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Feb 8, 2023 8 min read

Treating housing as the crisis that it is

Treating housing as the crisis that it is
(Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)
Table of Contents

PART 1: After a decade of punting, the legislature (finally!) seems to be taking the housing crisis seriously

By Anthony Gill, Spokane Rising

Another year, another legislative session. And for the first time in a long while, it seems like our state legislature is treating the housing crisis with the seriousness that it demands, with dozens of housing bills under consideration this session.

Last year, Spokane raised the bar in Washington for zoning standards that promote affordable and accessible housing. The city legalized construction of fourplexes on every residential lot, in an effort to bring more housing to the city, reduce sprawl, and create more living options for residents. Now, the state is looking at expanding many of Spokane’s standards to cities statewide — meaning Spokane Valley and other neighboring cities could soon have similar zoning standards for housing as Spokane.

But the state isn’t stopping at zoning changes. The legislature is also looking at ways to cut red tape that snarls new housing development and protections for renters to keep people housed.

In this two-part series, we’re tackling the most influential housing bills currently under consideration in Olympia.

Part 1: We’ll look at proposed bills that make it easier to build housing, generally by reducing barriers to construction of new housing, but also by directly funding construction of new affordable housing. Many of them have strong support from a broad cross-section of advocates, and could pass this session.

Part 2: We’ll examine bills seeking to improve conditions for renters, generally by increasing tenant protections and instituting new rules on when landlords can raise rent on their tenants — and what rights tenants have when they do.

We break down legislation like this to give you the tools to demand better of our elected officials. If you want to support this work, become a member starting at $10/month, up your membership, or send us a one-time tip.

Building more housing

According to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, from 2000 to 2015, Washington State built 225,000 fewer units than we would have had to build to fully meet current demand. In Spokane County, we underbuilt during the 2010s by more than 32,000 units.

It’s no surprise, then, that dozens of bills under consideration attempt to make it easier to build new market-rate and affordable housing. Importantly, focusing on the lower end of the market alone is not an efficient or realistic way to address this crisis, because new rental housing generally gets less expensive over time as it ages. If we are to meet the scale of the challenge, we need to build both market-rate housing and dedicated affordable housing.

1. Legalize missing-middle housing

Spokane passed an emergency ordinance last year legalizing fourplexes citywide, but almost every other city in the state — including Airway Heights and Spokane Valley, and even Seattle and Everett — still bans duplexes and triplexes from the majority of neighborhoods. The big push this year is for HB 1110, which would legalize fourplexes on almost any residentially-zoned property in the state, with an option for an additional two units if those two units are affordable to people making less than 80% of the area’s median income. It would also allow six market-rate units per property near transit.

All indications are that HB 1110 has good chances — as of right now, it has 28 co-sponsors, including both of Spokane’s representatives, Marcus Riccelli and Timm Ormsby. The Housing Committee passed it on February 7, but in modified form which allows some cities with fewer than 75,000 people to legalize duplexes instead of fourplexes. The original version could still return in a future version of the bill.

Notably, the bill has some bipartisan appeal –– Rep. Andrew Barkis (R-Pierce County) recently explained his rationale for supporting the bill in The Urbanist, striking a similar tone to that of Spokane’s two conservative council members, who voted for Spokane’s missing middle package last year.

Still, there is substantial opposition to HB 1110, mostly from cities themselves, which feel that the bill undermines “local control” of planning and development issues. Their opposition appears to have –– at least for now –– watered down the bold original vision for the bill.

Other bills in this vein include:

  • HB 1337 requires cities to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and reduces restrictions on their dimensions and size. These small units are a great option for multigenerational living, which is why they’re sometimes called “granny flats.” This bill has passed the House Committee on Housing and awaits action from the Rules Committee to bring it to the floor.
  • SB 5466 increases allowable development around transit, including Spokane’s new Central City Line and the planned North Division bus line. Spokane’s state senator, Andy Billig is a co-sponsor and this bill has strong support. It passed the Senate Committee on Local Government, Land Use, & Tribal Affairs on February 7 and now moves to the Transportation Committee.
  • HB 1245 / SB 5364 require most cities to allow property owners to split their lots into lots as small as 1,500 square feet. This would, in theory, allow for easier development of cottage dwellings and townhomes or rowhomes. A version of this bill has passed the Senate Committee on Local Government, Land Use & Tribal Affairs and awaits action to bring it to the floor. A version has also passed the House Committee on Housing.

2. Cutting red tape on new housing

The reality is that even in cities that “legalize” duplexes and triplexes, they won’t actually be built unless cities tackle the far more onerous standards that fall within their land use and building codes. These complex rules govern everything from how far a building needs to be set back from a street to how many staircases and how much parking it must include.

Spokane’s fourplex law addressed many of these rules, but HB 1167 takes these reforms statewide. Under this bill, most cities will be required to:

  • Use similar zoning, development, parking, design review, and other standards for multiplexes to those used for single-family homes.
  • Not mandate setbacks from the property line if a housing development is located within a quarter mile of frequent transit, a school or a park
  • Not require more than a single stairway in a residential building of six or fewer stories, as long as the city has a municipal water supply and a professional fire department.

