Gov. Inslee signs bills to increase housing in WA

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a slate of housing bills Monday, capping a legislative session many lawmakers took to calling the “year of housing.”

Many of the bills are aimed at boosting the supply of homes in a state where it’s expensive and sorely needed.

Washington will now allow multifamily housing in many more neighborhoods, encourage people to develop accessory dwelling units, and streamline development regulations, among other policies. The overarching effort to smooth regulatory barriers, like zoning and permits, to building housing garnered bipartisan support.

“We are attacking this problem at its root, which is the lack of housing in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.

The Washington Department of Commerce estimates the state will need about 1 million more homes in the next 20 years.

This year, lawmakers also passed a budget with a $400 million investment in the state’s Housing Trust Fund, which finances affordable housing projects. That money will pay for about 3,000 new rental homes, and help about 250 to 400 households with homeownership, according to the department.

Lawmakers, after a pandemic thrust a spotlight onto the tenuous situations of many renters and delivered billions in aid toward keeping people in their homes, turned their attention to the lack of housing.

“There were more housing bills passed of consequence than in any other legislative session,” said Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, in an interview shortly before the end of session last month.

But not all bills related to housing got through the legislative process this year. A bill meant to promote development of housing near transit stalled, as did a bill that would have increased the tax rate on sales of high-dollar real estate.

After the end of the session, advocates for low-income tenants have criticized the Legislature’s lack of action on stabilizing the high and rising costs of renting a home in Washington, and for the death of the changes to the real estate sales tax, which would have created a permanent source of funding for affordable housing construction.

“The Legislature had opportunities to do something about the massively unaffordable rents that are driving housing insecurity for so many people across the state,” said Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “They completely turned their back on that.”

Inslee signed nine bills about 1 p.m. Monday in Seattle at SEIU 775, and signed a 10th bill in a separate ceremony later that afternoon at the Northwest African American Museum, in a nod to the lengthy and harmful legacy of racist policies that kept many Black people from buying homes in certain neighborhoods and from building generational wealth.

House Bill 1474, which sponsors say is the first statewide policy of its kind, will help people who were affected by racist housing covenants designed to keep ethnic and religious minorities out of certain neighborhoods, as well as their descendants, with down payments and closing costs.

Another bill the governor signed Monday was House Bill 1074, which requires landlords to show documentation of damages when withholding part of a renter’s security deposit when they move out, like estimates or invoices.

That bill was the “little bright light” of the session, said Terri Anderson, policy director and director of the Spokane office for the Tenants Union of Washington State. She said tenants are often denied housing due to debt to a prior landlord, and some aren’t told of the charges.

But overall, Anderson said, “We’re pretty disappointed that they did not address the most prominent barrier for tenants to remain in housing, and that is the increases in rent.”

House Bill 1389 would have capped rent increases, and House Bill 1124 would have required landlords to provide at least six months’ notice before increasing the rent above a certain amount. Both bills died.

There may be some support to look again at tackling high rents in the 2024 legislative session.

The theory behind this year’s focus on generating more housing by loosening regulations is that it would harness the law of supply and demand to bring down sky-high rents.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, chair of the Senate Housing Committee, said if that’s true, then lawmakers “should be thinking about … a temporary rent stabilization program that keeps people housed now while we’re building that additional inventory.”

“I’m not talking about them not ever being able to increase the rent,” Kuderer said. “What I’m talking about is that it would be on a temporary, time-limited basis and tied to the housing inventory.”

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