UPDATE | WA bill allowing duplexes, fourplexes fails to pass key deadline

Many Washington neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes could soon be open to townhomes, fourplexes and other denser types of housing, under proposals advanced by state lawmakers during the last week.

Lawmakers in the House Committee on Local Government voted Tuesday morning to advance a bill that would require many cities in the state to allow different types of housing on land currently zoned for detached single-family homes. Members of a state Senate advanced a similar, but more far-reaching, bill last week. The proposals now face more committee votes and full votes in each chamber in order to reach the governor’s desk.

The progress of the upzoning bills represents a notable shift for a policy that once seemed untouchable, especially in local politics. The proposals are gaining traction as housing prices skyrocket, inventory of homes for sale hits rock bottom and more people become aware of the history of housing segregation. In recent years, California and Oregon have passed statewide legislation to allow more density.

“There’s no end in sight for the housing crisis that we’re in. We need to be proactive and take action,” said Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, who sponsored the bill.

“We’re talking about duplexes and fourplexes,” Bateman said. “We’re not talking about apartments being legalized in single-family neighborhoods. We’re talking about modest home choices that used to be legal.”

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Advocates say “missing middle” housing allows more people to live in neighborhoods where the price of a single family home has soared far out of reach. Lawmakers have unsuccessfully attempted similar bills in recent years, but this year, Gov. Jay Inslee endorsed the effort.

Still, the changes are far from a sure thing as lawmakers wrangle concerns in a short, 60 day legislative session. 

A key group representing local governments opposes the bill, arguing zoning should remain a local decision and pointing to action cities have already taken to boost density. Seattle has so far not endorsed the bill. And not everyone believes more housing supply will do enough to address the housing crisis.

Rep. Gerry Pollet, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the House local government committee, supported scaling back the types of buildings that would be allowed and called on cities to ensure new development doesn’t displace low-income people living in newly upzoned areas.

“In 20 years, it will have some effect. Maybe in 10 years,” Pollet said. “In the meantime, you have to include strong affordability provisions.”

What the bills would do

Of the two proposals advancing through the legislature, SB 5670 and HB 1782, the Senate proposal would allow denser housing with fewer limitations.

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Both would require cities of at least 20,000 people to allow more housing types within a half mile of a major transit stop, including bus routes with weekday service every 15 minutes.

Under the Senate proposal, single-family lots in those areas would allow up to six-plexes. The House approach advanced Tuesday would allow fourplexes on single-family lots larger than 4,500 square feet.

On other single-family lots in those cities, the Senate bill would allow up to fourplexes. The House proposal would allow duplexes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) such as backyard cottages on lots larger than 4,500 square feet and triplexes on larger corner lots.

For smaller cities, with at least 10,000 people, the Senate proposal would require allowing duplexes on all lots that today allow only single-family homes. The House version would allow duplexes on lots larger than 4,500 square feet that do not already have ADUs.

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With hundreds of thousands of new housing units needed, “where are they going to go?” said Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, who sponsored the Senate proposal. 

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“They’re not all going to go in Walla Walla,” Das said. “They need to be in Kent. They need to be in Covington. They need to be in Auburn. They need to be in Renton. They need to be in Seattle. They need to be in Cashmere. They need to be in Twisp. They literally need to be in every corner of the state.”

The legislation is backed by developer and Realtor lobbyists, Habitat for Humanity and environmental groups.

The House bill requires cities to plan for the effects of density on tree canopies and open spaces, plan to make progress over 20 years toward affordable housing, and find that their policies “affirmatively prevent displacement.” The proposal would allow lower density in cities where transit frequency “is not reasonably assured.” Cities with more than 40,000 residents would have to allow subdivision of certain lots “to increase the supply” of affordable housing. 

“As you increase density, you have to do it thinking about everything else from transit to lack of schools,” Pollet said.

One key lobbying group for affordable housing, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, has not taken a position on the bills. Policy Director Michele Thomas hopes to see changes allowing denser development of subsidized apartment buildings along arterials in newly upzoned areas and allowing cities to charge a demolition fee to help fund affordable housing.

“This is a good start but to really meet the goals everyone is pointing toward you’ve really got to do more for affordable housing,” Thomas said.

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“Upzoned neighborhoods will drive the cost up, so you have to be more intentional about affordability. It doesn’t just happen,” she said. “The for-profit market does not build affordable homes.”

Effects in Seattle

Local government officials are divided on the bill. The Association of Washington Cities and mayors of cities such as Auburn and Federal Way testified against the Senate bill. Other elected officials have signed on in support, including Spokane’s City Council president, the mayor of Bothell and four of Seattle’s nine City Council members.

Mayor Bruce Harrell, who ran for mayor arguing against wholesale upzones of single-family neighborhoods, said in a statement he appreciates “the spirit and intent” of the bills, but believes “additional work must be done to craft legislation that ensures additional flexibility in housing types and allows for more substantive community input – not to delay action, but to improve outcomes.”

Development near transit should “take into account timelines and limitations of current transit expansion and cities with unique built and natural environments,” Harrell said. “Most importantly, a final bill must proactively prevent displacement.”

The city’s planning department is still reviewing how the proposals would play out in Seattle, where more than half of land, not including parks, allows only single-family homes and accessory dwelling units such as backyard cottages.  Because of frequent bus service, most Seattle neighborhoods would fall within a half mile of transit as defined in the legislation. 

The Senate legislation would not apply to areas covered by condo or homeowner association agreements, which would exempt some of Seattle’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Inslee’s office says exempting homeowner associations is necessary to avoid potential lawsuits, but declined to share details. 

If lawmakers pass the bills, it could be years before dramatic change. Many property owners won’t sell right away, and developers will still have to go through the typical process of buying land, getting permits and completing construction. 

Inslee backed the bill this year as “one part of the solution,” said John Flanagan, senior policy adviser to the governor. “But by no means is this a panacea for the homelessness and housing issue in our state. For folks who say this is going to solve everything, they’re wrong. For folks who say this isn’t going to solve anything, they’re also wrong. This solves part of the puzzle,” Flanagan said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.