Category: legislature

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.”

Qualified Immunity Bill Passes Key Hurdle as Other Criminal Justice Reforms Stall Out

By Andrew Engelson

Several criminal justice reform measures moved past last Friday’s deadline for bills to pass out of their committees of origin, including a bill sponsored by Rep. My-Linh Thai (D–41, Bellevue) that would give victims of unlawful police actions the right to sue for damages.

In Washington, and nearly every other state, “qualified immunity” is a doctrine established by the US Supreme Court that protects law enforcement officers from most civil misconduct lawsuits unless a person can prove that a previous case with very similar circumstances resulted in an officer or agency being held accountable. (Qualified immunity does not apply to use of excessive force.) In the past two legislative sessions, Rep. Thai introduced similar bills that would eliminate qualified immunity, but both failed to pass. 

This time around, Thai’s bill no longer includes provisions giving the state attorney general’s office power to investigate and bring cases against police officers or law enforcement agencies for violating a person’s constitutional rights. As a result, it might have a better chance passing the House. (A separate bill, also sponsored by Thai, would give the attorney general the authority to investigate and sue law enforcement and corrections agencies.)

Thai’s bill could face a tougher road in the Senate, where police unions, local law enforcement agencies and the Association of Washington Cities have wielded considerable clout opposing similar bills in the past. Thirty-five states have tried and failed to eliminate qualified immunity since the protests over the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and only Colorado succeeded passing a law in 2020 that allows victims of misconduct to sue law enforcement agencies.

“Without accountability, there cannot be true justice,” Thai said in a press release. “This bill provides avenues to justice for victims of police misconduct. By holding municipalities accountable when their employees violate a resident’s state constitutional rights, I hope we can encourage them to properly train, support, and discipline their police forces.”

Candice Bock, a spokesperson for the Association of Washington cities, said the organization still opposed to Rep. Thai’s bill. “Our concern is that it’s not going to really lead to greater accountability – which I know is what the proponents hoped for,” Bock said. “It’s going to result in an increase in claims and litigation costs, and cities settling those claims because the litigation costs are too expensive.”

Two other bills to reform the state’s juvenile justice system made it out of their committees last week. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), would raise the minimum age for a child to be prosecuted in juvenile court from 8 years old to 13. The other, sponsored by Rep. David Hackney (D-11, Tukwila), would reform the state’s criminal sentencing system so that juvenile convictions no longer lead to longer sentences for crimes people commit as adults.

Bills that failed to make the deadline included one that would have prevented evidence gathered during police misconduct from being admissible in court, another that would have limited the use of solitary confinement, and one that would have allowed judges to consider releasing people who are serving long sentences for crimes they committed before the age of 25. 

Bill to Allow More Police Pursuits Would Sunset in 2025

By Ryan Packer

Two years ago, as part of a slate of police reform bills, state legislators passed a law barring police officers from pursuing people who fail to pull over when an officer directs them to do so. The only exceptions were if the officer had probable cause to believe the person had committed a violent or sexual crime, or when the officer had reasonable suspicion—a lower standard—to believe they were driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

On Thursday, the House’s House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee advanced an amended version of House Bill 1363, which would allow pursuits under the lower reasonable suspicion standard for a broad number of offenses, including any violent offense, but would not allow police pursuits for any non-violent property crimes. Organizations like the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs have blamed the change in the law has been blamed for a spike in property thefts statewide, particularly stolen vehicles. Law enforcement agencies across the state had been putting their weight behind the original version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Alicia Rule (D-42, Blaine), that would have allowed pursuits for all criminal offenses. 

Committee chair Roger Goodman (D-45, Redmond) put forward the new version of the bill, which he said is intended to “limit the scope of this bill, but also to keep the conversation going.” The bill includes a 2025 expiration date; if the legislature doesn’t adopt new pursuit rules before then, the rules for pursuits would automatically revert to the 2021 law. 

Only one member of the committee, Rep. Darya Farivar (D-46, Seattle), voted against advancing HB 1363, saying she wants to make long-term changes to the current law this year. While 1363 moves forward on the House side, Democrats in the state senate are advancing a proposal to take a broader look at pursuits.

“I’ve never seen, in my 31 years of law enforcement, the state and the condition of our state when it comes to open lawlessness and complete disregard for our laws that keep the community safe.”—Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla

When they passed police pursuit law in 2021 reform, legislators said they wanted to reduce the number of high-speed police pursuits because of the risk they posed to the public, including pedestrians. According to an analysis by retired University of Washington researcher Dr. Martina Morris, just three people (all bystanders) have been killed as the result of police pursuits since the new law went into effect in July 2021, compared to nine in a comparable period immediately pre-reform.

