The push for minimum density standards

The push for minimum density standards
SB 5769 would create a statewide minimum density standard within urban areas of six dwelling units per acre. Photo:

A frequent observation made by builders operating in the central Puget Sound area when discussing housing affordability is the varying housing density standards created by cities and counties. A pending Senate proposal would remove inconsistent zoning rules by establishing a statewide minimum density standard that proponents say would not only help increase the housing supply but also would level out population growth through the region.

Criticism made by local government spokespersons at a Feb. 7 public hearing of the Senate Local Government Committee indicate if the bill is passed it will likely experience significant revisions. Yet for supporters, the overall goal would still be achieved if it advances the discussion around the inequities related to distribution of growth.

Sponsored by Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) and Majority Floor Leader Marko Liias (D-21), SB 5769 would set a minimum density standard within urban growth areas (UGA) of at least six units per acre. The bill would also require cities and counties subject to the Growth Management Act (GMA) to allow a variety of housing types within a quarter mile of facilities including a school, park, rail station, hospital and community center. Those units required for permitting would include cottages, townhouses and duplexes.

The new standards would have to be adopted by 2020, and would be exempt from the Growth Management Hearings Board until the next comprehensive plan update. They would also be exempt from any State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) decision.

“I think that as you’ve seen over the past 4-5 years, our state and many regions, especially in the GMA cities and counties, are facing a house crisis for access and affordability that we haven’t seen in quite some time,” said Alex Hur, a lobbyist for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. In King County, he said people are being pushed out of the larger cities into nearby municipalities, “but zoning hasn’t caught up.”

Calling the bill a “bold proposal” and “conversation starter,” Hur added that there’s “probably going to be changes. I know that having that minimum urban density of six dwellings per acre may not be appropriate in every part of the state.”

Testifying in support of the bill, Washington REALTORS Assistance Director of Land Use Jeanette McKague told committee members that “it’s not the answer,” but contains provisions that could complement other bills tackling the same issue. “Finally, as we look at all the bills and try to put them all together, I think it is important small governments need some funding to make changes in their planning and policy documents.”

However, Washington Association of Counties Policy Director Paul Jewell argued that SB 5769 would undermine the local authority of cities and counties regarding zoning and land use. He added that a desire among local governments to be exempt from the bill “is going to exist all over Washington state” because of the differences between regions regarding growth trends. While permissive language making the density standard an option is acceptable “a blanket mandate is something we just can’t support.

“This is a pretty simplistic approach at least in appearance,” he added. “I’m not sure it’s going to make any difference at all, frankly.”

Also opposed was Association of Washington Cities Government Relations Advocate Carl Schroeder. He told lawmakers “this bill would apply just as much in Seattle as Redmond and Redmond as it would in Krupp in Grant county,” a municipality with a population of 48.

“The problems in Krupp, to the extent that they have any, are not at all the same as those in Redmond and Seattle,” he added.

Yet, Sen. Shelly Short (R-7) argued that the current land use situation needs to change. “We still have jurisdictions that don’t want to take up those issues….and then we’re still stuck in this housing conundrum. How do we do this in a fashion that really gets local governments to take a harder look at some of these issues?”

The bill is not scheduled for any further action.


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