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News / Northwest

Washington lawmakers may pass bill to boost dense development near transit

By Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times
Published: March 31, 2023, 10:24am

SEATTLE — Washington lawmakers could soon adopt a bill requiring cities to allow dense housing development around transit stations. But key details are still in flux.

Broadly, proponents say transit-oriented development can increase the benefit of transit investments, help people who can’t or don’t drive, combat pollution related to driving and help ease the state’s housing crunch. Foes say cities should retain the ability to regulate development in their communities and to consider their own infrastructure needs, rather than being told what to do by the state. Some local leaders and advocates have raised concerns about housing affordability and current residents being displaced by development.

Already passed by the Senate and originally backed by Gov. Jay Inslee, Senate Bill 5466 is one of multiple proposals this legislative session aimed at reducing barriers to housing construction. Other bills would trim restrictions on accessory dwelling units, authorize more lot splitting and legalize “middle housing” like duplexes and town houses in most neighborhoods.

The state Department of Commerce estimates Washington needs to build an additional 1 million homes by 2044 to keep pace with population growth, with more than half of the new homes affordable to households with incomes at or below 50 percent of the area median income.

Current version

The current version of SB 5466, as amended by the House’s housing committee Tuesday and slated for a vote in the capital budget committee Friday, would require cities to allow multifamily housing at certain densities within a half-mile of commuter- and light-rail stations and within a quarter-mile of bus-rapid transit stations, as measured by walking distance.

There’s no definition of bus-rapid transit in SB 5466 or elsewhere in Washington state law. Rep. Julia Reed, D-Seattle, who’s taken the lead on the bill in the House, said the bill is meant to apply to bus routes like the RapidRide lines operated by King County Metro, the Swift lines operated by Snohomish County’s Community Transit and the Stride lines planned by Sound Transit. What about Sound Transit express buses? Reed isn’t sure yet.

Density would be defined in terms of a project’s floor area ratio, or FAR, which measures the size of a project compared to a lot’s buildable space. For example, a two-story, 2,000-square-foot home on 4,000 square feet of buildable space has an FAR of 0.5, a 16,000-square-foot town house cluster on 8,000 square feet has an FAR of 2.0 and a six-story, 36,000-square-foot apartment building on 12,000 feet has an FAR of 3.0.

With some exceptions related to environmentally critical areas, historic districts and areas at risk for displacement, SB 5466 would require cities to allow housing projects with 3.0 FAR within a half-mile of rail stations and 2.5 FAR within a quarter-mile of bus-rapid transit stations (or achieve those density levels on average, across a station area).

In certain cases, cities that have already zoned for similar levels of density near transit stations would be able to secure state approval for their existing regulations, rather than comply with the exact regulations in SB 5466.

Except in areas that already allow SB 5466’s required density, at least 20 percent of the units in each project built near transit stations would need to be priced as affordable to households at or below 60 percent of the area median income. The bill would also give bonus density for all-affordable projects and would set up a grant program for such projects.

With some exceptions, SB 5466 would prohibit cities from requiring housing projects in the relevant areas to include off-street parking.

Details debated

Earlier versions of SB 5466 would have required cities to allow multifamily housing at certain densities not only near rail stations and bus-rapid transit stations but also near regular bus stops with relatively frequent service; that meant the bill would have affected many more blocks in the Seattle area. Also, earlier versions of the bill had no 20 percent affordability mandate.

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The recent amendments have caused Inslee and pro-development groups like the Washington Realtors to withdraw their wholehearted support. Some urbanists have also objected, arguing the affordability mandate would be an added cost that inhibits housing development altogether.

“We’ve got some more work to do on the affordability piece,” Noha Mahgoub, a senior policy adviser for Inslee, said during a public hearing Thursday.

Meanwhile, the amendments have caused some stakeholders, like Mercer Island Mayor Salim Nice and the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, to back the bill, describing the affordability mandate as crucial.

“Thanks for amending” the bill “to address the state’s affordable housing needs,” Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy at the alliance, told lawmakers Thursday.

Some cities that already have affordability mandates in certain areas, like Seattle, allow developers to pay fees in lieu of building low-priced units.

Carl Schroeder, lobbyist for the Association of Washington Cities, said the group is more amenable to density around light rail than bus-rapid transit. Reed said bus-rapid transit stations are important, because many light-rail station areas are already zoned for dense development.

Developers generally want lower affordability requirements and higher density requirements, while many local leaders want the inverse, because they care about affordability and/or because they want to discourage development, Reed said. Seeking a “middle ground,” Reed wants to promote dense housing while capturing “some public benefit” from the zoning changes and while protecting vulnerable people from development-related displacement, she said.

“I campaigned as an urbanist … But I’m also cognizant, as a person of color, that a lot of these areas near transit corridors” are currently home to at-risk communities, Reed said, suggesting SB 5466 could see more tweaks.

Despite being “strafed on Twitter” for adjusting the bill, Reed wants to “find a compromise that allows us to meet our policy goals without totally screwing over low-income people and people of color,” she said.