Urban density bill signed by Inslee

Urban density bill signed by Inslee
Governor Jay Inslee has signed E2SHB 1923 sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon into law.

Governor Jay Inslee has signed E2SHB 1923 sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) into law – a bill that supporters hope will increase housing density and supply within urban areas.

The bill is one of a few backed by both local government advocates and building industry members, while other unsuccessful housing-related proposals this session failed to garner needed support from one of those two groups.

Improving housing affordability was an oft-discussed topic this session. Yet one of the challenges for policymakers was finding consensus among various stakeholders. While builders and others sought higher allowable housing density to increase the residential supply, local government groups such as Association of Washington Cities (AWC) and the Washington State Association of Counties insisted on legislation that made these land-use policies optional rather than mandatory.

E2SHB 1923 creates a “menu” of different zoning changes local governments can make to increase the housing supply, but none are required. To encourage them, the law provides grants of up to $100,000 for cities with populations over 20,000 that take at least two of the actions included in the “menu.”  The bill also exempts certain types of housing projects from appeals under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process.

AWC Government Relations Advocate Carl Schroeder told Lens that the bill “did a good job of balancing diverse interests. It creates incentives and options without dictating from on high that cities need to grow and accommodate growth.”

Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties Senior Policy Analyst Allison Butcher told Lens that including the grants offers a critical way to “support cities who may not have the resources to go in and update their codes or adopt new ordinances within their cities. Everything here (in the bill) is optional – meant to encourage urban density – but financial incentives definitely help. Cities are strapped for resources to make code updates and implement these changes.”

She added that the bill represents the first time “the legislature contemplated a minimum density” since the Growth Management Act was enacted in the 1990s. “In that sense it will serve as a guide to planners, and it’s a significant policy shift.”

Other housing bills such as SB 5812 with more prescriptive provisions ultimately lacked similar support; the legislation would have required cities and counties to adopt zoning changes allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU) within urban growth areas. The bill cleared the Senate in a 38-10 vote, but was not brought to the House floor for a vote. Another housing bill that didn’t pass was HB 1690, which would have increased the number of allowable plats within a subdivision, which aren’t subject to SEPA.

“That’s going to continue to be a challenge going forward,” Butcher said. “Again, you got into this local control argument.”

Schroeder said one of the problems with statewide prescriptive land-use policies is that the cause of the housing shortage in central Puget Sound is very different than in central Washington. Because of that, the solutions will have to be different.

“With other parts of the state, how do (you) incentivize the market to even build there?” he said. “We can’t force people to build.”

While E2SHB 1923 allowed the two groups to find common ground, Butcher said “I don’t think we’ve cracked the code and resolved that issue. We continue working with the cities and continue working with other partners.”

She added that another opportunity to discuss future land-use proposals could come as the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at the University of Washington completes a biannual report on the housing supply and affordability of all Washington cities under GMA with a population of 10,000 or more.

“What we’re trying to do is make the GMA work as intended,” she said. “That means adding housing in our urban areas and urban growth areas. Our concern is where cities meet local resistance to growth. Politically, their hands are tied. There becomes a political challenge in actually accommodating the demand for housing. I think we’ll likely see more on that going forward.”


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