Lawmakers in Olympia should not micromanage local land-use planning, especially not at the behest of Seattle developer advocates.
The state Legislature should not micromanage growth in cities, especially not in ways that destroy neighborhoods and override local land-use planning.
Yet that’s the aim of a flurry of housing-related bills in Olympia, with backing from Seattle developer advocates. They would force cities to upzone neighborhoods, eliminate public hearings on large subdivisions and override local planning decisions.
In Seattle, this would help developers angling to build apartments in single-family neighborhoods and block neighborhood groups seeking a more deliberate planning process. Other cities would see their land-use decisions dictated from Olympia and be forced to accept the sort of growth that’s choking parts of Seattle.
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Lawmakers should also be wary of Seattle-centric solutions since affordability and homelessness are really statewide challenges. Besides, Seattle’s market demand is already producing extraordinary amounts of housing while suburban areas in the region and beyond are falling farther behind in housing production.
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A leader in this crusade is state Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby. He makes good points about suburbs suffering from growth without concurrent infrastructure. But the solution is not for the Legislature to fuel bulldozers of developers salivating over Seattle neighborhoods.
Palumbo inexplicably told media outlets that his district is suffering from “Seattle not taking growth” and “Seattle not upzoning,” even though Seattle is upzoning and was the nation’s fastest growing city over the last decade.
A key opponent is the Association of Washington Cities, which contends decisions such as where and how many houses to build per acre must be made locally, where variables and local conditions can be addressed.
Republicans are usually ardent defenders of local control. But heading into the session, some favored a deal with Democrats to sacrifice local control in return for higher density in rural areas, outside the urban-growth boundary.
Addressing the shortage of affordable housing is important, but there are better options than taking Seattle’s land-use struggles to the state level.
Lawmakers wanting to tweak growth-management rules must hear from all sides, including existing residents as well as developer advocates. This shouldn’t be rushed with a crisis mentality, especially since the changes’ effects on affordability and homelessness are dubious.
Seattle does offer evidence for lawmakers to consider. The city is building thousands of affordable housing units and recent upzones, especially around transit hubs, created ample capacity for all forecasted growth.
Yet despite the upzones, waived parking requirements and other incentives that spurred historic levels of housing construction, homelessness increased and affordability decreased.
Buying a house is harder than ever for the middle class, partly because policies favoring developers and investors are reducing the supply of houses to own and raising prices. For existing homeowners, who are mostly middle class, these policies elevate tax assessments, reduce quality of life and pressure them to leave.
Legislators should also be wary of the “backyard cottage” siren song. In Seattle, these accessory dwelling units have been allowed since 2009. But now that policy is being used as a Trojan horse to replace single-family houses with multifamily rentals. They won’t be affordable either, according to a city study that concluded tripling density, and allowing taller “cottages” with no parking or yards, will have only a “marginal” effect on affordability.
It is time for a fresh look at the landmark Growth Management Act (GMA) but this should be holistic, not piecemeal. The 1990 policy was a careful balancing act, preserving critical areas by concentrating growth in urban centers. It also made a promise to residents forced to accept density: GMA requires cities to provide transportation, parks and other services concurrent with growth. That hasn’t happened in some areas targeted by the Legislature’s current housing push, which threatens to renege on GMA’s promise.
Many other ways to address affordability and homelessness, besides overriding local planning authority, have been proposed in scores of housing-related bills. Among them are increasing safety-net programs that help people struggling to pay rent, and tinkering with state financing for subsidized affordable housing.
Cities and counties in Washington are vested with authority to make local land-use decisions. No matter how urgent the situation may seem, bigfooting politicians shouldn’t bend the rules to get their way.