For the past three decades the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) has directed new development into cities, conserved rural, farm and forest lands and protected ecosystems. However, the GMA was not designed to meet the urgent challenges of this decade — climate change, unaffordable housing and racial injustice.
A 2019 report to the Legislature, The Road Map to Washington’s Future, recognized that transformational reforms to the GMA are needed in order to meaningfully attack these multiple and compounding crises. The Road Map report called for adaptive planning at a regional scale — an approach to tailor requirements and resources to the different circumstances and needs of Washington’s diverse regions.
For example, King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties together constitute a metropolitan region quite distinct from the rest of the state. In less than 10% of the state’s land area, this region houses 57% of its population, 82 cities and six tribal nations. By 2050 its 4.3 million population is forecast to surge with an additional 1.5 million residents. That is 10 times Bellevue’s present population. The sheer magnitude of coming growth underscores the need for legislative action in the 2022 session.
Being considered this session are GMA bills which would require city and county comprehensive plans to address climate change, promote racial justice and inclusion, and increase housing supply and choice. Gov. Jay Inslee’s request bill on “middle housing” would advance all three of these priorities. That bill would enable low-rise housing like duplexes, triplexes, quads, stacked flats, courtyard cottages and town houses in many neighborhoods that now allow only detached houses. The bill scales its requirements to cities of different sizes, provides for context sensitive design standards, and addresses infrastructure deficiencies and potential displacement.
Middle housing is not a new idea. It was common in American neighborhoods for most of the last century. Well-established and thriving neighborhoods with a mix of detached and middle housing have existed for years in Bothell, Kirkland, Olympia and Wenatchee. All four cities have recently adopted middle housing friendly zoning code amendments to increase housing choice while protecting neighborhood scale and character with well-illustrated design standards.
Since the 1950s, most cities have banished shared-wall housing to high-density apartment zones. Such exclusionary zoning does not serve to separate incompatible uses. Rather, it serves to separate people — namely, those who can afford the increasingly prohibitive cost of a detached house from those who cannot. Jenny Schuetz, a housing economist at the Brookings Institution, observed, “When you exclude people based on income, you are also excluding people based on race. That may not be the intent, but that’s the effect.”
Three quarters of this region’s workers cannot afford the purchase price of a house here, which compels many of them to commute from outside the region. This has a significant climate impact because transportation accounts for half of all greenhouse gas emissions here. The Puget Sound Regional Council’s Housing Strategy recognizes that middle housing would expand choices close to transit, jobs and services. Because low-density single-family zones consume well over half of the land area of the region’s cities, even modest middle housing infill could add tens of thousands of new homes to the supply.
We stand at a key fork in the road to the future. To hunker down, perpetuate narrow self-interest over the common good and defer hard choices continues on a descending road to ruin. Now is the time to look honestly at the alarming and complex big picture and accept that big problems require bold solutions. The 2022 session is when the Legislature must act to put our state, and this region, on the road to a more sustainable, climate resilient and equitable future.