The 2019 legislative session is just over the horizon and political momentum to tackle our region’s affordable housing shortage is growing. This confluence means state lawmakers now have a unique opportunity to advance meaningful changes to increase housing supply where it’s needed most: near jobs and transit. Establishing a minimum residential density standard for cities in fast-growing counties would be a major step forward—one that is long overdue.
The Growth Management Act (GMA) has been around for 28 years. While the GMA has met its objectives of forming urban growth boundaries, curbing sprawl, and protecting green spaces, it has fallen short when it comes to promoting new housing in all the right places and creating an adequate supply of housing people can afford.
Our region’s significant growth has been a net positive, but there are simply not enough housing options to accommodate all residents near job centers. This has forced much of the recent growth away from major job and transportation hubs into unincorporated areas that are inadequately equipped to provide needed infrastructure. Meanwhile, land prices are rising higher and higher in cities closest to jobs and amenities, worsening our housing affordability crisis. Ultimately this impacts everyone’s quality of life by adding to traffic congestion, time spent away from family, rising housing costs, and worst of all, an increase in unsheltered families who are unable to secure the most basic entry-level housing options.
While the GMA envisions that cities and urban growth areas will absorb most of the growth, the GMA does not require a minimum residential density standard. This is a problem because cities are often stymied by political pressure from current residents who reject growth in their own communities. The result is new polices restricting growth, such as building moratoriums in some King County cities, and zoning limits that preclude building more housing.
In too many cases, fear of change is holding cities back from doing what is ultimately in their best interest. Certainly, having an adequate supply of housing for individuals and families of all economic segments that work, live and play in our cities, benefits communities in many ways. It enables people to live closer to jobs, essential services, and transit, which diminishes the need to drive and lowers carbon emissions.
It’s worth noting here that some cities are doing a better job than others in terms of accommodating growth and adding much-needed housing. We are fortunate that some local governments have been willing to step up and lead by example on housing. However, these jurisdictions alone cannot bear the burden of accommodating the 1.8 million additional residents that the Puget Sound Regional Council is forecasting by 2050 in King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties.
All cities in fast-growing counties have a key role to play in ensuring that our current and future housing needs are met. Holding cities accountable to the same minimum standard regarding density, however that is defined, would be a major step forward for the GMA, and it would go a long way toward improving our housing supply picture.
Establishing a minimum residential density standard would not be a panacea, but it would certainly create more housing choices, increase affordability, and improve our region’s ability to accommodate the tremendous growth we know is coming in a way that is healthy, sustainable and just.
Kat Sims is the executive director of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. Senator Guy Palumbo represents the 1st District in the State Senate.