Advocates for changing the law, including multiple mayors (though not Bruce Harrell), the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the new law resulted in significant numbers of people taking advantage of it to flee police.

Many cities (though not Seattle) included the issue at the top of their official legislative agenda for 2023. “In 2021, AWC was an engaged supporter on many of the police reforms that the Legislature adopted, but we understand that law enforcement is complex and that sometimes legislation needs revising when the impacts become clearer,” the AWC more than 200 local elected officials said in a letter to legislators this week. ”In the case of the limits adopted on police pursuits, we think revisions are necessary to improve public safety outcomes in our communities.”

“I’ve never seen, in my 31 years of law enforcement, the state and the condition of our state when it comes to open lawlessness and complete disregard for our laws that keep the community safe,” Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla told the House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry committee last month.

Police accountability advocates argue that rolling back the law would erase progress toward reform. “From our view, we’ve got something that’s working. It’s not fun, it’s not comfortable, we have a lot of work to do as a society to figure this stuff out. This bill absolutely does not represent what that positive change and momentum needs to be,” Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane NAACP speaking on behalf of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, told that committee.

Morris’ analysis found that the law has been effective. (An earlier version of the analysis included two deaths caused by a driver who believed he was being pursued. Morris removed that incident during a review of all the pursuit incidents after its inclusion was questioned.)

“Estimates are that on the order of 30 percent of all pursuits end in an accident. When I’m talking about the fatalities, these were the key thing we were interested in, but it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of the damage that’s caused by pursuits.”—Retired UW researcher Dr. Martina Morris

Morris told PubliCola the benefits of reducing police pursuits go beyond lives saved. “There are public safety risks from pursuits. Fatalities are just one of the parts of the collateral damage with these vehicle pursuits,” she said. “There are also injuries, property damage, and estimates are that on the order of 30 percent of all pursuits end in an accident. When I’m talking about the fatalities, these were the key thing we were interested in, but it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of the damage that’s caused by pursuits.”

The data primarily comes from the website, a database created by researchers at the University of Southern California to track all types of deaths occurring nationwide where police officers are involved. Individual police departments are not required to provide information on these events on their own, so the information has to be obtained through media reports.

An alternative to HB 1363 is currently working its way through the state senate. Senate Bill 5533, sponsored by former Washington State Trooper John Lovick (D-44, Lake Stevens) would keep current state law in place until 2024 while a work group within the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, comes up with a model pursuit policy for the state to adopt, and do so by fall of 2024. This proposed model policy would outline exactly when police should be able to pursue suspects, and would be created in coordination with representatives of the state’s law enforcement groups.

Any model policy would likely only be binding on police departments who wanted to adopt a more loose pursuit policy; cities like Seattle, which had more stringent requirements on when officers could pursue, would be able to leave those policies in place, leaving open the possibility that some departments could decide to stick with current state law.

But the bill creating a model policy has come under fire by some Republicans, like Sen. John Braun (R-20, Centralia) who said it would be “letting legislative Democrats off the hook” in an op-ed in the Seattle Times last week. Braun is pushing for an immediate fix.

But waiting would also provide additional time for Washington to see how the current law is impacting public safety— whether Dr. Morris’s conclusions continue to bear out. “I can’t create more time for this law to have been in place,” she said of the relatively small sample size at the heart of her study. “But the legislature can.”


Seeking Compromise, Lawmakers May Preserve Local Parking Mandates in This Year’s Pro-Housing Bills

Photo of empty parking garage
Mandatory parking often sits empty, especially in dense neighborhoods near transit stops. Photo credit: Enoch Leung from Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ryan Packer

Democrats in Olympia are making good on their pledge to remove local regulatory barriers to housing by proposing bills that would require cities and towns to permit diverse types of new housing. Many of these bills are being passed over the objections of local elected officials, who are wary of changes in state law that take away their authority to maintain status-quo land use policies.

But while lawmakers seem willing to go against the recommendations of some cities when it comes to density limits, they seem more hesitant about getting rid of local parking requirements. Parking requirements add costs to new housing—garages aren’t cheap to build—and are often unnecessary as cities become denser and easier to navigate without a car. Cities across Washington currently require a certain number of parking spaces for each new housing unit they permit, though Seattle has removed that requirement for buildings close to transit lines.

Many of the bills proposed this session remove or reduce minimum parking requirements in order to reduce construction costs. But those provisions are now proving to be a sticking point for both parties.

Rep. Julia Reed (D-36, Seattle) is leading the charge to eliminate parking minimums, particularly in areas that are close to transit. “A lot of these parking minimum laws that are in place from cities and counties, they were created a while ago and they’re not really revisited that often,” Reed said. “It’s not tied to how people really move around that neighborhood, it’s tied to an assumption that parking is needed.” Reed cited the high cost of parking spaces in new buildings: $50,000 or more per spot.

