Is this the year WA ends single-family zoning?

Duplexes or fourplexes would be legalized in almost every neighborhood of almost every city in Washington, regardless of local zoning rules, under legislation advancing in the state House of Representatives.

The bill aims to increase housing supply in cities throughout the state, which advocates say is a crucial step in easing the housing crisis that has seen home prices and homelessness numbers climb. Opponents argue zoning and planning decisions are best handled locally, and that the bill would do little to increase the supply of affordable housing.

The push to add more housing density would not mean the end of single-family home production in Washington, but it could, eventually, mean the end of many neighborhoods made up exclusively of single-family homes.

The bill (HB 1110) faces a crucial deadline Friday as it must pass out of the House Appropriations committee before the end of the day. If it clears that cutoff, it must pass the full House and the Senate — where initial opposition has been stronger — before reaching the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee.

The state Department of Commerce estimates Washington needs to build an additional 1 million homes over the next two-plus decades to keep pace with population growth. Advocates argue that allowing more homes that take up less space in cities is a good way to begin.

“The longer we postpone building that housing at a sustainable level, the more we’re going to see home and rent prices increase,” said Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, the lead sponsor. “We have to make it easier to build nimbler, smaller housing options for people, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes.”

“This is about people like my little sister who is a nurse who cannot afford her first home and is postponing putting roots down. We are pricing young people out of the future they deserve.”

The bill has bipartisan support and a Republican co-sponsor in Rep. Andrew Barkis, of Olympia, who pushed back against the idea that neighborhoods would be transformed.

“It’s about removing the barriers, just getting out of the way,” Barkis said. “Builders are going to build what the market wants. You’re not going to see somebody build a six-plex if the market won’t support a six-plex.”

Local control of zoning laws has long been viewed as sacrosanct, and similar versions of the the legislation have failed in recent years.

But states have increasingly stepped in to override municipal rules as populations grow and housing stocks fail to keep pace. Oregon eliminated single-family zoning in 2019 and California largely did the same in 2021.

Their experience shows that while the zoning change may be radical, physical changes to neighborhoods likely would be gradual.

In its first year of existence, California’s law, which allows property owners to build up to four homes on a single-family parcel, was used sparingly, a study from the University of California Berkeley found.

“Some of the state’s largest cities reported that they have received just a handful of applications for either lot splits or new units, while other cities reported none,” the study found.

Even as zoning opens up, housing projects still have to pencil out financially to be built. Inflation, rising interest rates, and supply chain and construction disruptions could have hampered use of the new law, the California study said.

In Washington, the Association of Washington Cities, a lobbying group representing cities and towns, has, in the past, led opposition to the legislation, arguing against removing local control.

But this year, the group is less strident, working to mold the bill rather than outright oppose it. The association has worked to exclude the very smallest cities and towns from the legislation, and on other tweaks toward “a more nuanced approach,” Carl Schroeder, the group’s deputy director of government relations, said.

Schroeder said they’re supportive of minimum, statewide density requirements around matters such as public transit, parks and schools, but remain wary of painting with too broad a brush.

“We have communities that say ‘We have horrible traffic coming off the east hill and we’ve been trying to generate all our growth away from that,’” he said. “Those are the sort of nuts and bolts concerns.”

Several cities — particularly in Eastside suburbs — remain opposed, worried about too much growth and not enough parking, among other infrastructure, to keep up with a potential uptick in new residents.

Earlier this month, the city of Mercer Island sent a letter to its state representatives urging opposition to the legislation.

Efforts to increase housing supply, the mayor and City Council wrote, “are best done at the local level and in collaboration with regional and statewide stakeholders,” not with “a one size fits all mandate (that) is simply unlikely to yield positive results.”

In Woodinville, Mayor Mike Millman agrees.

“This bill ignores local conditions and context and threatens to destroy good local planning,” Millman said.

In Seattle, most residential areas now allow at least three units per lot (with significant restrictions), following a 2019 change. Mayor Bruce Harrell campaigned against broad upzones of single-family neighborhoods and has remained noncommittal on the legislation in Olympia.

“In any conversation regarding significant zoning changes, including this bill, Mayor Harrell is focused on the need for protections to prevent displacement,” Jamie Housen, a spokesperson said.

The bill would require cities with populations between 25,000 and 75,000 to allow duplexes in all residential areas. Any area within a half-mile of a major transit stop, park or school would have to allow fourplexes. And fourplexes would also be allowed anywhere, if one of the units meets affordable housing requirements.

In bigger cities (those with more than 75,000 people) — or smaller suburbs of Seattle, Tacoma or Spokane — all residential areas would have to allow fourplexes. Areas close to major transit, parks or schools, would have to allow six-plexes. And six-plexes would be allowed anywhere, provided two of the units are affordable.

“Thanks to our outdated land-use codes, even we at Habitat can’t build in something like 70 to 80 percent of our service area,” said Ryan Donohue, chief advocacy officer for Habitat for Humanity Seattle—King & Kittitas Counties. “We need to open up more land for more types of housing.”

The bill’s supporters stress that these changes wouldn’t force developers to build these projects. Developers could still choose to build single-family homes. Cities just wouldn’t be able to forbid the larger options.

“This is very modest, this is not high rises in neighborhoods,” said state Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, who sponsored a Senate version of the legislation. “I think what folks hear is they cannot build single-family homes any more. That’s not true. It just says you cannot preclude other very modest housing types.”

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