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News / Northwest

Washington lawmakers’ ‘year of housing’ could ease the affordability crisis

The Legislature passed 10 laws and put $1 billion toward one of Washington’s most pressing problems: a statewide lack of accessible shelter.

By Joseph O’Sullivan, Crosscut
Published: May 15, 2023, 6:00am

For years, proposals in the Washington Legislature to address the state’s dire housing availability and affordability crisis have withered and died in the face of opposition – even as the problem worsened. This year was different.

As the regularly scheduled legislative session wrapped up last month, elected officials turned their – surprise – bipartisan success on housing proposals into a mantra. It was, they said, the “year of housing.”

Given how long some proposals had stalled – years, in a couple cases – it was quite a year: On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed 10 housing bills into law.

And although the governor’s ambitious $4 billion housing-bond proposal fell flat, lawmakers nonetheless put $1 billion into new state budgets geared at easing the affordability crisis, according to the Office of Financial Management.

The bills signed Monday include House Bill 1110, sponsored by Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, known as the “middle-housing” bill. It broadly legalizes the construction of duplexes and fourplexes in most neighborhoods so that more people can afford to live in Washington.

That measure alone could add an estimated 75,000 to 150,000 housing units over the next two decades as it clears the way for multi-unit housing, according to an analysis by the Puget Sound Regional Council.

That, combined with House Bill 1337, sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregeron, D-SeaTac, to allow more accessory dwelling units like backyard cottages, could go a long way in the coming years to keep Washington affordable for working people, according to Dan Bertolet, director of housing and urbanism at the Sightline Institute. Estimates are difficult, but he said those two bills alone could increase construction annually over the coming decades..

“It’s a pretty good chunk of the deficit we need to fill,” said Bertolet, whose organization has pushed for housing reforms in recent years.

Right now the state faces a deficit of hundreds of thousands of homes and apartments, increasing the price of both renting and property ownership. On top of that, state officials have said they believe another 1 million housing units will be needed over the next two decades as Washington continues to grow. High housing and rental prices lock out working families from both stability and long-term wealth-building. At the same time, the cost of securing shelter plays a role in increasing homelessness.

Bertolet has watched versions of the middle-housing and backyard-cottage bills die in previous years, especially as local governments opposed such ideas. And even though the bills were whittled down in size and scope as they moved through the Legislature, he was surprised this year by how strong the final versions remained.

“A lot of things came together at once … the dam burst, right?” said Bertolet.

Among other bills signed, lawmakers wrote new laws to streamline permitting for new construction, such as House Bill 1293, sponsored by Rep. Mark Klicker, R-Walla Walla, and Senate Bill 5412, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline. And lawmakers cleared the way to build more condominiums with Senate Bill 5058, sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley.

Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, who works in property management, played a role in advancing the housing bills. Barkis saw one of his bills, which would have allowed people to split their lots to build an additional home, die along the way. He also co-sponsored the middle-housing and backyard-cottage bills, and has for years pushed lawmakers to pass legislation to boost housing supply.

“When it’s all said and done, I think half of that policy in some form or another passed,” Barkis said. “And I think what did pass will have an impact on our problem that we have.”

This year’s push came after Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, and Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, also a Democrat, brought together a slew of organizations across the political spectrum in a bid to overcome opposition to reform. Groups as varied as The Building Industry Association of Washington and public-sector unions like the SEIU came together to urge lawmakers to take action.

“It was really emblematic of how a lot of people, from SEIU and the low-income advocates to BIAW and the realtors … said ‘C’mon people, we’ve got to get some stuff done here,’” said Heck, a former U.S. congressman who has worked on housing issues for years.

Inslee and Heck both singled out Bateman for getting the middle-housing bill done.

“All this stuff that had pretty tortured journeys; middle-housing was brutal, credit Jessica Bateman for being bulldog of the century,” he added. “But also condo stuff was tough, and that came late, and that was really important, too.”

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Heck also pointed to another bill signed Monday: House Bill 1474, sponsored by Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, to begin to address generations of systemic racism related to housing ownership.

The bill seeks to address that by creating a covenant homeownership account as well as a program to help with down payments and closing costs for some first-time homebuyers with limited income, according to a statement from Taylor.

“The deliberate and harmful barriers preventing Black homeownership impact intergenerational wealth and housing security,” Taylor said in prepared remarks. “Because this racial discrimination was targeted, the solution must also be targeted. To truly right the wrongs of the past, our policies require focused and thoughtful solutions.”

Meanwhile, the state operating and capital-construction budgets, to be signed soon, will include about $1 billion total on housing, including $400 million for the state Housing Trust Fund, a program geared at building or preserving affordable housing across the state.

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.