The middle housing bill we’ve written about in Washington Observer survived the House, but with substantial carve-outs for local governments keen on killing it.
House Bill 1110 from Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, is a popular pick among the myriad ideas to increase the supply of housing. The original bill was a blueprint to create more housing around public transit, broaden the types of housing that neighborhoods can permit, and beat down housing prices by shoring up the housing supply.
That means building stuff urbanists interested in walkable communities love to see —duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, etc. — and kickstarting housing projects that builders want to build and Realtors want to sell. It also means paving over homeowner associations’ power to mandate off-street parking on new development and upending decades-old zoning codes that city councils aren’t eager to rewrite.
Like many bills that live this long in Olympia, HB 1110 is stuffed with concessions. Two of those concessions came from Rep. Bateman. One would allow cities to hold off on permitting denser housing if they lack ample water supply or fire services. Cities such as Mercer Island have claimed this is a problem for them. They would have until June 30, 2032, to enact the bill.
A huge change Bateman put on the table limits HB 1110 to cities of 75,000 people or more or cities within an urban growth area with the largest city in their county. Right off the bat, that would include 16 cities minimum, including Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, Tacoma, Bellingham, Yakima, Vancouver, and Spokane, based on 2020 census data. King County’s urban growth boundary includes many of Seattle’s smaller suburbs. That change leaves much of rural Washington alone.
A host of last-minute tweaks to HB 1110 came from its staunchest critics on Monday night. Per two amendments from Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, cities wouldn’t have to roll out the welcome wagon for sixplexes within a quarter-mile of a community amenity such as a school or a park. Instead, that level of density will only be required near frequent transit services.
One of the broader amendments of the night came from Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who has been an opponent of this idea in the past. It lets cities exempt areas where increasing density raises the risk of displacing low-income residents. Pollet voiced reservations on what kind of middle housing will end up being built long term — think swanky condos instead of affordable apartments. That’s a question we’re hearing more frequently in the broader housing debate.
HB 1110 passed the House by 75-21, with three suburban Democrats — Rep. Amy Walen of Kirkland, Rep. Larry Springer of Kirkland, and Rep. Chris Stearns of Auburn — in opposition. Expect things to get dicier in the Senate where HB 1110 is going to get caught in a tug-of-war between moderates and progressives gunning for even more tweaks.
This article first appeared in The Washington Observer, where author Tim Gruver is a political reporter.
Just to push back on a couple popular but questionable assumptions …
Changes to zoning can “shore up housing supply” only if the supply is constrained by zoning. There may be municipalities where that’s the case, but it isn’t in Seattle for example. Location is constrained by zoning, but Seattle got 15,000 new housing units in 2022, and it’s the rare developer who is sitting around waiting for lots to become available – and as of a couple years ago, the permit office reported that a substantial fraction of their permits on file were inactive – essentially placeholders for developers who had the lots but were not ready to get started on them.
Secondly, the denser settlement that urbanists like to see, for walkability, is just what the planning departments in Seattle and other municipalities are doing with zoning. They zone certain areas for a more densely populated neighborhood core, and naturally the areas around those cores must be zoned to a lesser density. The loss of single family zoning will actually tend to reduce density, and spread multifamily housing out into more automobile oriented parts of the city.
According to the creator of the concept of ‘Missing Middle Housing’, architect Daniel Parolek, more housing actually will not “beat down housing prices by shoring up the housing supply”. Private developers in high-demand cities will not lower prices until they get into the smaller footprint of sixplexes. More here: https://missingmiddlehousing.com/about.
This means is that without government intervention and funding we would wind up with more displacement and less affordable housing.
Seattle needs to set realistic limits for its growth. Everyone who wants to live here will not be able to. Just at present there is space downtown, due to the WFH and recent layoffs, but there is little room for infill and most new construction will be going up — and be very expensive real estate.
Growth will continue to happen in the urban fringes, in “ex-urbs” (I use this term because some current suburbs will themselves become cities in due course).
Our city space is finite — just converting single-family zoning to multi fam or whatever won’t increase the carrying capacity of our hard infrastructure — roads, water & sewer, schools — etc, as well as providing adequate power, shopping, recreation & entertainment, green space, transit etc.etc. ad nauseam.
Consider the metaphor of a swimming pool. It is a great amenity to have, and up to a certain point, the more people who use it, the greater utility it has (i.e. more people enjoying it).
As the pool fills up with more people, however, their enjoyment will of necessity diminish: too many children splashing and playing will interfere with the grown-ups trying to swim laps, and vice versa. Using the same space to create two pools, each half the size of the original one, means that all the kids might be free to play in one and all the adults in the other, but the capacity of the two, smaller pools remains the same as the one, big pool we started with.
Increased residential density in downtown can drive demand for more shops and recreation there, and is desirable, but more density in the neighborhoods, not so much in my opinion.
This Bill works better for cities than it does for more rural incorporated areas. Where I live, our core areas that are located on transit routes will not support larger housing complexes. That is why most of the multifamily housing units are set away from transit, but still within walking distance. Again, this works better on the west side, but will be hard to implement on the east side due to the more rural nature.