UPDATE: The “Golden Girls Bill” (SB 6302) died when time ran out for it to get heard on the House floor before the cutoff on Friday, March 6. The gutting amendment passed by the House Committee on Local Government proved too much for legislators to repair in the limited time of a short session. 

Bad news for Washingtonians hoping for relief from the housing affordability crunch: state representatives, acting at the behest of a handful of cities, have gutted a bill to free up homes and protect non-traditional households from discrimination.

There’s still a chance that legislators could resurrect the bill, SB 6302, on the House floor or back in the Senate after that. But as it stands now, the bill is all but meaningless.

As passed by the Senate in February, SB 6302 would have prohibited cities from imposing occupancy limits that dictate who gets to live with whom. These caps on the number of people allowed to share a home apply only to residents who are not legally or biologically related. In short, they are roommate bans. But they also can make it illegal for families to live together whose members may not be officially related for any number of reasons.

My colleague Nisma Gabobe explains SB 6302 and its benefits here. Briefly, the bill’s intent is to get rid of occupancy laws that (1) discriminate against non-traditional family groups or living arrangements, and (2) unnecessarily reduce choices for affordable places to live in existing homes and neighborhoods.

Cities throughout Washington quash housing options by targeting non-traditional households

Most WA cities have unrelated occupant laws, averaging a limit of five, though many go lower. In some cities, the cap kicks in if any one of the residents is not related to the rest of them. For example, Bellevue and Kent (combined population ~280,000) impose a cap of four, so it’s illegal for five adults to rent a house unless they’re all related to each other—whether they’re college students or retirees. Or consider this scenario: an unmarried couple in a detached house could legally invite at most two of their adult relatives to live with them.

Alternatively, in some cities the cap applies to the total number of residents who are unrelated anyone else. Bellingham, Pullman, Des Moines, East Wenatchee, College Place, Normandy Park, Okonagan, Oroville, Tonasket, La Conner, Coulee Dam, Pateros, and Albion all have limits of three, which in this case means three, but not four unrelated golden girls could legally share a home (on the TV show, two were mother-daughter, so they would have been legal). Notably, AARP Washington supports the original, full-strength Senate version of SB 6302.

Meanwhile, by Sightline’s estimate, over 1,000,000 bedrooms sit empty across Washington on any given night. If SB 6302 resulted in utilization of just one in ten of those,100,000 more Washingtonians would have economical places to live, at zero expense to governments.

Cities can protect against overcrowding without discriminating

Nearly all of the pushback on the original bill came from cities. Nine cities and the advocacy group Association of Washington Cities registered opposition at the House Local Government Committee hearing. The only non-city group opposed was the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The Washington League of Women Voters, Sightline, and student groups from University of Washington and Washington State University signed in “pro” on the bill.

In testimony, Bothell’s planning director and a private lobbyist representing Bellevue, Tacoma, Kent, and Pasco argued that the bill would leave cities with no means to regulate overcrowding of homes. But there’s a far better alternative most cities throughout North America already use: limits based on the amount of floor space in the home, as recommended in the International Property Maintenance Code. See for example, Seattle, Tacoma, Kent, and Pasco

UPDATE 3/5/20: Alternatively, many cities adopt the International Building Code, which sets a maximum occupant load of one person per 200 square feet of residential floor area, see Bellevue, for example, but this code doesn’t apply to single-detached houses.

  • Space-based occupancy limits treat every kind of resident equally, protecting against crowding and ensuring safety without discriminating. In contrast, in a city with unrelated occupant limits but no space-based limits, a dozen or more related people could legally cram into a 300 square-foot studio apartment, while it might be illegal for more than four unrelated people to share a 10,000 square-foot mansion. 

    Cities have plenty of options for regulating housing that don’t legislate family composition and exclude low-income renters. If cities such as Bothell have been negligent in properly regulating crowding according to the size of a home, then it’s on them to rectify that, as most other cities have done. 

    The gutted version of SB 6302 would solve nothing

    Nevertheless, the nine opposing cities and the Association of Washington Cities convinced the four Democratic committee members to vote for a SB 6302 striker amendment that cuts out the heart of the original bill. 

    It totally deletes the ban on discriminatory occupancy laws and replaces it with a provision that sounds reasonable, but that in practice would hardly amount to more than a joke. It would only require cities that impose limits on unrelated occupants to offer a process by which property owners can request an exception. And it stipulates a laundry list of reasons for why a city could reject such a request.  

    In other words, the adopted new version of SB 6302 is a complete contradiction of the intention of the original bill. It puts the onus on the owner or resident to somehow prove they should be allowed to live with the people they want to live with. 

    Furthermore, the proposed discretionary approval process could make things even worse. The heightened scrutiny brought by such a process could raise the risk of discrimination against households that don’t fit the conventional mold. The hassle would discourage many from even bothering, especially since it would effectively grant cities carte blanche to say no. There would be high potential for inconsistency between cities, politicization, and inequitable outcomes: wealthy neighborhoods can wield greater resources towards thwarting applicants. 

    Why should a city have any role whatsoever in deciding who gets to live with whom?

    Bottom line: cities have no legitimate public policy justification for unrelated occupant limits. In 2013, Sightline founder Alan Durning unpacked the litany of rationalizations and concluded:

    Crowding, disease, noise, parking spillover, exploitation of renters — none of these ills is a reason for occupancy limits. Assuming occupancy limits are not an epidemic of insanity but are crafted for a purpose, perhaps unspoken, that purpose must be something other than these rationalizations. The real purpose must be the one thing that they actually do. They exclude from neighborhoods the kinds of people who would need to share housing with more roommates in order to afford the rent: people who are not members of middle- and upper-class families; people who are students and therefore lack money; people who have recently immigrated and are still climbing up from the bottom of the wage ladder; people who, for whatever other reason, are poor.

    Washington’s original SB 6302 as passed by the Senate would expand low-cost housing options and also make sure people who chose to live under one roof can do so. The gutted SB 6302 now under consideration in the House would do neither.