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.