Housing proposal ignites debate over local control

Housing proposals ignite debate over local control
The state Senate has approved a bill requiring cities and counties to allow accessory dwelling units (ADU) to increase the housing supply. However, some lawmakers say it undermines local control over planning.

The Washington Senate voted 38-10 on Mar. 11 in favor of SB 5812 requiring that cities and counties adopt ordinances and regulations allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU) within their urban growth areas (UGA). Debate on the Senate floor prior to the vote highlighted an ongoing challenge for lawmakers looking to increase the housing supply but also to maintain the autonomy of local governments tasked with making comprehensive plans under the state Growth Management Act (GMA).

“We have a local government structure in this state that we ought to respect,” Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25) said. “The way to deal with continued growth…is not to override local control. I think it is to strengthen local control. If we do things as well intended as they may be in the name of affordable housing or in the name of dealing with growth that takes away the control of our local communities, I think we do a setback to our local democracy.”

Under SB 5812, policies set by cities and counties must allow an attached ADU or a detached ADU on lots with single-family residences. Lots larger than 2,500 square feet must be permitted to have a detached ADU, while smaller lots must be allowed to have an attached ADU. Supporters say that the ADUs are an ideal option for people transitioning out of homelessness, young adults who want to remain close to their parents but can’t afford a house and elderly family members that prefer to age in place rather than a care center.

“I don’t have to tell anybody in this chamber we are facing an unprecedent homeless and housing crisis,” Sponsor Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) told colleagues. “You see it in every part of the state.”

He added that the bill proposes “a calm way” of addressing affordability challenges. “We have a simple supply and demand issue right now. We’re not building enough supply.”

Echoing Zeiger’s critique was Sen. Steve Conway (D-29), who told colleagues that “it’s critically important to bring homeowners together as a community to discuss how they improve their community. The problem with this bill is that it actually establishes a green light here for developers to ignore what a community has asked for.”

To address concerns over local control, the Senate approved an amendment sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-35) that exempts cities that already have ADU regulations and gives local governments the ability to pass regulations on the use of ADUs as short-term rentals.

“It is so critical with housing affordability being a crisis throughout Washington state that we address this by making sure that are supporting new development…that actually fit the character of our communities,” she said. “It’s really important that we do it in a way that respects local governments as much as possible and recognizes those that have taken initiative to work with their communities to come up with policies that work for them. Everyone needs to step up to find a way to make this work in their communities.”

Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) noted the relatively narrow focus of the bill. “We used to just call these additions to the house or mother-in-law apartments, now we’re calling them accessory dwelling units and making it into some kind of big deal thing that affects the Growth Management Act.”

Although he voted against the bill, Zeiger added that “I want to see this bill move forward and get better.”

SB 5812 has not yet been referred to a House committee. The companion bill HB 1797 has been referred to the House Rules Committee and placed on second reading.

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