Reed’s House Bill 1351 would prohibit cities from requiring parking in new buildings within a half-mile of frequent transit lines, and within a quarter-mile of half-hourly bus service. But by the time that bill passed the house local government committee this week, the restriction only applied to areas within a quarter-mile of any level of transit service. And even that major change wasn’t enough to get any Republicans in the committee to vote for it, in a year when Democrats are counting on some Republican votes to get their housing votes across the finish line.

The state senate is where that support might matter the most. When the bill’s senate counterpart received a hearing earlier this month, it was a Democrat, Sen Claudia Kauffman (D-47, Kent), who expressed concerns with how this would impact downtown Kent, where street parking is generally free. “If you start reducing [required parking] because of the transit center, it’s going to reduce people’s ability to have their car. … For me, this doesn’t work within the transit system that we have,” Kauffman said. “In my area this just wouldn’t work.”

Many of this year’s senate housing bills would also reduce or remove parking minimums. Senator Marko Liias’ (D-21, Edmonds) Senate Bill 5466 would require cities to allow substantially denser developments around transit stations, and would ban parking minimums within three-quarters of a mile of any major transit stop.

“It doesn’t make sense, when we’re saying [that] in a transit zone, the way we want people to move is by transit, to also require and guarantee that you can get to those destinations by car,” Liias said at the bill’s first public hearing. “Overlaying the two creates really incompatible and inefficient land uses. … When we require parking minimums, that’s when we get empty parking lots right next to light rail stations.”

Under the new version of the bills allowing more apartments near transit, a potential fourplex just outside a transit corridor would have to include  four parking spaces, which might push a homeowner or developer to consider a different type of building altogether—like a single-family home.

Housing advocates are in broad agreement that it’s essential to eliminate parking minimums as part of this year’s housing bills. “If the bill doesn’t do that, local parking mandates will force developers to build more parking than communities need, and that excess parking will undermine the state’s goals to create transit-oriented communities that give residents good alternatives to cars,” Dan Bertolet of the Sightline Institute, the Seattle-based think tank, testified at a committee hearing on SB 5466 this week. A 2021 paper by a researcher at Santa Clara University showed that when Seattle reduced required parking near transit in 2012, developers built 40 percent fewer parking spaces, translating to around 18,000 fewer stalls and over half a billion dollars in reduced housing costs.

Though it’s still early, efforts to weaken parking restrictions are already becoming a trend. This week, the house and senate housing committees approved both House Bill 1110 and its counterpart Senate Bill 5190, which require cities inside the Seattle and Spokane metro areas to allow fourplexes on all residential lots, and sixplexes close to transit. But both chambers did so only after approving a new version that allows cities to require at least one parking spot for each housing unit for areas away from transit, when the previous version only allowed them to require one spot per lot. That means a potential fourplex just outside a transit corridor would have to include four parking spaces, which might push a homeowner or developer to consider a different type of building altogether—like a single-family home.

Even as that bill passed its senate committee with his vote, one of its Republican sponsors, Sen. John Braun (R-20, Centralia), said he isn’t ready to vote “yes” when it gets to the Senate floor, suggesting there’s more bartering ahead on the Senate. A majority of Republicans in both chambers oppose the bills in the name of maintaining local control—as opposed to supporting them based on developers’ private property rights, a traditional conservative position.

With the proposals to eliminate parking minimums getting the most vocal pushback from local leaders, and many lawmakers apparently listening to those concerns, these urbanist provisions might be the first casualties as deadlines approach and leaders in both chambers look to create compromises to reach a deal.

Bills Would End Requirement that Low-Income, Disabled People Pay Back Cash Benefits

Dawnetta Sparks, who testified in Olympia last week, had to pay back more than $4,000 in state benefits when her Social Security disability came through.

By Andrew Engelson

When Dawnetta Sparks, who lives in Spokane, became disabled several years ago, she qualified for Washington state’s Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash assistance program, which provides a small source of income to people who become temporarily disabled or are waiting to qualify for federal disability benefits. 

Sparks said that she waited 18 months to finally receive Social Security disability support—and then, because of a quirk in the ABD program, she had to pay the the state of Washington nearly $4,000.

“When you have a limited income and you receive your payment and you have no other income at all, you can’t afford to pay for rent or the lights or nearly anything at all,” Sparks told the House human services committee in Olympia last week, “and then the first part of your money goes to pay back the state.”

A bill introduced by Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, West Seattle) would end the requirement that ABD beneficiaries pay back their benefits.

