Washington legislators just took a first step towards removing exclusionary rules in local zoning codes. Both legislative chambers approved Senate Bill 5235, which will strike limits on the number of unrelated people who can share a home out of city codes across Washington.
One of the many ways Washington cities have historically excluded low-income renters has been capping the number of unrelated people that can live together in a home. The effect is to mandate empty bedrooms across the state.
These discriminatory rules allow any number of related people to live together, provided that they meet local health and safety standards, but set arbitrary limits on the number of so-called “unrelated” residents who can share homes. (Although some cities, such as Yakima, provided exceptions for “live-in servants” so that wealthy families could employ any number of unrelated workers.)
Unrelated occupancy limits are far from the worst problem in Cascadian housing policy. But they’re bad.
Unrelated occupancy limits are far from the worst problem in Cascadian housing policy. But they’re bad. They shut out cheaper options for those who could benefit from sharing housing costs and paying lower rents, such as retired seniors, college roommates, and low- to moderate-income workers. These rules also impose exclusionary definitions of family and discriminate against households with members who may not be related in the eyes of the law.
Sightline first identified this issue in Cascadian cities in a 2012 article, in which Alan Durning wrote about unrelated occupancy limits in Seattle, WA and Eugene, OR. Eight years and one failed bill later, Washington has finally removed discriminatory unrelated occupancy limits statewide. Washington joins California, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, where unrelated occupancy limits were struck down by either the state legislature or courts.
Senator Marko Liias (D-Everett) introduced the bill in January as one step towards addressing Washington’s history of discriminatory housing policy—the most egregious of which barred people of color from renting or owning homes through alien land laws, redlining, and racial covenants.
“In my community we’ve got a lot of immigrant families that come together to rent a house together—they’re not all related,” Liias said in a hearing of the Senate Housing and Local Government Committee. “If they can do that in a safe way, we shouldn’t have arbitrary limits that say just because you’ve got two families you can’t rent that house.”
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On any given night, over one million bedrooms sit vacant in Washington. With the passage of this bill, some of those rooms can house renters without violating arbitrary, archaic code regulations designed to exclude lower-income residents.
How Washington reformed its occupancy limits
The Washington legislature first took up this issue last year, when Senator Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge) introduced Senate Bill 6302 to remove unrelated occupancy limits. While the bill passed in the Senate, it was gutted in the House Local Government committee through an amendment that only required cities to offer a process for owners to request an exception to the unrelated occupancy rule. Legislators said they wanted to address concerns from cities, mostly around overcrowding. This gutted version of the bill failed to pass the House, giving legislators the opportunity to come back this year with a stronger version.
This year, hearings showed a broader consensus among legislators, environmental advocates, and the Association of Washington Cities. Early amendments clarified that localities could still follow any building code occupancy limits dependent on floor area. The House Local Government committee further amended the bill to clarify that local health and safety standards would still apply. Technically, the original bill language would have still allowed local occupancy limits based on floor area or life & safety standards because the bill only removed occupancy limits based on supposed familial relation. But explicitly stating that other building code standards would apply helped stakeholders feel more comfortable with the language.
Washington sets the stage for other Cascadian states to remove unrelated occupancy limits
Washington isn’t alone in taking action to ban archaic unrelated occupancy limits. The Oregon state legislature is currently considering a bill that would also remove roommate caps. Inspired in part by the Washington bills, Oregon’s House Bill 2583 would bar cities from enforcing occupancy limits based on familial relation. The bill passed the House last week in a 45-1 vote and is now in the Senate Housing and Development Committee.
Iowa passed a similar bill in 2017, with bipartisan support. State courts in California, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York have also struck down unrelated occupancy limits, supporting the case for state legislative action in Washington and elsewhere in Cascadia.
At least 162 cities in Washington impose unrelated occupancy limits. While household size caps aren’t the primary reason for most vacancies, they do mandate empty bedrooms by limiting the number of people that can live in a home. With this small code fix, Washington can tap into some of its million vacant bedrooms, increasing housing options for low- and middle-income residents, making cities more inclusive towards all family structures and living arrangements. If Oregon bars these limits as well, Cascadia’s two most populous states in the US will have struck down exclusionary limits dictating who can live together.
This is just a first step in addressing the discriminatory rules in our zoning codes. After the past year, which could be characterized as a continuous confrontation with the deep roots of racism, classism, xenophobia, and other forms of marginalization, it’s critical that we do more to combat the economic and racial segregation enabled by exclusionary zoning codes—and by current housing policies more broadly. The passage of SB 5235 is an encouraging sign of potential progressive housing legislation to come.