Heading into this legislative session, it was clear that the housing affordability crisis needed to be at the top of our agenda. A Crosscut/Elway poll from January showed 70% of Washingtonians listed housing affordability as a top issue.
This issue transcends the normal political divides of urban versus rural, east of the mountains versus west. Communities in every corner of our state, from Vancouver to Bellingham to Spokane, are facing the same challenges.
This unanimity gave the Legislature a mandate to take bold steps on housing. Now that the session is over, it is clear the Legislature stepped up in a big way. On a bipartisan basis, we tackled this problem from multiple angles. We made structural changes to state-level housing policies, invested major state funds into housing, and provided new funding tools for cities and counties.
On the policy front, we passed bills that will increase housing supply and protect renters from slipping into homelessness. Senate Bill 5334, sponsored by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, fixes a problem with our liability laws that was crippling our ability to develop affordable condominiums. SB 5383, sponsored by Sen. Hans Zeiger, enables cities and counties to permit tiny-house villages. And SB 5600, sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, reforms our eviction laws to extend the notice period from three days to 14, which will help interrupt the cycle of homelessness before it begins.
We also passed an innovative bill to fix several land-use issues that prevent cities from up-zoning and creating the housing density we need. House Bill 1923, sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, makes it easier to zone for density around transit without excessive legal appeals. It includes a framework that encourages cities to allow more mother-in-law units, backyard cottages and duplexes. It also funds a grant program that cities can tap to plan for all types of growth and to maintain affordable housing and permanent supportive housing — a proven solution for people experiencing chronic homelessness.
This bill started out as a mandate on cities, but after we listened to concerns from cities and counties, the bill is now completely voluntary. It’s up to local communities to take advantage of these new tools to overcome their zoning challenges.
The state is also making major new contributions to existing housing programs. We are establishing a new $10 million public-private grant program for policies that respond rapidly to homelessness. Hopefully, our corporate sector will come to the table to invest in these solutions.
We are also providing $10 million for cost-effective options like prefabricated housing or tiny homes. Overall, we are making a historic investment of $175 million in the Housing Trust Fund, which funds affordable housing around the state through competitive grants and loans.
In addition, the operating budget funds $4.3 million in grants to the counties dealing with the fastest growth, including Snohomish and King, to enable them to plan for smart growth through the Buildable Lands program. This is crucial in making sure our urban growth areas that are supposed to be taking the lion’s share of increased housing are doing their part.
Finally, we passed bills that give cities and counties new funding tools for affordable housing. HB 1219, sponsored by Rep. Amy Walen, extends cities’ and counties’ ability to use local real estate excise taxes for their own homelessness and affordable housing efforts, enabling a potential $160 million in local investments. And HB 1406, sponsored by Rep. June Robinson, allows for a sales tax reversion from the state to cities, which the cities can bond for affordable housing. If fully implemented, it would mean a further $312 million.
By any objective measure, the Legislature did a great job of addressing the housing crisis this session. It’s now time for cities to step up and use the tools available to them to address this human crisis.
Corrected: An earlier version of this story published on April 29, 2019, was corrected on April 30, 2019. The bill updating condominium liability laws was incorrect. It is Senate Bill 5334.