ABD is generally considered a “bridge” benefit to hold people over while they wait to qualify for Social Security disability. If a person is approved for federal disability benefits, they eventually receive a lump sum from the federal government to pay them for benefits they did not receive while waiting. So the logic is that because Social Security pays back those missed benefits, people need to pay the ABD benefits back to the state.  But because ABD benefits are so low, people often use the lump sum payment from Social Security to pay for unmet needs or debts, such as medical bills or a rental deposit, that accumulated while they were surviving on ABD alone.

The Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash assistance program has been underfunded for more than a decade: Starting in 2011, when benefits were slashed to help address a budget shortfall, ABD participants received just $197 a month, an amount the Department of Social and Health Services finally adjusted to $417 last year.

To recoup the ABD benefits it paid while people were waiting for Social Security to come through, the state garnishes recipients’ federal disability payments—which average just $900 a month—the same way a collection agency might garnish a person’s paycheck. For people who are living life on the margins, the process of paying back ABD often becomes a time of financial insecurity.

In addition, ABD has been underfunded for more than a decade: Starting in 2011, when benefits were slashed to help address a budget shortfall, ABD participants received just $197 a month, an amount the Department of Social and Health Services finally adjusted to $417 last year.  “We know that it’s still not enough in many high-cost areas—like in my district—for people to cover their basic needs,” Alvarado said.

About 21,000 people in Washington currently receive ABD. According to figures from the Department of Social and Health Services, 57 percent of those receiving ABD have some form of mental illness, and 33 percent are homeless. Meanwhile, the average time to qualify for Social Security disability benefits has climbed to 147 days as the backlog of applications in the US has soared to more than 1 million.

ABD recipients are some of the lowest-income people in the state. “You essentially have to have almost zero or almost no income to qualify for ABD,” said Sara Robbins, a policy manager for the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, who once represented ABD recipients as an attorney. “When they got approved for Social Security,” Robbins said, “and found out that the state was taking some of their benefits to repay their back payment, it was really devastating for my clients.” 

According to Alvarado, eliminating the pay-back requirement would cost about $20 million per year, a fairly modest slice of the state budget. 

Alvarado, who’s in her first term, served as deputy director and director of Seattle’s Office of Housing. She said keenly aware of how flaws in the state’s ABD system sometimes push people into homelessness. “Every dollar in people’s pockets makes a difference to be able to help afford rent, to cover the cost of food, and to help cover basic necessities,” Alavarado said.

Those who receive ABD can also qualify for the state’s Housing and Essential Needs program (HEN), another cash benefit that helps extremely low-income people pay for rent, utilities, household items, and transportation. While HEN benefits can technically last up to 12 months, DSHS starts the clock ticking when someone applies for HEN. A bill sponsored by Sen. Claire Wilson (D-30, Auburn) would, in addition to reforming the ABD pay-back issue, also guarantee HEN benefits for a full 12 months, regardless of how long the application process takes.

Gov. Inslee’s proposed operating budget boasts about adding a permanent increase of $15 million to the HEN program, but Washington Low Income Housing Alliance noted in a press release that this is technically only a boost compared to 2019 levels. The baseline operating budget for the program is $104 million, and that jumped to $130 million in 2021– thanks to significant boosts from federal COVID-19 relief programs. 

Michele Thomas, policy director for WLIHA, noted that despite the proposed baseline increase, Inslee’s 2023-25 budget would effectively result in an $11.5 million cut to HEN from the previous biennial budget, “which could critically affect access to housing,” Thomas said. 

Legislators May Prescribe Treatment for Drug Possession; More Legislative Staffers Unionize

1. One of the biggest conflicts in this year’s legislative session will be over how to replace a temporary drug possession law passed in 2021 in response to the a decision called Blake v. State of Washington, in which the state supreme court ruled that an existing law banning drug possession was unconstitutional because it criminalized “unknowing” as well as knowing drug possession.

The interim law, which expires in July, shifted most drug possession from a class C felony to a simple misdemeanor and required police to refer people people to treatment or other services for the first two offenses. Democrats have introduced three competing replacement bills that range from increasing criminal penalties for drug possession to decriminalization.

Last week, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), who chairs the Law & Justice committee, introduced a bill that largely decriminalizes possession of “personal amounts” of drugs. The legislation leans heavily on the recommendations of the Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee (SURSAC), which was established in the interim bill and issued a report in December. The committee recommended decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs—similar to laws recently passed in Oregon and British Columbia—as well as exploring the creation of safe supply system, which would create a regulated, medical-grade supply of controlled substances to drug users. A solid body of academic research supports safe supply as a key to preventing overdose deaths.

However, Sen. Dhingra has acknowledged her bill doesn’t have the votes to pass in the Senate, telling PubliCola,  “Even if the policy [the SURSAC committee] designed doesn’t have the votes in the legislature, it’s important that their recommendations are represented in the debates as the legislature moves forward.”

