I’ve written it before, and it is still true: Nothing sparks more reaction in South Snohomish County than the phrase “single-family zoning.” What drives that reaction is equal parts growth, change, fear, the economy and history.
The Washington State Legislature is again debating a bill that could change single-family zoning and housing statewide. That fuels the fears of those who believe cities will lose local zoning control, and that would open up all single-family neighborhoods to duplexes and triplexes and in turn diminish the character of the communities. Balanced against that are those who believe it is past time to provide equitable and affordable housing opportunities for all incomes among the tens of thousands of people who will move here.
“We are absolutely in support of this bill,” said Mark Smith, executive director of the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County. “There is not enough buildable land to continue the current land-use patterns and take in future population growth.”
A different view comes from Michelle Dotsch, president of the Alliance of Citizens for Edmonds (ACE): “The Washington State Legislature is once again trying to strong-arm Edmonds and most Washington cities into giving up local control over land-use, density, and zoning decisions.”
The Association of Washington Cities (AWC), which lobbies city and town issues to legislators and represents all 281 communities in the state, is blunt: “Washington has a profound need for housing — much of which the private market cannot deliver.” AWC estimates that Snohomish County needs 140,000 new housing units by 2044 — half of them affordable to very low- and low-income residents.
There is no doubt that we face a big population increase here in the next 20 years. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PRSC)’s Regional Growth Strategy estimates more than 300,000 people will move into Snohomish County in the next two decades. That is a 37% increase in our current numbers and would swell the countywide population to over 1.1 million by 2044.
The PRSC reports that 95% of those newcomers will funnel into urban growth areas — that covers basically all of South County. Snohomish County planners estimate that in the next 20 years, Lynnwood will add 25,000 new residents and Edmonds 14,000 more, and that another 13,000 will move into Mountlake Terrace.
House Bill 1110/Senate bill 5190: increasing middle housing in areas traditionally dedicated to single-family detached housing
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee set the stage for debate this month when he launched his $4 billion housing plan to speed construction of tens of thousands of multi-family units that will include affordable and low-income units and supportive housing and shelters.
“We must finish the job we started last session to address middle housing and increase housing density within our communities. There is a way to do this that respects the unique character of our towns and cities, while also responding to the reality that we are a growing, changing state.” – Gov. Jay Inslee
House Bill 1110 and its companion bill (5190) in the Senate, says the state faces …”an unprecedented housing shortage for its current population and without significant action will not meet its goal of creating 1,000,000 homes by 2044.”
HB 1110 proposes:
– developing more housing at all income levels
– allowing people to live near where they work
– directing communities to change zoning in “some areas” to allow more affordable housing near transit and jobs
– reducing pressure to build on open space/farmland, supporting climate change initiatives, environmental recovery.
The bill claims the changes would make more affordable housing available, especially to people and families whose incomes are less than 80% of the county’s median household income – $95,600 in 2021.
It would apply to every community in South County — even to the Town of Woodway — because portions of all communities are within urban growth guidelines and close to mass transit stops, including bus, light rail, the Sounder train and the Edmonds ferry terminal. The bill supports more multi-family housing close to transit and that is where Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds are focusing their growth.
But under the bill, duplexes and housing up to four units could be developed on “all lots” zoned residential. If contractors promise to make two of the units for lower-income people, they could then build a total of six units. Within a half mile of a transit stop, as many as six units could be built per lot. But the bill also states that “Nothing in this section prohibits a city from permitting detached single-family residences.”
State Rep. Strom Peterson, an Edmonds Democrat who represents parts of Edmonds and Lynnwood, is a co-sponsor of HB 1110. He told us that housing issues “… affect the economy, working families, contribute to the homelessness crisis… all of those things can really be seen in that lens of the lack of housing opportunity in this state.”
ACE President Michelle Dotsch calls the bill “shortsighted,” and a threat to a community’s local control. “That’s a cookie cutter idea and to plop it down in every city… Edmonds is not Shoreline, not Lynnwood, it’s not Seattle. and that’s why local planning has the real care to take a look at that, look at all the impacts of the type of density and where it makes sense.”
Other bousing bills
House Bill 1245 would make it easier for homeowners to subdivide their property into two lots and allow them to sell ownership of an accessory dwelling unit (a small house of about 800 square feet) on that lot.
House Bill 1026 would eliminate design review boards for residential construction. The argument is that the reviews can delay projects for months, driving up construction costs.
Rep. Peterson has introduced HB1124 to mandate that landlords give tenants six-month notice on rent increases, not the 60-day notice they do now. That bill would also limit the amount of late fees and allow tenants to quit their lease if they face rent increases.
Two other bills, not yet introduced, are expected to seek to eliminate parking requirements for multi-family projects near transit stops, which might cut the cost to build apartments; the second of these bills could prevent landlords from retaliating against tenants by raising rents.
Local zoning control or state control
This is the second time lawmakers have tried to impose statewide changes to some single-family zoning; last year, a bill similar to 1110 never made it to the House or Senate floors for a vote.
Fred Safstrom, recently retired CEO of the nonprofit low-income housing group Housing Hope, said it is fear that drives some of the opposition. “I say fear is a powerful thing and I don’t discount that. Just because there is a fear of change, doesn’t necessarily mean that those fears would become reality… (yet some) firmly believe what’s being proposed here is going to result in an adverse change to these neighborhoods.”
Dotsch argues the concern is not fear but the proposed state blanket policy “that basically takes all of the control out of the city, out of the citizens that live in those communities and just makes it a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to a problem that I think every city is going to have to challenge it differently.”
Mark Smith of the Housing Consortium for Everett and Snohomish County said that much of single-family zoning was created historically to keep some people “out.” There is, he said, still “a primal fear that the people who move in (to multi-family) are going to ruin the neighborhood somehow.”
