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Cities in Washington can no longer make vague promises to build enough 'affordable housing'

caption: Parla Apartments in the Crown Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
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Parla Apartments in the Crown Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Cities in Washington can no longer make vague promises to build enough affordable housing for the people moving into this region.

That’s the aim of a new state law giving cities specific goals around how many homes they'll accommodate, and who should be able to afford them.

The previous system gave cities a lot of discretion about the kind of housing they’d allow and where it should go, according to King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci. Sometimes their strategies backfired, resulting in housing that was scarce and expensive.

“If everybody's responsible for something, nobody is responsible. And so we never came close to meeting those targets,” Balducci told KUOW. “And there's nobody you can point out and say, 'Well, you didn't do your part.’”

Under the new law, cities still control their own zoning laws, which govern where housing can go. But the pressure to meet more specific affordability requirements should convince cities to permit more apartment buildings and townhomes in more places, Balducci said.

For example, Snohomish County’s analysis of state data shows that only 1% of housing in Bothell is affordable to extremely low-income households. But under the new law, Snohomish County will require a large percentage of new housing in Bothell to meet that affordability standard. Bothell also needs much more middle-income housing. Finally, the city still needs some housing for high earners, but not nearly as much as it has been building.

The law, HB 1220, was signed by Governor Jay Inslee in 2021. However, it's taken until now for its impact to reach cities.

Washington cities are currently in the process of updating their comprehensive plans, which will guide how they grow over the next 20-plus years. The new housing goals for each city will become part of those plans, which are due in December 2024.

Success is not guaranteed. There’s no legal requirement that cities meet their affordable housing goals. Some cities invite in all kinds of housing but fail to attract developers.

Still, Balducci is optimistic. “I truly believe that if we do this, right, we will go 10 years from now and look back and you will see it bend,” she said. “You will see a turn in the housing shortage because this work will make that kind of a difference.”

Expect a wait, though. Homes built under these guidelines won't be ready for a few years.

Update notice, 9:13 a.m. on Wednesday, 10/18/23: This story has been updated to include more information about the law in question.

Update notice, 4:45 p.m. 10/19/23: Bothell's goals were prepared by Snohomish County, not King County. Bothell is in both counties.

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