Sen Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline) has introduced a bill backed by a handful of Democrats and Republicans that would re-criminalize drug possession (addressing the issue raised in Blake by adding the word “knowingly” to existing law); increase penalties for drug possession’ and mandate treatment.

But the bill that seems most likely to emerge from committee is one sponsored by Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett), which reinstates the 2021 law but encourages participation in pre-trial diversion, including treatment, as an alternative to criminal penalties. 

2. Earlier this month, the state Public Employee Relations Commission ruled that a group of deputy city clerks and strategic advisors in the city’s legislative department could join the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC17) bargaining unit, which also represents employees of the city council’s Central Staff, the city archivist, and the City Auditor.

Not everyone at the clerk’s office supported unionizing. The office is a motley group of employees who do very different kinds of jobs, under very different daily working conditions; they include IT professionals, staffers who read and decipher legislation on the fly during council meetings, and aides who deal directly with the public.

It’s unclear which issues the union will help employees of the clerk’s office tackle, but there are plenty of possibilities. Unlike employees in some city departments, many of those in the clerk’s office have had to return to (or remain at) their desks at City Hall, regardless of whether their job is public-facing or something that could be done from home. Some employees have job titles that don’t obviously correspond to their actual duties, resulting in lower pay than if they had a different job classification—a frequent complaint in many city departments. Workers with HR complaints have recourse to an ombudsperson, but their jobs are at-will and their ultimate boss is the city council president, a rotating position that’s currently filled by Debora Juarez.

Although it’s somewhat unusual for white-collar city workers, including many in highly compensated strategic advisor jobs, to unionize, there is a precedent in the legislative department: The clerk’s office is following in the footsteps the council’s central staff, who joined Protec17 in 2019.

—Andrew Engelson, Erica C. Barnett

State Proposal Would Ban Design Review—Except for Historic Buildings and Districts

Wallingford Historic District map
Under one amendment, proposals for new housing in the “Wallingford-Meridian Historic Streetcar District” would still be subject to strict aesthetic review.

By Ryan Packer

Last week, the state House housing committee approved a bill that would effectively prohibit cities, including Seattle, from subjecting housing developers to design review—a controversial process in which a group of volunteers make aesthetic judgments about, and require often minute changes to, proposed developments.

These boards can subject architectural firms to multiple rounds of tweaks, adding unpredictability to project timelines, with potential new homes frequently held up for months based on highly subjective aesthetic criteria.

The bill would upend that process. But a proposed amendment could leave a large loophole by preserving design review for projects in so-called historic districts.

House Bill 1026, introduced by Rep. Amy Walen (D-48, Kirkland), would restrict design review for proposed housing developments to “administrative” review, conducted by city staff who would would be limited to considering whether a project adheres to guidelines established by the city.

The amendment added last week by Rep. Mari Leavitt (D-28, University Place) would allow cities to keep design review boards for buildings, and entire neighborhoods, that are listed on a local, state, or national historic register.

Historic districts within the City of Seattle, like Pioneer Square, Columbia City, and the International District, have boards that review proposals to build or modify housing and other buildings in those areas. Leavitt’s amendment would not only allow this review process to continue while other design review boards elsewhere are being phased out, but expand this enhanced review process to all neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places. In Seattle, that would include neighborhoods like Montlake, Roanoke Park, and a broad swath of Wallingford, which was added to the federal register, despite significant opposition, last year. These districts include many non-historic buildings alongside arguably historic ones.

Immediately after the housing committee unanimously adopted the amendment, lawmakers started talking about walking it back. “I do have concerns. I think we can refine the language to make sure that entire neighborhoods…aren’t said to be historic for the purpose of limiting opportunities to increase housing and increase density,” Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds), who chairs the housing committee, said.

Peterson is now proposing an amendment that would only require design review for individual structures, not entire historic districts. It’s not clear how this would impact historic districts like the International District, where every structure is not a city landmark, or whether cities could skirt the restrictions by landmarking every single building in a neighborhood. Legislators will vote on that amendment on the House floor before the bill proceeds to the Senate.

Maybe Metropolis: A Tale of Two Densities

TOD in Alexandria, Virginia. Image by m01229; licensed under Creative Commons

by Josh Feit

Urbanists, YIMBYs, and transit advocates are understandably excited about the pro-housing legislation that state senate transportation committee chair Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds) has proposed this year.

Liias’ legislation would accelerate transit-oriented development—a guiding principle of progressive city planning. TOD helps create sustainable cities by siting housing, retail, and community assets like schools, childcare, green space, and artist spaces around transit hubs. Basically, the idea is: Dense, climate-friendly, urban paradigms become the best routes to equity and opportunity when life’s fundamentals are accessible without a car.

