Stay up to date with the latest updates in the legislative session with our housing newsletter.
In 2019, the Washington legislature stepped up on housing and scored some good wins for housing abundance and affordability. This year, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are back with a raft of housing proposals for the 2020 two-month “short” session.
More states are tackling housing
Oregon and California have led the way. Last summer, Oregon passed landmark legislation that legalized duplexes everywhere in nearly every city in the state, and up to fourplexes in parts of all large cities.
Over the past few years, California adopted numerous measures to unclog the state’s gargantuan housing shortage, most recently reforming rules on in-law suites to allow three homes on every residential lot in the state.
Texas, North Carolina, and Arkansas have passed state laws limiting permitting delays or banning local restrictions on design. And the list of states considering legislation for abundant housing keeps growing longer: Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Florida, and Connecticut.
Why cities need state leadership to address affordability
Housing affordability is a top issue facing Washington. Affording a home near where you work, go to school, and make your life is at the heart of everyone’s economic security and opportunity, dignity, and well-being.
The housing crisis crosses municipal boundaries, it spans communities on the east and west sides of the mountains, and it’s hurting people in big and small cities. The problem is too big and widespread for cities to tackle separately.
What’s more, Washingtonians who need affordability solutions the most often don’t have a say. Opposition from a small but vocal minority often drowns out the voices of less affluent neighbors, homeless or insecure households, and lower-income households. Without state standards, city policymakers face a political battlefield to do the right thing for their communities.
The answer is state standards to hold cities accountable to do their part and work together across city boundaries—state solutions that can also speak for those without a voice in local housing decisions. Just as the state sets guidelines for road safety, labor standards, and growth management, we can set reasonable, effective standards for housing while giving each community plenty of flexibility to make it work in their local context.
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State standards are essential to protect mixed-income communities, keep Washington families from costly, crushing commutes, and safeguard our health and environment from pollution, traffic, sprawl, and climate change.
Three policy pillars for solving our housing crisis
Equitably tackling Washington’s housing affordability crisis calls for a holistic approach comprising three main objectives:
- more homes of all shapes and sizes to cool average rents and prices
- more funding for subsidies to help those who can’t afford what the market offers
- more tenant protections to safeguard those with the least housing security
Last year, Washington lawmakers did an exemplary job of pursuing a balanced suite of bills to address these three key pieces of the equitable housing puzzle, and this year they’re on track to do the same.
At Sightline, we’ve focused most of our research on policies to create housing abundance by loosening overly restrictive zoning laws and regulations. We see the more homes bills as critical foundations for complementary policies for housing subsidies and tenant protections. Each reinforces the effectiveness of the others.
More homes—enough homes of all shapes and sizes—keeps prices and rents lower, which reduces the need for public subsidy by helping more people afford what the private market provides. And when housing is abundant, measures such as rent stabilization are less likely to backfire by squeezing the supply of rentals, but will still prevent gouging.
Both subsidies and protections can help people in the near term, while creating housing abundance and reaping the benefits plays out over the longer term. Together, all three legs of the stool can create a balanced statewide housing affordability strategy.
Read on below for a rundown of what Washington legislators are cooking up for each of the three critical categories. The robust set of bills presents lawmakers with an opportunity to set a national example for statewide housing policy reform.
Builds on last year’s HB 1923: Reduces transit frequency for parking reductions; caps parking for market-rate housing; shrinks the area for minimum density around transit stations; adds an option for a zone that limits lot size to 3,500 and house size to 1,200 square feet; extends the SEPA appeal safe harbor to 2023; directs Ecology to explore removing parking from SEPA analysis and exempting projects that pass design review from SEPA appeals over aesthetics.
2/16/20: Passed on the House Floor.
HB 2570 sets the following standards for accessory dwellings: prohibits requirements for parking and for the owner to live on-site; limits minimum lot size to 3,500 square feet; caps fees at half of what’s charged on detached houses; minimizes new utility connections; establishes menu of five reforms, of which municipalities must choose three, along with a list of recommended reforms. SB 6617 prohibits parking requirements near transit and owner occupancy mandates for accessory dwelling units, and clarifies that cities may allow two ADUs per lot. More info here.
2/19/20: SB 6617 passed on the Senate Floor. HB 2570 is dead.
HB 2673: Exempt infill development from SEPA review
Exempts all infill development within Urban Growth Areas from review under the State Environmental Policy Act; expands the definition of “infill.”
