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Will 2023 be the year that Washington state opens up more housing options for families and individuals here? The year it joins other West Coast states to end widespread bans on every kind of home except detached houses with big yards? 

Legislators tried last year, and this year are back with another bill, HB 1110, to lift local zoning laws that ban multi-dwelling homes like duplexes and townhouses. It would open the doors to “middle housing” options for hundreds of thousands of families, legalizing up to fourplexes all on residential lots in most cities, and sixplexes near transit stops.  

By legalizing more housing options in neighborhoods throughout the state, the bill would not only help correct the historic injustice of restrictive zoning originally enacted to exclude Black families, but also relieve the root cause of Washington’s housing crisis: a shortage of homes.  

More middle housing means more affordable home choices near jobs, schools, and transit, and more options for first-time homebuyers. It also means a wide range of other benefits to Washingtonians, including less sprawl into our farmland and forests, more walkable communities, reduced home energy use, lower municipal infrastructure costs, jobs for small, local builders, and increased local tax revenue. 

How middle housing can ease the housing shortage 

Washington officials project that the state will need roughly one million new homes by 2044. The pro-housing nonprofit group Up for Growth estimates the state’s shortage of homes rose from 64,000 in 2012 to 140,000 in 2019—more than doubling in just 7 years. 

Compared with typical apartment buildings, middle housing yields fewer homes per lot, but there’s power in numbers: Washington has about 1.8 million detached houses occupying roughly three-quarters of the state’s residential land. If middle housing were legalized, only a fraction of those house lots would gain new homes, but that small share would still be enough to help pull Washington out of its housing shortage.  

Extrapolating from a California study, legalizing fourplexes throughout Washington could make more than 200,000 more homes not only legal, but also financially feasible for builders to construct. 

A University of Washington report estimated that legalizing fourplexes within a quarter-mile of transit stations would create capacity for nearly half a million more homes in the Puget Sound region, which houses 4.3 million of the state’s 7.6 million residents. If even a fifth of that capacity eventually saw construction, that’s 100,000 more homes in the Puget Sound region alone. 

Detailed projections are not available for the 2023 middle housing bill, but we know that it will legalize the potential for hundreds of thousands more homes for individuals and families that need them all across the state.  

Fourplex with two-bedroom units that fits on a typical 50 x 120-foot single-family lot, designed by Cast Architecture.

Fourplex with two-bedroom units that fits on a typical 50 x 120-foot single-family lot, designed by Cast Architecture.

Breaking down HB 1110, WA’s 2023 middle housing bill 

Continuing her strong leadership on housing, Representative Jessica Bateman is the prime sponsor of this year’s bill, HB 1110, that would legalize middle housing in two tiers: 

  • Within a half-mile of frequent transit,1“Frequent transit” means stops served with 15-minute headways during peak usage times. The precise definition comes from WSDOT’s new frequent transit hierarchy. WSDOT estimates that a half mile-radius around each of the state’s 15-minute transit stops (classified as tier 2) encompasses 20 percent of the state’s population.
    up to six homes per lot  
  • In cities with a population of 6,000 or more, or cities of any size within the contiguous urban growth areas surrounding Seattle or Spokane, up to four homes per lot  

Applies to small cities located within major metros 

A key change from the 2022 bill is that fewer cities would be exempted based on population. The bill applies to cities as small as 6,000 (the cutoff in last year’s bill was 20,000).  

In addition, cities smaller than 6,000 will not be exempt if they lie within an urban growth area contiguous with a city that has population of at least 200,000, which translates to the Seattle and Spokane metros. This would ensure that small cities in major metros do their fair share in allowing more housing near the state’s biggest job centers (take, for example, Seattle-area enclaves Medina or Yarrow Point). 

Grants an allowance for sixplexes if two homes meet affordability requirements  

A second key update to the new bill is a boost in the allowance from four to six homes per lot if the two extra homes are offered at a price or rent affordable to households earning 80 percent of the area median income. This option would incentivize affordable housing without the risk of affordability mandates making fourplexes financially infeasible to build. 

Reduces or eliminates costly parking mandates  

One critical provision in the bill is a limit on parking mandates. Parking mandates not only inflate the cost of homes, but in the case of middle housing, they can be especially problematic for efficient design because of how much of a lot’s square footage they swallow up. 

For middle housing within a half-mile of frequent transit—areas that WSDOT estimates encompass 20 percent of the state’s population—the bill would lift all parking mandates. 

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  • Elsewhere, it would cap mandates at no more than one parking stall per lot on lots 6,000 square feet or smaller, and at no more than two stalls per lot on lots larger than that. 

    Requires anti-displacement safeguards 

    To protect existing communities from displacement pressures that could be exacerbated by middle housing reforms, for areas within a half-mile of transit, HB 1110 would require that cities preemptively take the actions defined by a 2021 bill that established new anti-displacement standards for local planning. 

    Overall, legalizing middle housing is in itself an anti-displacement measure, because the additional homes it allows help reverse the cause of most displacement: prices and rents propelled skyward by the statewide housing shortage. Also, the option to add two extra homes per lot if they are rent-regulated will help provide more options affordable to existing community members.

    Provides flexibility and support for local governments 

    Cities would retain control over siting and design as long as the rules are objectively defined2The bill language states, “Objective development and design standards do not require or allow personal or subjective judgment by a permit administrator.”
    and aren’t any more restrictive that those that apply to detached houses. But the bill would also set a “reasonableness standard” to prevent local restrictions that would render middle housing all but impossible to build, even if technically legal.
     

    Cities enacting the required zoning reforms would be immune from appeals and lawsuits on those actions under the State Environmental Policy Act or Growth Management Act. Cities would have two years to adopt the bill’s requirements, and those with unusual infrastructure limitations could apply for delayed implementation. 

    The bill directs the Department of Commerce to provide technical assistance to cities, including a model ordinance for middle housing. The state previously offered support to cities on middle housing through planning grants created by the 2019 bill HB 1923, and it does so currently through grants established by a 2022 budget proviso. 

    Washington can end its ugly legacy of exclusionary zoning 

    The best time to stop exclusionary zoning and all its harmful effects would have been a century ago. The next best time is now—that is, in the 2023 Washington legislative session. Passing the middle housing bill would create more housing choices in more neighborhoods that more Washingtonians can afford. And it would also undo the ugly historic legacy of zoning designed to segregate. 


    CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that a half-mile radius around all of the state’s transit stops that meet the bill’s definition of frequent transit would encompass 39 percent of the state’s population. The correct figure is 20 percent.

    Recent polling finds 61 percent of voters across Washington state support this kind middle housing legislation to expand more affordable housing types, with 41 percent strongly supporting. 

    Download a cheat sheet explaining 18 reasons why Washington should legalize middle housing. Sign up herefor action alerts and legislative updates.