Karen Haase Herrick, vice president of ACE, counters: “I think this bill, as it did last year, creates a ‘noise’ and that makes it hard for the (city) council to actually respond to the work that citizens in this community did that would have increased housing; maybe not with affordability, but with some thoughtful planning.”
Rep. Peterson responded to concerns that the measure would threaten all single-family neighborhoods. “We’re not going to bulldoze swaths of neighborhoods to put in a fourplex,” he said. “I think it’s a false argument; when similar work has been done around the country, housing values actually increase, and neighborhoods are not overrun with fourplexes and duplexes. It is a very gradual, a much smoother transition than people think.”
Haase Herrick thinks there is a critical piece missing in the bill: “We’re not asking anything of apartment builders to actually build family apartments. They’re building studio, one and two bedrooms; that’s not family housing,” she said.
Most of the apartments under construction in all South County communities will charge market-rate rents, and as such, many people will not be able to afford them.
An example: the Hazel Apartments on Highway 99 in Edmonds. Rents range from $1,638 for a 500-square-foot studio and top out at over $3,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bath unit. In 2022, 18 projects were under construction or in permit reviews in Edmonds — that’s a record-breaking 1,027 units for the city. But only 143 of those units are labeled “moderate” or “low-income” apartments. At Hazel, 40 of the 192 units fit that description and that is only because the developer got a multi-family tax exemption from the city to include lower-income units.
Proponents insist that building more housing will eventually lower rents; opponents argue that has not been the case.
What local city councils and mayors think of the housing bills
Edmonds made the city’s position clear last month when the Edmonds City Council passed — by a 6-1 vote — a resolution supporting local control in land use, zoning and building codes. That resolution states that “single family zoning will continue to be a component of our zoning codes”and that the city complies with all “current” federal state and county laws.”
“The Edmonds City Council reaffirms our commitment to our citizens to reject any intervention by County and State Legislators to dilute any of City Council’s authority in all land use matters.” – Edmonds Resolution 1510
Council President Neil Tibbott said that the council and Mayor Mike Nelson are working on a letter to the governor and lawmakers to reaffirm that stand. Tibbott and Councilmembers Will Chen and Jenna Nand will meet with lawmakers Feb. 16 to state their case. We asked Mayor Nelson for his feedback; he has not yet responded.
Lynnwood is already building more than 4,000 apartments — with a possible increase to 6,000 — in the City Center and around Alderwood Mall. Most of it is designed to funnel density into neighborhoods adjacent to light rail.
“While my impression is most of the Lynnwood City Council doesn’t like this bill, no, we haven’t taken an official stance,” said Lynnwood Council President Shannon Sessions. “This is also a topic we will bring up to our legislators during city action days in Olympia in February.”
A spokesperson for Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell said via email that the city does not like “a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to solving the housing crisis. The City of Lynnwood has and will continue to work to accommodate our region’s growth and its housing demands.”
Mountlake Terrace is already in a big multi-family construction surge, with more than 700 units going up at Terrace Station, next to light rail and as part of the overall Town Center development. Another developer has just brought the city plans for an additional 600 apartments in that area.
Mayor Kyoko Matsumoto Wright said that the city has taken no position of the possible state pre-emption of local zoning control but is monitoring the hearings and wants more details of what’s in the bill. “We fought this a long time ago; a lot of the stuff that’s in there (the bill), we’ve already done,” she said. “Our Town Center development next to the light rail station, we have the density to be built there… I don’t think we’re one of the problem cities.”
Woodway has just 1,300 residents, but it also may fall under the state mandate on zoning change. That’s because almost half of Woodway sits within a half-mile of transit stops and the community is part of the urban growth area that encompasses most of South County. The town has already created a map that shows a long strip of Woodway along the Edmonds Way corridor could face zoning changes if the bill passes. That would be a huge change for the town.
Will the housing bills pass?
“I feel very good that a strong version of this bill (HB1110) is going to pass,” Rep. Peterson said. “This is priority of the House, both Republicans and Democrats, rural and urban.” Peterson noted that several years ago, “we passed HB 1220, that asked cities to take a harder look at what type of housing we will need in the future.” This bill, he insisted, follows on that work.
Edmonds Council President Tibbott said that according to the city’s lobbyist, some version of the bill is “likely to pass.”
Association of Washington Cities Deputy Director Carl Schroeder has said that although his group has had more “productive conversations” with lawmakers this year, AWC still is concerned about ‘broad pre-emption of local zoning rules’, and about expanding the bill to apply to more cities.
Housing Hope’s former Executive Director Safstrom added: “We think the best neighborhood and best public policy is to create mixed-income neighborhoods,” adding that they “create a more vibrant community.”
Dotsch, from ACE, asked, “Where are the jobs, where’s the commercial business, where’s the tax base for the city to support all this — the cops, more firefighters, more infrastructure.. more environmental work…we are actually doing our part unless you want every square inch of Edmonds to be a house,” she added.
One of the two prime sponsors of HB 1110, Rep. Jessica Bateman, warned that if the state wants to meet the construction goal of a million new housing units in the next 20 years, it must triple housing construction; “We’ve tried letting each city make their own zoning decisions for decades,” said Bateman, a Democrat from Olympia. “It’s 2023, it hasn’t worked. We need to try a different approach. We need to be bold.”
The questions — how bold? What will residents, cities and towns, lawmakers and advocates on both sides agree on? What compromises — and there will be compromises in Olympia and locally — will lawmakers strike to try to pass this bill? Will the long-term impact be more housing opportunities for more people or, as some fear, the erosion of communities? As I wrote at the start, “nothing sparks more reaction in the South County than the future of housing and the phrase ‘single family-zoning.'”
— By Bob Throndsen