GMA’s top-down approach to housing could intensify

GMA’s top-down approach to housing could intensify
While some local elected officials have fought to maintain control over land-use and planning under the Growth Management Act, others believe that more state mandates are needed to improve density and housing affordability. Photo: freepik.com

Since the early 1990s the state Growth Management Act (GMA) has directed regional and local zoning policy regarding economic development and housing to prevent urban sprawl. However, in recent years the law has come under fire from school districts, developers and state legislators for what they view as undue restrictions on how to accommodate population growth.

During the past several legislative sessions there have been numerous attempts to reform GMA; one of the sticking points among stakeholders is whether the state or cities and counties get to determine the finer points of land-use policy such as parking requirements and allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU). While local government advocates have argued against a top-down approach, some former elected officials say communities may require a stronger guiding hand from the legislature for housing affordability to improve.

“If we’re going to restrict growth out, we’re going to have to intervene as a state,” Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium Director Ben Stuckart said at an Association of Washington Business (AWB) Aug. 25 virtual housing summit.  Stuckart served for eight years on the Spokane city council and served as its president.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, housing prices continue to rise in the Seattle area where housing affordability remains an ongoing problem since real estate prices started to climb in 2012. Perhaps driving much of that is the influx of high-income earners; median household incomes in King County grew by 44 percent between 2010-2018. However, State Department of Commerce Housing Assistance Senior Director Tedd Kelleher said at the Aug. 25 summit that residents with low or fixed-income are not keeping up with rent inflation. At 62.8 percent, Washington currently lags behind the national homeownership rate of 63.9 percent.

One cause cited for the lack of affordable housing are the costs associated such as land value, stormwater management, permit fees and other regulations. Azure Northwest Principal Tom Young said at the summit that “we’d be happy to build more of these (affordable) homes,” noting that they require less capital investment and are built faster. “I usually have these homes sold even before they’re done. More affordable homes are the safer investment for me.”

“Why don’t I build more?” he added. “Because I can’t. There aren’t enough opportunities that allow me to build more of these homes. In places like Redmond, Bellevue (and) Kirkland where builders are selling homes for $1.5 million to $2 million, they’ll spend $100,000 for stormwater. But can you do that for affordable homes?”

Other metro areas such as Portland have addressed housing affordability through a residential infill project that do the following:

  • Allow up to four homes on almost all lots;
  • Up to six homes per lot for price-regulated projects; and
  • Eliminates parking requirements

“We have to examine the overarching regulations so that cities actually allow the density so we have more housing choices available,” Stuckart said. “There’s a lot we can do on the regulatory framework.”

However, Stuckart said that efforts in Spokane similar to Portland’s got bogged down by neighborhoods opposed to new density. “The problem is local governments are as close to the people as possible and loudest voices actually do make a difference. I saw numerous projects…get defeated at the neighborhood level because people automatically fight back against it.”

Although other city and county elected officials have argued that local control is critical due to the comprehensive plans they must complete every eight years under GMA, Stuckart said the problem is pushback results in minimal changes to public policy with little effect on the housing market.

The next AWB housing summit is scheduled for Sept. 22.

1 COMMENT

  1. I am most familiar with south Snohomish county, and what has happened here is most every city has ignored density requirements of gma. Has lynnwood , Edmonds,woodway and the rest changed their pre-GMA zoning for the preponderance of the city? No . The state mandated accommodation of certain population for each county. Then The cities did virtually nothing to add density…except maybe a little more multi family zoning. Still have 2 ac , 1 ac 12,500sf etc. So Snohomish county simply took all of the remaining required density and spread it over county controlled areas of the county. Today, on the county control side of the street homes sit on 3000-4000 sf lots while across the street in the city , homes are required to be on 8000sf lots. And per GMA , cities are where the density is best placed. Local politicians only give lip service to gma. Without more control at the state level it is simply another hollow law.

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