Additionally, development near transit, schools or parks would be exempt from the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), which means that these types of housing could move forward without costly and time-consuming environmental review. Environmental protections are important, but this process is often subject to abuse and appeal by NIMBY-minded neighbors.

Finally, the State Building Council would be required to recommend changes to the state’s building code to ensure multiplex housing is subject to the International Residential Code (IRC), rather than the more onerous International Building Code (IBC). This gets very wonky, but would essentially subject so-called “missing middle” housing to the same building codes as single-family homes, instead of to the same standards as large office towers.

Right now HB 1167 is waiting for actionin the House Committee on Appropriations. Once passed, it would need action at the Rules Committee to bring it to the House floor.

Despite an uphill lift ahead (as for most of the bills listed here), HB 1167 has strong support from a broad range of activists, and stands a decent chance if it makes it to the House floor. It will face a slightly higher bar in the Senate, where a handful of Democrats are more openly critical of these types of changes.

Other notable bills in this category include:

  • HB 1042 allows expansions onto existing apartment buildings without additional parking requirements, design standards, or transportation review. A version of this bill has passed the House Committee on Housing and it has been placed on “second reading” by the Rules Committee.
  • SB 5491, a narrow bill which would allow single-stair buildings. These are common in Europe but virtually unheard-of in the United States, despite their increased livability, cross-ventilation, and lower construction cost. Right now, this bill awaits action in the Senate Committee on Local Government, Land Use & Tribal Affairs.

3. Make it easier to build condos

As single-family home prices continue to rise, condos are an affordable, low-maintenance option — particularly for young people without kids and for older adults. But tough liability laws make it much more expensive for developers to build condos than apartments, so most new multifamily housing ends up on the rental market instead of giving young people an opportunity to build equity.

HB 1298 / SB 5258 would begin to address these barriers by changing the standards for construction defect claims and construction warranties on condos — with a particular emphasis on buildings with 12 or fewer units. It’s an extremely wonky issue, but developers, council members and planners I’ve spoken with suggest it could make a significant difference, tipping the scales just a bit closer for builders constructing condo units for purchase instead of rental apartments.

In the Senate, this bill is scheduled for possible action in the Committee on Law & Justice on February 9. In the House, this bill needs more support. It hasn’t had a hearing in the Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee yet.

4. Eliminate parking requirements

Oregon and California led the way on eliminating parking requirements near transit. And it’s no wonder why: in a housing crisis, housing people is far more important than housing cars. And we can house a lot of people in the space we devote to cars. Two parking spaces take up the same amount of space as a small, efficiently built two-bedroom apartment.

Now, it’s Washington’s turn to abolish parking requirements.

HB 1351 / SB 5356 would ban cities from requiring parking for new residential or commercial development within a quarter-mile of frequent transit (bus service that comes every fifteen minutes or fewer during the workday). Crucially this means that not only would new housing not be required to include parking, but new commercial developments would also not require parking. Spokane has a headstart on eliminating parking requirements in neighborhood retail zones (this was aimed at allowing more shops like Made With Love and Rockwood Bakery), but this would extend the allowance to much more of the city.

Right now, the bill is scheduled for action in the House Committee on Local Government on February 8 and the Senate Committee on Local Government, Land Use & Tribal Affairs on February 9. It has stronger support than any parking bill has had before, but already a compromise has led to the distance from transit being reduced from ½-mile to ¼-mile. More public support is needed to get this bill over the finish line.

5. Directly build affordable housing

Finally, Gov. Inslee has requested that the legislature issue up to $4 billion in bonds to finance new projects and programs addressing homelessness and housing insecurity. The bond authorization would go to the voters for approval as early as November 2023. If passed, the state would use the funds to help nonprofit and for-profit developers, public housing authorities and others build housing for low-income households making 50-80% of the area median income.

According to the governor’s proposal, this would be enough funding to build approximately 5,300 new units between 2023-2025 and 19,000 from 2026-2031. Theoretically, this would be enough housing for every one of the 13,000 people statewide living unsheltered as of the 2022 statewide Point in Time Count.

The governor’s proposal is encapsulated in SB 5202 / HB 1149. In the Senate, the bill has passed the Committee on Housing and has been referred to the Ways & Means Committee. In the House, the bill received a hearing on January 12 in the Committee on the Capital Budget, but is waiting for action.

All in all, this session is shaping up to be a banner year for housing advocates — if the legislature delivers. And, that remains a big if.

In my next article, I’ll analyze the bills under consideration which would improve conditions for existing renters through rent control, advance notification for rent increases and other important reforms similar to (and in some cases stronger than) those under consideration at the Spokane City Council.

How to get involved

If you’d like to get involved, check out Homes for WA, a campaign of Futurewise and Sightline Institute organizing statewide advocates in support of many of the bills mentioned above, as well as other changes to state housing and planning law.

You can also offer direct public comment on each Bill Information page linked above, or sign in “pro” (or "con") in advance of a committee public hearing.

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