Cities across the state are currently updating their comprehensive plans, determining where and how housing, transportation and infrastructure will be built.
But while local governments are encouraging residents to participate, a parallel move is under way to preempt local zoning in the Legislature. If a heavy-handed approach wins the day in Olympia, all the citizen involvement may come to naught.
Instead, legislators should follow the path for more housing laid out by the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), which is attempting to find the right balance between statewide housing priorities and local control.
Earlier this year, a bill that would have overturned local zoning and created more so-called “middle housing,” ranging from duplexes to six-plexes, died in the Legislature.
In a Dec. 5 news conference, Gov. Jay Inslee signaled his intention to bring it back.
“We need some legislative action so we can build more housing,” he said. “And one of the solutions to that is to open up more land that is currently wired off, barbed wired off. You can’t build housing because of our antiquated zoning. So we will be asking legislators again to make more land available so people can have more housing.”
The political pressure to circumvent the comprehensive plan process in favor of statewide dictates is growing. House Democrats recently bounced Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, from chairing the Local Government Committee. Pollet advocated that increased growth take into account local infrastructure and affordability.
An initial plan floated by housing advocates calls for all cities above 6,000 population to allow a minimum of four units per lot in all residential zones, and a minimum of six units within a half-mile of a major transit stop — basically all of Seattle.
Under the proposal, it is unclear whether state laws would overrule local affordability and anti-displacement efforts. That could drive out lower-income residents and seniors while enriching developers.
Meanwhile, Mayor Bruce Harrell kicked off his One Seattle Plan to gather community input on the comprehensive plan updates.
“The One Seattle Plan will be guided by local input and consider existing conditions in our city, which do vary from neighborhood to neighborhood,” said Jason Kelly, spokesperson for the Office of Planning and Community Development. “Mayor Harrell and the Council have also expressed their commitment to anti-displacement measures as we pursue the comprehensive plan update.”
How cities determine if and where they will grow is at the heart of the middle housing debate, said Carl Schroeder of the AWC, which represents Washington’s cities and towns.
The AWC’s plan focuses on areas of common agreement. It calls for no maximum density limits within a half-mile of light rail or bus rapid transit, if 20% of the units are affordable. For cities over 20,000 population, local authorities must allow at least three units per lot within a quarter-mile of schools and parks. It would direct state money to improving water lines and other needed infrastructure, and focus on affordable rentals and homeownership.
Advocates who call for the most aggressive state preemption of local zoning laws are loath to add any affordability requirements. This should ring alarm bells. A 2019 King County study determined the number of rental homes affordable to low and moderate income families decreased by 36,000 over 10 years even as the overall number of homes increased by 88,000.
State and local officials have an opportunity to provide badly needed housing. If the comprehensive plan process is to gather meaningful public input, legislators should empower local governments to expand housing in ways that work for their communities, with affordability and anti-displacement measures top of the list.
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