Liias’ bill, SB 5466, would encourage new growth around transit hubs by allowing mid-sized apartment buildings within three-quarters of a mile of rapid transit stops (including bus rapid transit and frequent bus service), and larger buildings within a quarter-mile of light rail stations. The pro-housing intellectuals at Sightline gushed that the legislation “would be a first for Washington, and the strongest statewide policy of its kind in North America.” Urbanists have been pushing for legislation like this since 2009, when a rookie news site called PubliCola editorialized in favor of a bill that would up-zone areas around transit stations while old-fashioned Seattle—and the Seattle Times— predictably and successfully shot it down.

Unfortunately, Liias’ exciting legislation may end up sabotaging an adjacent pro-housing bill. 

Almost 15 years on now, with a broad coalition of pro-housing advocates supporting up-zones for transit-oriented development, the chances for Liias’ bill to pass seem good. Unfortunately, Liias’ exciting legislation may end up sabotaging an adjacent pro-housing bill that we’re even more excited about this year: Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) HB 1110.

Bateman’s “middle housing” bill, which I covered last month, would allow fourplexes in residential areas of cities across the state anywhere detached single-family homes are allowed. Erica cannot stand the term “middle housing” (middle of what?), but essentially it means this: Let’s stop forgoing vast amounts of land—75 percent of the residentially zoned land in Seattle—where apartment buildings, triplexes, fourplexes, and sixplexes are currently prohibited. Bateman’s bill would allow all of these housing types, and sixplexes too within a half-mile of transit, if two of the six units are affordable.

Efforts to add multiplex and apartment housing to low-density residential zones routinely bite the dust in Seattle, where NIMBY liberals pay lip service to pro-housing efforts by deferring to Seattle’s outdated, status quo zoning, which sequesters density into designated urban villages centered on large arterial roads. This “urban-village” strategy allows advocates who oppose density in their own residential neighborhoods to pose as urbanists by supporting something they used to oppose: TOD. We’re with you, they say—of course we need housing!—but let’s not change our residential neighborhoods. Instead, let’s sequester all that multifamily housing near busy streets.

Opportunistically seizing on TOD and refashioning it as a bulwark against more density in residential neighborhoods misconstrues the whole point: TOD is meant to build multiple city centers that create a network of spoke and wheel systems citywide, not build islands of sustainability in otherwise unsustainable cities. Let’s be clear: transit nodes only make sense when they function in sync with the surrounding city infrastructure of connector bus lines and abundant housing. More to the point: Connector bus routes are not sustainable without the appropriate density in surrounding neighborhoods.

You can’t put hyper-dense transit hubs flush up against low-density neighborhoods and expect it to generate sustainability in isolation.

Keeping this broader idea of transit oriented communities front and center, pro-housing advocates should insist that Liias’ and Bateman’s bills exist as a package deal. That is: If NIMBYs start using Liias’ bill as cover to dismiss Bateman’s bill, urbanists should pull their support from Liias’ bill. And Liias should too.

“We are investing billions into new transit service,” Liias told me, “and we need to make those work. If we don’t add housing and jobs around transit, we aren’t delivering maximum value for tax payers.”

True. But we aren’t maximizing TOD if we don’t honor its internal logic. You can’t put hyper-dense transit hubs flush up against low-density neighborhoods and expect it to generate sustainability in isolation. Unfortunately, as PubliCola reported earlier this week, Liias seems to be promoting his bill by playing it against Bateman’s. Bad look. He has a chance to call the NIMBYs’ bluff by taking advantage of the consensus on TOD while supporting its corollary: Nearby neighborhoods need to scale up proportionally themselves by adding apartments.

Just as urbanized transit nodes and adjacent residential neighborhoods can work in sync to build the kind of interlocked communities cities need to achieve equity, Liias and Bateman should work in sync to neutralize opponents of new housing options. By identifying different types of increased density, their complementary bills map out gradations of development from tall buildings around light rail stations, to apartment buildings around busy bus stops, to sixplexes nearby, to fourplexes even further out.

By leveraging the universal agreement that dense transit centers are the building blocks of sustainable cities, the Liias and Bateman bills should work in tandem to plug residential neighborhoods into those transit centers.  In this tale of two densities, we have a chance to up-zone TOD into EOD—Equity-Oriented Development. It’ll be a shame if housing advocates settle for anything less.

With an Eye on Preventing Homelessness, State Dems Introduce Tenant Protection Bills 

Graph showing strong correlation between rent increases and housing instability/homelessness
Homelessness is a housing crisis: As rents go up, so does housing instability.

