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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Washington’s housing issues require legislative action

The Columbian
Published: March 25, 2021, 6:03am

At some point, Washington’s housing crunch will become a housing crisis. Meanwhile, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and legislative attempts to address housing issues will reverberate for decades to come.

Most pressing is a looming deadline for an eviction moratorium put in place by Gov. Jay Inslee. Shortly after the arrival of COVID-19, Inslee made it temporarily illegal for tenants to be evicted because of an inability to pay.

Inslee has extended the moratorium several times; this week he stretched it to the end of June. But with more than 100,000 Washington renters behind on payments, the bill will come due at some point. While stability for renters is important for preventing a statewide economic calamity, so is consideration for landlords.

The federal pandemic relief bill signed last week by President Joe Biden includes billions of dollars in aid for renters and homeowners behind on their payments. Washington is expected to receive $454 million of that.

While assistance has steadied the housing market, the pandemic also has triggered interest in long-term changes. Dozens of housing-related bills are making their way through the Legislature, addressing items such as local zoning laws, increasing housing supply and reforming regulations for manufactured home parks.

Most intriguing are those designed to increase the housing supply. While Washington long has had a Growth Management Act designed to prevent sprawl outside of designated urban growth areas, state laws have not done enough to encourage increased density in those urban areas.

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, has proposed several bills designed to increase density. For example, SB 5235 would alter “roommate bans” that limit the number of unrelated residents who can inhabit a residence. According to Sightline, more than 150 Washington cities have local laws that contain such limits.

The bill also would invalidate local zoning laws that require owners of Accessory Dwelling Units to live on site, and another would require that duplexes and four-plexes be allowed anywhere single-family homes are allowed.

“If it were left up to me, we would mandate ‘missing middle’ housing in every jurisdiction across our state, but the Legislature has not reached a consensus on that,” Liias said during a Senate hearing.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on the vast dichotomy in housing throughout Washington. For years, construction has focused on high-end homes or affordable housing that is accessible to low-income residents, with little accommodation for the middle class.

Developers seek the big profits that come with high-end housing and municipal governments provide tax breaks for the building of low-income housing, recognizing that incentives are required. But there is little impetus for the construction of starter homes or midlevel dwellings.

Meanwhile, broad reforms to manufactured home parks and rent stabilization appear to have stalled in the Legislature. According to The Olympian, only a bill that will make minor changes to a relocation assistance program for manufactured home residents appears on track for passage.

Housing laws and zoning laws represent the minutiae of legislative work. They rarely are eye-catching, and the depth of their impact is not truly felt for decades. But they require a broad vision for the future of Washington and the state’s livability.

For the immediate future, however, the biggest concern is that the rent is coming due.