By Ryan Packer
House Bill 1110, which allows new multifamily housing near transit stops, will impact residential neighborhoods in cities of all sizes across Washington state.
But some of the biggest changes will be in Seattle. The legislation, which passed last week, ties density to public transit infrastructure, allowing significantly more density—up to six units per lot—in areas near frequent transit stops.
The bill requires larger cities, including Seattle, to allow four residential units on every lot, and to allow six units on lots within a quarter-mile walking distance of bus rapid transit, light rail, and streetcar stops.
That means that in significant segments of Queen Anne, Madrona, Wallingford, and Mount Baker, where property owners are currently limited to building two accessory dwelling units—like a basement apartment and a backyard cottage—courtyard apartments, six-unit apartment buildings, and townhouses will now be legal.
Seattle’s lobbyists quietly worked to support bills like HB 1110 throughout the session, while trying to make sure they wouldn’t interfere with the city’s own density laws, such as Mandatory Housing Affordability; MHA requires developers to provide affordable housing or contribute to an affordable housing fee when building in the cities’ designated “urban villages.”
“It’s still Seattle and there’s still a process that we still have to go through, but I do think by having these frameworks in place now, it’s going to be able to help accelerate some of the development that we need, and have needed for a long time.”—Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34)
“I think it’s going to have a huge impact on Seattle,” Senator Joe Nguyen (D-34), whose district includes Pioneer Square, West Seattle, and Burien, said.
“Obviously, I don’t think it will be perfect, because it’s still Seattle and there’s still a process that we still have to go through, but I do think by having these frameworks in place now, it’s going to be able to help accelerate some of the development that we need, and have needed for a long time,” he said.
The legislature also made some significant changes to how the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) affects individual housing projects. Currently, as part of the official SEPA review process, anyone can appeal a proposed housing project over its potential impacts, such as loss of views, increased noise, or traffic. These delays can add months or years to project timelines, even if they’re ultimately dismissed. A group called Save Madison Valley, for example, appealed a proposed mixed housing and retail development featuring a PCC in both 2018 and 2020, delaying the project.
Senate Bill 5412, sponsored by Senator Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline), will limit those appeals. Under the adopted bill, if a proposed housing project complies with a city’s existing comprehensive plan, it will be categorically exempt from SEPA review, eliminating the lengthy appeal process that’s now common for developments that are controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with local environmental law.
The final version of the bill includes a provision that allows projects in Seattle to take advantage of it before other cities in Washington.
“A lot of the costs that are associated with delay and with litigation get passed on in the high cost of housing,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said. “Ultimately as consumers we pay for all the lawyers that interject into these processes along the way.”
“We can legalize increased density, but it’s not going to come very quickly if you keep in place a lot of the tactics and methods that people use to slow it down or to whittle the ambition of the projects down,” he said.
“The debate [now] really is about how we can be thinking about new nodes of development, or new corridors where denser development will happen. How are we thinking about integrating things like corner stores, or other basic or essential services, into those neighborhoods?”—Futurewise Executive Director Alex Brennan
Lewis says intense environmental review of dense housing in the middle of cities is counterproductive and notes that dense housing provides an environmental benefit in its own right. “In the aggregate, it has a colossal environmental benefit. If we are unable to build a significant amount of new housing units in the City of Seattle, in an efficient amount of time, we’re just going to have compounding challenges relating to climate.”
A spokesman for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections said it was too early to say how the new batch of housing legislation would impact SDCI’s work.
The collective impact of changes to statewide zoning will impact Seattle’s comprehensive plan update, due in 2024, as city planners grapple with how to accommodate at least 112,000 new units of housing—Seattle’s share of King County’s growth target—over the next two decades. The zoning provisions in HB 1110 automatically take effect six months after that update to the comprehensive plan.
Alex Brennan, the director of Futurewise, a statewide smart growth advocacy group, says allowing four housing units per lot increases Seattle’s options for future growth. “We don’t have to fight for that baseline anymore,” he said. “So, the debate really is about how we can be thinking about new nodes of development, or new corridors where denser development will happen. How are we thinking about integrating things like corner stores, or other basic or essential services, into those neighborhoods?”