Within the next decade, Washington is expected to grow by nearly 1 million people. We are already in the midst of a housing shortage with no end in sight. We need a unified vision for housing that ensures all Washingtonians have a home they can afford.
Yet special interests in cities across Washington are road-blocking construction of the homes we need now. Even when cities want to expand their housing stock, the pace of progress does not match the demand before us.
For example, over the past four years, one neighborhood group has forced the city of Seattle to pay for exhaustive studies and costly legal battles simply over easing restrictions on property owners who want to build backyard cottages and mother-in-law suites.
Four years is too long. We need solutions now.
Though the two of us sit on opposite sides of the aisle, we teamed up in Olympia this past legislative session to co-sponsor HB 1797, to encourage cities and counties to adopt ordinances, development and zoning regulations that authorize creating accessory dwelling units within designed urban growth areas. Sprinkling cottages, mother-in-law suites and basement apartments across existing neighborhoods will create additional housing throughout our cities without changing the look and feel of those communities, or dipping into the public purse.
These accessory dwelling units are ideal homes for students living on tight budgets, young couples starting out and seniors looking to age in the communities they love. In addition, the rental income ADUs generate can help homeowners keep up with their own housing costs.
Where ADUs are legal in most Washington cities, local codes often place onerous restrictions on construction. As a result, there is a demand for ADUs, made obvious in the few cities that have been able to loosen bureaucratic restrictions.
After Bellingham permitted backyard cottages and reduced parking requirements in 2018, ADU permit applications quadrupled. Since Renton halved its ADU fees in 2017, there has been steady growth in construction applications for these small apartments. In 2017, Vancouver removed the requirement that a homeowner with an ADU live on site — a requirement not placed on any other housing type. Since then, applications have risen from one in 2016 to 45 in 2018.
Within any single city, this housing growth may go nearly unnoticed, but taken together across the state, these cottages and basement apartments can make a difference for renters and, in some cases, even prevent homelessness.
The demand for ADUs is no surprise. Today, many of the neighborhoods with the best access to schools and parks come with a steep price of admission: purchasing an expensive single-family house. It’s a financial barrier to entry that serves to keep some people out. ADUs offer an easy way to add housing to established neighborhoods, creating opportunities for individuals and families from across the income spectrum to access these new housing options.
These small homes also make clear the connection between housing and our environment. As we stare down the reality of a rapidly changing climate, we need to take advantage of existing infrastructure via infill housing to prevent further sprawl, and protectfarms and forests. Backyard cottages do this by fitting seamlessly into existing neighborhoods.
We cannot wait for each city to fight its own multiyear battle with opposing neighborhood groups for this housing solution. It’s time to recognize that land-use decisions extend beyond any single city’s limits and affect us all.
Even though our bill did not make it to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk this session, it sparked a rich debate on both sides of the aisle about how our state will respond to growth. We plan to bring both the bill, and this vital conversation, back next session to ensure everyone has a safe place to call home.