a terrible fit outside of the major population/job centers.

        They got this completely reversed. The density should go where the transit is running frequently not in the suburbs where people are taking transit to the City only because they work there and do not live there, for whatever reason.

        They tried to fit everyone into the same box but left out the one thing that would have prioritized Seattle and spared the rest: Frequent Bus Service. It just doesn’t run often enough outside Seattle to trigger the apartment buildings for the outlying areas. The ham-handed express bus stuff was just stupid, the light rail station stuff was OK as those are located away from residential neighborhoods.

  11. Apparently the only time that most Republicans (and shamefully, some Dems) care about truly affordable housing is when they can use that empty promise in order to gut bills that could have broken the locks of SF zoning. What hypocrisy.

    1. Plenty of shame to go around and not one grain of courage. How that Dem from Edmonds could knife Seattle in the back and ruin his Senators bill in one swoop is revolting.

    2. Did you see the pathetic effort by Rep Reed to appear to be doing something but really accomplish nothing? Has some lame fix for this garbage House version but still leaves out frequent bus service, so what is the point? Just use the Senate version already you idiots.

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