By Andrew Engelson

Responding to Washington’s ongoing homelessness and housing affordability crisis—more than 25,000 people across the state live without permanent housing—several Democratic state legislators have introduced bills that would protect tenants and help prevent them from becoming homeless.

Last week, Reps Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), Alex Ramel, (D-40. Bellingham), and Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds) each introduced rent stabilization bills intended to give tenants advance notice of rent increases, set limits on how much landlords can raise rent, cap move-in fees, and give the state attorney general authority to pursue violations under the Consumer Protection Act. 

Separately. Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a $4 billion referendum that would raise the state’s constitutionally mandated debt limit to fund a host of new capital housing projects over the next six years. 

Lack of housing and high rents are the primary causes of homelessness, and the state Department of Commerce estimates Washington will need more than 1 million new homes by 2044, with more than half of those affordable to people earning 50 percent or less of the median income in their area. Though the rise in rents in Seattle actually tapered off slightly in the past year, rents in other cities across the state saw significant increases, including Bellingham (5.5 percent), Kent (8.9 percent), Renton (10.1 percent), SeaTac (9.4 percent) and Spokane (5.1 percent).

Macri’s bill would limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, capped at 7 percent per year, limit total move-in fees to the equivalent of one month’s rent, and give the state attorney general new power undert to investigate and prosecute landlords that flout the new rules

Shannon Corrick, a Safeway employee who lives in Cheney, a college town south of Spokane, spoke at a press briefing for Macri and Ramel’s bills this week, noting that in 2021, her landlord raised the rent on her $995-a-month, 3-bedroom house by $300. 

“He wasn’t very nice about it,” Carrick told PubliCola. “He was like: Well, that’s what the market will bear.” Since more than half of her minimum-wage income went to paying rent, Carrick had to move to an apartment that was much smaller. “I could have swallowed maybe 5 percent or 8 percent, because I could always pick up more hours or work some overtime or volunteer to work the holidays,” but not an increase of more than 30 percent, she said.

Macri’s bill would limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, capped at 7 percent per year. The bill would exempt buildings newer than ten years old from the caps. Macri’s legislation would also limit total move-in fees to the equivalent of one month’s rent, and give the state attorney general new power under the state Consumer Protection Act to investigate and prosecute predatory landlords that flout the new rules. 

“We have to respond to people who are homeless, and we have to do all that we can to keep people who are precariously housed in their homes,” Macri said.

Ramel’s bill would also limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or inflation, capped at 7 percent, but would allow landlords to “bank” rent increases—so, for instance, an apartment owner could choose to not raise the rent by 3 percent for five years, and then raise it 15 percent in the fifth year of a renter’s tenancy.

Macri says allowing periodic larger increases would “invite more uncertainty for the tenants, but a lot less uncertainty than they have right now.” She notes that her bill also allows landlords to raise rent beyond the limits, but only if they can prove hardship or the need for large capital or repair costs. 

“Legislators like the concept of consumer protection, generally,” Macri said. “They like the framing of this as prohibiting predatory behavior.”

Peterson’s more modest bill would require landlords to give six months’ notice before any rent increase of more than 5 percent and allow tenants to terminate their leases, without penalty, at any time after learning their rent will be increasing by more than 5 percent. It would also cap late fees for rent paid more than five days after the date it’s due to $75.

A similar bill failed to pass out of committee last session. 

Peterson, who chairs the House housing committee, is optimistic about moving a host of housing reform and tenant protection legislation this year. “I think the tenor has changed,” Peterson said. “I think our caucus has changed. We have a bunch of new members that are the most diverse class that’s ever come in, and they’re extremely motivated when it comes to housing.” 

As part of this sea change, the House Democratic Caucus recently removed Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) from a leadership position he had used to block pro-housing legislation, as PubliCola reported in December.

Macri noted that city and county jurisdictions aren’t affected by her bill or Ramel’s. “We can set statewide policy on rent stabilization,” she said, “But what neither of these bills do is expand the authority for local [governments].”

Other tenant protection legislation includes a bill from Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-41, Bellevue) that would require landlords to provide evidence of damage or disrepair in order to justify not returning deposits. Another bill that Peterson is co-sponsoring would give groups of tenants or nonprofits the opportunity to purchase manufactured home communities if they’re put up for sale. Peterson he crafted the legislation inspired by three manufactured home parks owned and operated by the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.

Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union (and an occasional writer for PubliCola), says these tenant protection bills complement policies her organization and the Stay Healthy Stay Housed Coalition have been pushing in Seattle and across King County for several years, including limits on move-in fees and advance notice for rent increases.

“Macri’s bill is particularly exciting,” Wilson said, “because it deals with very large rent increases.” She noted that because state law prevents cities and counties from limiting rent increases, to have a state-level law “would be amazing.”

