Here we go: Wasting no time at all, Representatives Jessica Bateman (D-Olympia) and Andrew Barkis (R-Olympia) pre-filed a bill to tackle Washington’s housing crisis by legalizing the construction of lots and lots of housing.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly where we were last year, with bills that sought to end bans on “missing middle” housing—that is, house-sized residences with multiple units in walkable neighborhoods. Last year’s proposals would have overhauled state zoning codes to allow duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in areas that were previously restricted to single-residence sprawl, but the ensuing NIMBY freakout was enough to doom the bills and any hope of reform in 2022.
But now it’s a new year! We’ve got a new bill! And, crucially, we’ve got new reasons to hope that this time will be different.
A Workgroup May Have Actually Worked. Sort of.
Last year’s opposition to housing reform was spearheaded by the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), a corporation consisting of representatives from various cities and towns around the state. At the time, AWC Board of Director President and University Place Council Member Kent Keel explained that the cities were “not opposed to housing," they just thought that "every town and city is unique, and solutions can’t be one-size-fits-all.”
Numerous other suburban AWC members echoed that sentiment, while some members from cities expressed frustration at the organization’s opposition to reform. So, what’s changed?
“I heard that feedback, and I acted,” said Rep. Bateman. “I went to the AWC conference this summer. I met with their Legislative Priorities Committee. I talked about my bill from last year and why it was so important, and how I’d be doing it again.”
For their part, AWC also spent much of 2022 preparing a more productive approach than simply stonewalling reforms.
“We created a workgroup of city officials that kicked off in August,” said AWC lobbyist Carl Schroeder. The workgroup met over the course of several weeks to hammer out policy recommendations that would be acceptable to members from small towns (it included representatives from Pasco, Leavenworth, Port Orchard, Ridgefield, and more) and big cities (Seattle, Spokane, Olympia, Tacoma). In that time, they met with various legislators, developers, real estate groups, and housing organizations.
“I was not sure that AWC would get to a place of having solutions,” said Seattle City Council Member Dan Strauss, who supported Bateman’s bills last year and who served as a member of the group. But when it was time for the group to settle on some recommendations, he said, “I was kind of surprised. It’s not bad.”
Not Bad, but Not Great
In a December 2, 2022 presentation to the House Local Government Committee, the AWC laid out its preferred solutions: A mix of allowing more density, eliminating costly and slow review processes, and throwing an absolute fuckton of money at the problem. “Increase funding for low-income housing by at least $1 billion per year,” the presentation concludes. A familiar idea.
In terms of new housing, “what we’re going to need over the next twenty years is pretty staggering,” Schroeder said. The AWC wants to see more density around transit, which is a controversial proposition, since that choice can focus construction in areas with wide, unsafe streets and more air pollution. They also want to allow up to three units per lot near schools and parks, more state funding for local development and infrastructure, and a new real estate excise tax to fund subsidized housing.
Also, delightfully, “We want to eliminate external design review boards that argue about brick patterns,” Schroeder said. “We’d still maintain the ability to have design standards, but they’d be applied at the permit counters.”
That’s music to the ears of Seattle City Council Member Teresa Mosqueda, who liked Bateman’s bills last year. “Reduced regulations … reduce barriers so that people can build more housing at a faster pace,” she said. Seattle recently exempted affordable housing from design review, which “was a proven policy during COVID,” Mosqueda says. “We saw more affordable housing come on faster, and it’s high quality.”
Bateman described the AWC's recommendations as “a good start," but she said "the scope of this housing crisis really demands us to be more ambitious than only allowing triplexes in only those areas [near schools and parks].”
And when it comes to funding, she backs a massive investment in the Housing Trust Fund: “A six-times increase in what we’re currently spending” is needed. She acknowledged that finding that money "will be a heavy lift” but insisted that “we need a million homes over the next twenty years, half of which are needed to be affordable.”
To that end, Bateman has big plans for multiple housing bills this legislative session. “The House Democratic Caucus is making it a priority to address the housing crisis,” she said.
So, what are the chances that everyone will play nice and pass some meaningful reform this year? Bateman is cautious about taking a victory lap before the session even starts. “I think that people’s aversion to having more housing built around them will continue,” she said. But the crisis is only growing more dire, and “we need a different strategy because it’s impacting constituents in every Legislative District across the state.”
Schroeder raised a red flag over possible construction difficulties down the road. “One thing we learned through this process is the building workforce is a big limiter here,” he said. According to the AWC’s research, builders would need to increase their workforce “by 20 to 25 percent over the top workforce they’ve ever had.”
And, of course, even if the gate is flung wide open to massive, dense developments, every city and town in the state will need money to manage that growth, subsidize housing, and build out city services for the influx of residents.
“We need revenue for local jurisdictions to work on implementing the requirements,” Mosqueda said. But, she pointed out, the cost of not building is even higher: “The number-one thing I hear from local businesses when I say ‘how can I support you?’ is, ‘workers need housing in this city and they need access to child care.’ … Finding the opportunity to lift up the positive aspects of having more housing … it’s a win-win for business, families, the local economy and the health of our communities.”