by Leo Brine
(This article was originally published on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
The House Appropriations Committee narrowly passed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) housing density bill (HB 1782) on Monday, Feb. 7, by a 17-16 vote, and sent it to the House Rules Committee with a “do pass” recommendation. Her bill would require cities with populations greater than 10,000 to rezone single-family residential neighborhoods for more housing options, such as duplexes and fourplexes.
The committee passed the bill with an almost party-line vote. The only Democrats to vote against the bill were Reps. Tana Senn (D-41, Mercer Island) and Jesse Johnson (D-30, Federal Way). Seattle-area representatives Steve Bergquist (D-11), Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-37), Noel Frame (D-36), Nicole Macri (D-43), Gerry Pollet (D-46), Eileen Cody (D-34), Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34), and Frank Chopp (D-43) all voted yes.
The bill also includes an amendment added by single-family preservationist Pollet that would allow any city to opt out of the fourplex requirement by achieving an average density goal of 33 units per acre within a half-mile of frequent transit stops. Cities would be allowed to achieve that average density by concentrating housing in certain areas — much as it is now in Seattle — allowing density only along busy arterial streets and highways, for example, instead of allowing duplexes and fourplexes next to single-family houses.
Citing the possibility of “unintended consequences,” officials from Gig Harbor, Auburn, Issaquah, and other Washington cities had urged committee members to stop Bateman’s bill from moving out of committee.
Taking up a “local control” stance, those cities opposed the legislation because, they said, they’ve already developed their own plans to add denser housing options to single-family residential neighborhoods. Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly told the committee more than 45% of Issaquah’s residential land is already zoned for multifamily, but they haven’t figured out “how to get people to build there.”
Other officials complained that new development would make single-family homes in their region unaffordable. Kent Mayor Dana Ralph told the committee, “Kent has some of the most naturally occurring affordable housing” in King County, and “these homes may be displaced” because of Bateman’s bill. However, data from Redfin shows houses in Kent are unaffordable now, indicating that prices are skyrocketing under the status quo, in which density is largely prohibited. In 2021, the median sale price for a housing unit in Kent was $617,000, 37% higher than it was the same time the year before.
California and Oregon have done away with some single-family zoning laws to encourage the development of denser housing. Oregon passed its law in 2019; California’s bill, which reduces the amount of exclusionary zoning in the state, just took effect on Jan. 1.
While cities tried to get the committee to kill the bill, the Washington Build Back Black Alliance (WBBA) — a coalition of BIPOC leaders from the Puget Sound area, including Sen. T’wina Nobles (D-28, Tacoma) and Seattle Urban League President Michelle Merriweather — urged the committee to pass the pro-density housing bill.
WBBBA lobbyist and cofounder Paula Sardinas told committee members there needs to be statewide zoning mandates for cities because local control over housing has failed to provide enough housing on its own. “Whatever you have planned has not worked or you’ve not acted aggressively enough,” Sardinas said. “And the communities with the greatest disproportional impact are Black and Brown.”
Adding WBBBA to Bateman’s pro-density coalition this year is good news for Washington’s too-white YIMBY effort, traditionally anchored by environmentalists, developers, transit groups, the AARP, and urbanist think tanks; the movement failed to move a similar bill last year. “It’s good to have more voices advocating for a broad range of interventions in the housing market,” said lobbyist Bryce Yadon, who lobbies for green groups such as Futurewise and Transportation Choices Coalition. “I hope there’s a recognition that planning has historically been weighted to one side,” he said, and that the addition of the WBBBA will make legislators consider those who haven’t always been at the negotiating table.
However, in an earlier hearing on Bateman’s bill in the House Local Government Committee on Feb. 1, Pollet used his power as committee chair to lower the maximum density requirement for housing within a half-mile of a major transit stops from sixplexes to fourplexes, and altered the definition of “half-mile from transit” from the usual “as the crow flies” definition to a more restrictive “walking distance” definition. Originally, Bateman’s bill would have allowed sixplexes, stacked flats, and other low-density multifamily housing in neighborhoods within a half-mile radius of a major transit stop.
Pollet’s revised version of the bill also exempted lots smaller than 4,500 square feet, including property within a half-mile walking distance from transit, from having to rezone for denser housing. “That takes off a lot of development capacity in both North Seattle and North Tacoma,” Yadon said. The amendments certainly seem to scale back the legislation’s original possibilities for adding density to Seattle’s limited housing stock.
While Pollet’s amendments weaken the bill, Bateman said the legislation has a long way to go before the bill hits the governor’s desk, and “we’re continually refining it.”
If the House passes the bill, they will send it to the Senate where Democratic leadership is likely to send it to the Housing and Local Government Committee. Pro-housing Sen. Mona Das (D-47, Kent) who sponsored her own Senate version of the bill, is the vice chair of the committee.
Leo Brine is a Seattle-based journalist.
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