Macri noted that city and county jurisdictions aren’t affected by her bill or Ramel’s. “We can set statewide policy on rent stabilization,” she said, “But what neither of these bills do is expand the authority for local [governments].” Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant recently floated the idea of a local $10 cap on late fees. 

The Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, an organization representing large apartment landlords, declined to comment to PubliCola and the Rental Housing Association of Washington, which generally represents smaller, independent landlords, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sponsors of Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Emphasize Statewide Affordability Crisis

Image of a four-unit apartment building
One Salient Oversight at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ryan Packer

In response to rising housing costs and increased homelessness statewide, the state legislature is considering an unprecedented number of bills that would influence the ability of cities across the state to set local policy around housing, density, and land use. 

Among the proposals introduced so far: A bill that would eliminate most minimum parking requirements near transit stations; one cutting local design review boards out of the approval process for residential construction; one streamlining permitting; one allowing residential lots to be split into multiple lots so additional units can be built on those lots; and one reforming condominium laws. Many of these bills have already had a public hearing and are headed toward committee votes—extremely fast work compared to past years.

House Bill 1110, introduced by Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) and Rep. Andy Barkis (R-2, Olympia), is taking center stage as a retooled version of similar legislation, HB 1782, that never made it to the House floor last year. This year’s bill would require cities to legalize sixplexes within one-half mile of frequent transit. It would also allow fourplexes as a base level of density in areas in and around Seattle and Spokane, and in towns and cities with more than 6,000 residents elsewhere in the state.

This so-called “missing middle” bill would attempt to add a level of density between single family homes and large apartment buildings currently absent from many Washington cities.

Last year, opposition from the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), a lobbying group for cities, helped prevent HB 1782 and other housing bills from advancing; the group argued that zoning changes that preempted city rules would take away local control and impose “one-size-fits-all” regulations on cities across the state. In 2023, legislators hope to bypass that criticism by focusing on the impacts of high housing costs.

“I feel more confident this year because we’ve been doing a lot of coalition building and a lot of work to talk about the real causes of our housing shortage and crisis,” Bateman said. During its first hearing last week, elected officials from Olympia, Bothell, Everett, and Burien turned out to support the bill, with much less direct opposition than last year.

Supporters also say they’ve done work to broaden the coalition that supports the bill. The AWC, unlike last year, is not currently opposing HB 1110, but is pushing to water down changes to single-family zones to only include triplexes, and to not impact every lot within a city.

Another bill, introduced by Senator Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), focuses on loosening restrictions on density directly around transit stations, preserving traditional single-family zoning in wide swaths of cities across the state. That bill may prove an easier political sell compared to opening up single-family areas to increased density, particularly in the state senate, where there are fewer Republicans ready to partner on housing bills.

“As I talk to my constituents, I’ve got folks in Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mukilteo, that are really wary about missing middle [housing]” housing, Liias said, referring to moderately dense housing that’s affordable to middle-income earners. In contrast, Liias said, “when I talked about transit-oriented development, virtually everybody’s in agreement that we should be siting more housing next to transit. That’s a much more consensus perspective.”

The local control issue may still be a hurdle, though. Rep. Spencer Hutchins (R-26, Gig Harbor), who sits on the housing committee, suggested during a meeting with the Gig Harbor city council earlier this month that even if he agrees with a policy change on housing, he might still oppose it on principle. “I will be looking at things through the lens of, making sure that we are protecting the ability of our local governments to represent their local citizens well, and not have Olympia run roughshod over cities and counties,” Hutchins said.

Rep. Bateman doesn’t give a lot of credence to the local control argument. “Currently what cities are doing is, they’re limiting what private property owners can do with their property,” she said. “You don’t have the freedom to make your own decision about adapting to the market, responding to what the market need is. People want more diverse housing options.” 

This year, Democrats are trying to zoom out on the issue of housing and focusing on multiple aspects of the state’s housing crisis. The Democratic caucuses in both chambers have begun referring to three “pillars” that lawmakers will attempt to tackle around housing this session: Increasing public subsidies for affordable housing, passing tenant protections for renters, and loosening restrictions on housing supply that are limiting growth. 

The first housing “pillar” is clearly a priority for Governor Jay Inslee, who is pushing to raise the state’s debt limit to fund $4 billion in investments in housing over the next six years. That proposal, even if lawmakers approve it, would need to go to voters statewide in November, adding an extra level of uncertainty. 

The sheer number of housing bills this session  is itself a strategy to avoid a repeat of last year, when almost no housing bills made it past legislative deadlines. “It’s one thing to say that one bill can’t solve all the problems, but it’s another thing to actually have a whole bunch of other bills that are working to solve these challenging areas that make it more difficult to build housing,” Rep. Bateman said.