In search of balanced approach to housing affordability

In search of balanced approach to housing affordability
SSHB 1923 would create a variety of options for cities to increase their housing supply. However, one area of disagreement is whether those choices should be optional or required. Photo: freepik.com

A recurring debate during this year’s legislative session concerns the state’s appropriate role regarding local housing supply and density, which can be largely determined by city and county comprehensive plans under the state Growth Management Act. Those differing viewpoints were articulated at the Mar. 27 public hearing of the Senate Committee on Housing Stability & Affordability of SSHB 1923.

“How do we encourage and push local governments to recognize the current state of zoning – one of multiple factors that are prohibitive for more affordable housing?” Alex Hur told the committee. Hur is a lobbyist for the Master Builders Association for King and Snohomish counties, which supported the bill’s passage out of the House.

Sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34), the bill’s intent is to incentivize larger housing supplies in cities with a population smaller than 10,000. It also encourages local governments to allow a variety of residential units such as duplexes and triples. The proposal would also exempt housing project activities from appeals under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process. As originally written, some of the bill provisions for cities was mandatory, but that later was changed.

“My goal with this bill has not been to mandate that cities take any specific actions,” Fitzgibbon told the committee. “My goal has been to provide a flexibility menu of options to grow the housing supply within those jurisdictions and allow cities to identify which of the options from this menu that make the most sense in our local context.”

While local government advocacy groups such as the Association of Washington Cities favor permissive authority for local governments rather than stipulations, the building and real estate industries argue that a more firm policy is needed.

Jan Himebaugh is the government affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Washington. She told the committee that they prefer cities be required to choose from the options, rather than make it optional. The reason is because “local governments do get put in this hard box where they can’t take these decisions to up-zone…because the community doesn’t want it. Supply is the fundamental problem.”

That view is also shared by Hur, who said that efforts to increase density within urban areas are often opposed by “folks who are longtime residents, and they don’t want to see those changes being made. That’s perhaps why the state should get involved.”

Hur added that when cities can’t or don’t maximize land use, it gets reflected in a home’s listing price. “Increased density means we can build more affordable homes. If you have a zoning that is basically one dwelling unit per acre and the cost of land is already high… we have to try and figure out a way to make that project pencil out, meaning generally larger houses that cost more.”

Speaking in strong support of the bill at the public hearing was Jeanette McKague with Washington Realtors, though she recommended that committee members add a provision to examine how jurisdictions are meeting housing demands. “We think that kind of project is what’s really important. We need to understand how we’re doing, and if we’re getting the right product on the ground.”

Also in support of the bill was Sightline Institute Senior Outreach Associate Madeline Kovacs, who added “we are concerned, however, that because the bill encourages rather than requires any of these actions, its impact on policy change won’t adequately address the crisis.

“With a few modifications, it (the bill) will increase housing options and affordability throughout the state,” she said.

SSHB 1923 is scheduled for executive action on April 1.

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