By Ryan Packer
At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, house housing committee chair Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds) predicted that 2023 would be the “year of housing.” But legislation to allow more housing statewide ended up being far more modest than many housing proponents hoped.
The state senate approved a bill on Tuesday that will require most cities in the state to allow at least two units on all residential lots, effectively prohibiting most cities from banning duplexes in single-family areas. Despite significant pushback from local officials wary of losing control over land use, HB 1110, which passed the House on March 6, has now passed both chambers on wide, bipartisan margins, and is moving toward Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.
“It’s a huge and fundamental change in land use policy in Washington State to create a statewide floor of zoning based on population size of the city,” Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia), the bill’s sponsor, told PubliCola. “And there has historically been a significant amount of opposition to making that change.”
However, the senate dramatically scaled back the bill. As introduced, the legislation would have required nearly all cities in the state, regardless of population, to allow four units per lot, and six units per lot close to frequent public transit. Lawmakers reduced the bill’s scope at nearly every stage of the legislative process; the final Senate bill only required four units per lot in cities with more than 75,000 people, like Seattle, Bellevue, or Auburn.
“We did do away with exclusionary [single-family-only] zoning in the state of Washington, and I’m very proud of that. I think there’s some of us that recognize this was a huge first step, and we would like more steps to follow.”—Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma)
Currently, Seattle allows a total of three units per lot in its neighborhood residential areas—a single-family house plus one detached and one attached accessory unit—so allowing freestanding buildings with four, and potentially six, units could eventually increase density substantially in formerly exclusive single-family areas.
The legislation would allow up to six units in areas where fourplexes are legal as long as two units are affordable housing. In smaller cities, the bill would allow less density on a sliding scale, based on the size of the city; cities under 25,000, like Woodinville and Medina, will only have to allow two units per lot, regardless of proximity to transit or whether the housing is affordable.
The changes were substantive enough that the Association of Washington Cities, the influential lobbying group representing a broad swath of local city governments, had dropped its opposition to the bill by the time it got to the senate floor. For most of this session, the group took a neutral position in the hopes of scaling back the density requirements in the bill.
“I would have liked a stronger bill, in an ideal world,” Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), who shepherded the bill on the senate side, told PubliCola. “We did do away with exclusionary [single-family-only] zoning in the state of Washington, and I’m very proud of that,” she said. Trudeau noted that this likely won’t be the last time the legislature tries to implement statewide zoning reform. “I think there’s some of us that recognize this was a huge first step, and we would like more steps to follow.”
Only two senate Democrats voted against HB 1110—Bob Hasegawa (D-11,, Seattle), and Christine Rolfes (D-23, Bainbridge Island)—along with 12 Republicans. Some Democrats like Lisa Wellman (D-41, Mercer Island) faced intense pressure to oppose the bill from local elected officials in places like Beaux Arts Village, population 315. “We have a problem, [and] we are addressing it in a very thoughtful way that allows for a lot of individual adjustments on the part of each and every community, regardless of their size,” Wellman said on the senate floor before the vote.
HB 1110 was a centerpiece in the housing supply agenda this year, but now that legislators have slimmed it down, another bill—HB 1337—might have a bigger impact on Washington’s smaller cities. While HB 1110 allows duplexes, 1337 allows property owners to build at least two accessory dwelling units (ADUs), allowing three units per lot, much as Seattle does now. And it applies to unincorporated areas, like White Center and Silverdale, which HB 1110 does not.
Another substantial pro-housing bill that would have required cities to allow larger apartment buildings near transit, SB 5466, won’t advance any further this year after it failed to get a floor vote in the house on Wednesday. Just a few weeks ago, that bill looked like it might advance over HB 1110, with some legislators and local leaders voicing support for density near transit over broad changes to residential neighborhoods.
But after Democrats in the House housing committee revamped SB 5466 to require developers to set aside 20 percent of units for affordable housing, the bill lost most of its Republican support. The bill will probably return next year, but the issue of mandating affordability for developments in individual cities—a dicey proposition at a statewide level—will almost certain remain fraught.