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Middle housing bill passes major milestone in Olympia

caption: Seattle has some missing middle housing, but it's not allowed in most parts of the city, whereas Spokane has allowed it everywhere. This example is northwest of Holman Road, in Seattle's Crown Hill neighborhood.
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Seattle has some missing middle housing, but it's not allowed in most parts of the city, whereas Spokane has allowed it everywhere. This example is northwest of Holman Road, in Seattle's Crown Hill neighborhood.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Lawmakers advanced a “middle housing” bill out of a key committee this week. It would basically eliminate single-family zones, so that people can build duplexes, fourplexes, and townhomes instead.

The goal of the bill is to bring down the cost of housing by making it easier to build homes.

A townhome, for example, costs less to build than a single-family home, because it’s sitting on a smaller piece of land, and land is expensive.

But most cities have strict limitations on where you can build them. So, competition for townhomes is fierce. That keeps the prices high.

Proponents of the middle housing bill say that once we allow them statewide, we’ll start to see enough supply that buyers will finally see some savings.

People could still build single-family homes, but the bill would lift bans on duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes.

Anna Fahey is with the progressive think tank, Sightline. They’ve been polling voters on the topic.

She said voters have listed homelessness and the housing shortage as their top issues for years.

But the organization's most recent poll, out this week, shows a shift. “What I think is changing is that voters understand the shortage is at the root cause of prices and rents being so high," Fahey said. "They are starting to understand what the mechanisms are that will unleash the housing that people are really hungry for.”

In the new poll, 71% of respondents said they'd support legislation that would eliminate single family zoning in order to promote denser forms of housing like duplexes and small apartment buildings. 61% continued to support the idea even when asked if they'd approve of such housing going up next door to them.

Support for the idea among voters of color was slightly higher than among white voters, and was far higher in cities and suburbs than in rural areas, though even there, a majority supported the idea. Support did not waver when people were presented with arguments both for and against, and even ticked up slightly higher.

Finally, when asked about the causes of high home prices, the highest number of people (72%) chose the explanation that a "A shortage of housing makes people compete for what's available, pushing up costs" over competing explanations such as "Modest, older housing that was affordable is being replaced by big, expensive housing" (an explanation favored by 44% of respondents).


ne key hangup for cities in the past has been the proposed elimination of parking requirements.

Backers of the bill made some last-minute concessions on parking to ensure broader support. Now, in neighborhoods without good transit, cities are allowed to require up to two parking stalls per unit, whereas an earlier version of the bill only allowed them to require two parking stalls per lot, which is much fewer.

Another concession seems to be that smaller towns are given some breaks. Towns with populations between 6,000 and 25,000 are now completely exempted [correction: unless these small towns are included in a metro area with a large city like Seattle].

Towns between 25,000 and 75,000 only need to allow four-plexes, not six-plexes as before.

Representatives from Seattle also requested a change to the bill's language that ensures that its Mandatory Housing Affordability program is still allowed. That change is still in the works, Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-Olympia) has said.

The revised bill would require that six-plexes be closer to a broader range of amenities than in the previous version of the bill. It's not just about transit anymore: Six-plexes must also be allowed within half a mile of schools and park entrances.

The bill passed out of the House Housing Committee with bipartisan support from nine representatives, seven Democrats and two Republicans. All three votes against the bill came from Republicans, showing that while most Democrats are united on this issue, there's division among Republicans on whether this bill helps or hamstrings small communities.

Gov. Jay Inslee has said the state needs to triple the amount of housing it allows each year to begin catching up with pent-up demand.

Former Gov. Christine Gregoire told KUOW that, of the many housing bills under consideration, this one is the most important.

But the bill still has a long way to go.

Last year, a similar bill got this far, but failed to achieve enough support to pass in the end.

But the number of housing-related bills making it out of committee during the current legislative session suggests that this year could be different.

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