2/17/20: Passed on the House Floor (substitute bill no longer exempts all infill, leaves it as local option).
SB 6618: Housing Benefit Districts
Authorizes cities and counties to establish a Housing Benefit District (HBD) as a tool to create more homes for all income levels near transit stations. An HBD is a quasi-municipal corporation and an independent taxing authority that can fund affordable housing and infrastructure within the district.
2/7/20: Bill is dead.
SB 6364 scales down impact fees according to house size. SB 6388 prohibits impact fees that are higher on multifamily homes than on single-family homes. More info here.
2/5/20: SB 6364 passed by Senate Committee on Housing Stability & Affordability.
Adds climate change to the planning goals that guide comprehensive plans and development regulations under the Growth Management Act. (This bill would not create more homes directly, but by requiring municipalities to consider climate, would provide justification for lifting restrictions to allow more homes.)
2/16/20: Passed on the House Floor.
More funding for affordable homes
Budget Request: Invest $10 Million into the Housing Trust Fund to preserve affordable homes
Creates new funding to support the preservation of subsidized homes that would otherwise return to the private market when their subsidy programs expire; funds would support purchase by non-profit housing providers that would retain affordability.
Authorizes counties with populations over two million to impose an annual tax on payroll expenses for employees earning at least $150,000 per year; revenues used for construction and maintenance of affordable housing, rental assistance, and homelessness services.
2/7/20: Passed by House Committee on Finance.
Authorizes a 12-year extension for the MFTE program that grants a property tax exemption on buildings that set aside 20 percent of units for low- and moderate-income households, and expands eligibility geographically. More info here.
2/10/20: Passed by House Committee on Finance.
2/11/20: Passed by Senate Committee on Ways & Means.
Extends the property tax exemption currently given to very-low income (< 50% AMI) rental housing to apply to housing for up to 60% AMI.
1/20/20: Passed by Senate Committee on Housing Stability & Affordability.
2/17/20: Passed on the House Floor.
SB 6126: Allow local approval of sales taxes for affordable housing
Removes requirements for local governments to gain voter approval to impose a sales tax of up to one tenth of one percent to fund affordable housing development.
1/23/20: Passed by Senate Committee on Local Government.
SB 6386: Eliminate impact fees on affordable housing
Allows local governments to completely exempt subsidized low-income housing developments from impact fees.
2/3/20: Passed by Senate Committee on Housing Stability & Affordability.
Allows use of voter-approved property tax levies for affordable homeownership, owner-occupied home repair, and foreclosure prevention programs for low-income (< 80% AMI) households.
2/19/20: Passed on the Senate Floor.
More tenant protections
HB 2779: Cap annual rent increases
Prohibits annual rent increases greater than the inflation rate plus 5 percent; requires that landlords provide 180 days notice tenants when planning to raise rent by 3 percent or more; for noticed rent increases of 3 percent or more, allows tenants to terminate their lease prior to the increase and owe only the prorated rent; limits late fees for past due rent to 0.5 percent of the monthly rent.
2/7/20: Bill is dead.
Establishes a set of “just causes” for landlords to pursue legal evictions, including missed rent, sale or rehabilitation of the unit, the owner wishing to move into the unit, the unit is uninhabitable, or some other “legitimate economic or business reason.”
2/19/20: Both bills are dead.
Prohibits sellers and landlords from denying housing to people because they have criminal records; provides exemptions for public housing agencies and for landlords who rent out part of their house or an accessory dwelling.
2/7/20: Both bills are dead.
SB 6378 builds on last year’s SB 5600: Requires landlords to accept emergency rental assistance to cover missed rent within the 14 pay or vacate notice period; requires landlords to accept tenant proposals to change rental due date for tenants that rely on government assistance and receive it after the current due date; prohibits landlords from threatening tenants with evictions over “nonpossessory” charges unrelated to rent.
2/19/20: Passed on the Senate Floor.
SB 6271 extends the mobile home closure notice requirement from one to three years and clarifies required compensation to tenants. SB 6230 increases opportunities for purchase by extending the “eligible parties” to include community land trusts and cooperatives, and strengthens sale notice requirements.
2/16/20: HB 2610 passed on the House Floor.
Budget Request: Increase funding for the Housing & Essential Needs (HEN) Program by $26 million
Washington’s HEN program provides rent and utility payment assistance to extremely low-income people with physical disabilities or mental illnesses. Last year’s omnibus budget bill, HB 1109, raised the budget to $36.65 million per year for 2020 and 2021.