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Housing interests mixed on legislation approved by Washington lawmakers

Small apartment complexes like this one on North Monroe in Spokane may become more common, thanks to new legislation approved this year by the Washington legislature.
Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
Apartment complexes like this one under construction on North Monroe in Spokane may become more common, thanks to new legislation approved this year by the Washington legislature.

Legislators approved about 20 housing-related bills this year.

Housing was one of the most discussed subject areas in the Washington legislature this year. Lawmakers took action on nearly 20 bills with some sort of housing connection, an attempt to create more affordable places to live.

One of the high profile bills would allow cities to change zoning rules to allow for more “middle housing.”

“It’s small-scale multi-family housing, like duplexes and triplexes and small apartment buildings. It sort of fits in the niche between a single-detached house and a larger apartment building,” said Dan Bertolet from the Sightline Institute in Seattle.

Bertolet hopes the new law will nudge cities toward allocating more of their available land for shared housing options, in addition to single family detached homes.

“Historically, these are the kinds of housing types that have been legal in neighborhoods before, it started back in the 1920s. Cities started to implement more and more restrictive zoning to limit neighborhoods to only single-family houses,” he said.

The legislature also approved steps to make it easier to create small living spaces, commonly known as accessory dwelling units or “mother-in-law apartments.” Other measures are aimed at changing permitting and other regulations that builders must comply with as they plan their projects.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden [R-Spokane Valley] that would make it easier for smaller condos to be built also cleared the legilsature. It would exempt buildings with 12 or fewer units and two or fewer stories from some of the restrictions that apply to similar, but larger, projects.

These measures will have some effect, said Bill Clarke from the Washington Association of Realtors, but not immediately.

“We’ve been underbuilding as a state for 20+ years, and so you’re not going to solve that overnight. You’re not going to solve it solely with market-rate construction and you can’t solve it solely with public funding,” Clarke said. “I do think that we need to keep looking at how do you get more private money into the market to build more affordable units because there needs to be a mix of that range.”

Michele Thomas from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance says she’s excited the legislature allocated $400 million for the state’s housing trust fund. She says that’s the most reliable source of funding for projects that serve the state’s neediest citizens.

“The for-profit sector will not provide affordable housing,” she said. “The middle housing and all the permit expedited bills, those will help the for-profit sector build housing that is out of reach of low-income and middle-income people. It doesn’t mean we don’t need more housing for people at the higher end, but it will do nothing to solve our affordable housing and homelessness crisis.”

Thomas says the legislature also allocated an additional $100 million for housing-related programs.

She says she’s excited about a bill that doesn’t directly apply to housing, but which will free up money that some of her clients can use to pay their rent.

“This bill will finally end the Reagan-era requirement that extremely low-income, disabled people repay their public benefits to the state once they get Social Security disability benefits,” she said.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.