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.