Sightliners’ 2023 Giving Tuesday Recommendations

At Sightline Institute, our efforts focus on building sustainable communities throughout Cascadia; we believe we are all in this place together, sharing its burdens and benefits, rising or falling as one. Sightline stands for strong communities. To ensure our communities thrive, we must also work together to support the unique organizations addressing the complex challenges our neighbors encounter.  

With Giving Tuesday happening today, Sightline is encouraging folks to give to causes close to their hearts and to bolster their local communities. If you’re seeking inspiration, our team has curated a list of impactful organizations that have captured our hearts this Giving Tuesday. On this global day of generosity, we hope that Sightline readers and fans will help support sustainable and strong communities. 

Community Cycling Center 

Portland’s Community Cycling Center expands the community’s access to bicycling, giving more people a chance to use all that beautiful bike infrastructure across the city. It provides educational classes, repairs, low-cost bikes and parts, and other services to help get people out and about on (approximately) two wheels. Or if policy reports are more your style, they also provide crucial research on the barriers to bicycling across all parts of Portland. –Jay Lee 

Ballard Food Bank 

I really love the local food bank because of the way it is structured. It provides such amazing opportunities for local members of the community to be respected and treated with dignity. I particularly love the fact that the food items are set up in a grocery shop-like fashion that allows individuals to browse the shelves for what they need. There are also options for prepared food that does not require a kitchen. Even something as simple as a mail program for people to pick up their mail for free without a mailing address increases the respect for an individual immensely. I am proud to know that they serve all of Seattle. –Nashrah 

Wing Luke Museum 

The Wing Luke Museum in Seattle’s Chinatown International District focuses on the culture, art, and history of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. The Sightline staff had the privilege of participating in one of the museum’s informative and moving neighborhood walking tours during our annual retreat this summer. We learned about the history of dispossession, displacement, and incarceration of Seattle residents of Japanese descent in WWII and the destruction of much of the city’s once 20-block-long Japantown, as well as heard inspiring stories of resilience and community in the neighborhood. The Wing Luke Museum was unfortunately the victim of a racially motivated attack earlier this year. I recommend supporting this important institution, whose importance stretches beyond Seattle. –Emily Moore 

Get Out the Native Vote (Be sure to choose GOTNV in the drop-down menu) 

Get Out the Native Vote (GOTNV) was founded with the belief that the right to vote is a fundamental component of a healthy democracy. GOTNV’s roots are in working to ensure every eligible Alaskan is registered to vote and in removing barriers that prevent registered voters from casting their ballots. GOTNV encourages every Alaskan, regardless of background, to engage in the civic process at the local and state levels through nonpartisan outreach and education. –Jeannette Lee 

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project 

Washington state has more than 250,000 undocumented immigrants, many of whom have fled violence or insecurity. Northwest Immigrant Rights Project provides legal aid and community education to help Washington’s immigrants navigate our complex legal system and receive fair protection under the law. –Kate Macfarlane 

Anchorage Housing Club 

The Anchorage Housing Club is a new organization that welcomes all members of the community who are interested in ensuring Anchorage can become a community where everyone thrives. The club aims to actively influence housing and transportation policy by mobilizing Anchorage residents who share our vision of human-centric transportation and abundant, quality housing. –Jeannette Lee 

Family Promise 

Family Promise is a Bozeman-based organization that empowers families experiencing homelessness to secure a safe, affordable home, a livelihood, and the chance to build a better future for their children. Family Promise provides prevention and diversion services to prevent families from experiencing homelessness, emergency shelter when homelessness becomes a reality, and transitional and workforce housing to ensure long-term sustainability. –Alice Buckley 

Outdoors for All 

One of the highlights of living in the Seattle area is the abundance of outdoor recreation activities and how much you can learn about yourself just by getting out and playing in our beautiful surroundings. There are some real barriers to outdoor recreation for many marginalized communities, but for people with disabilities, it can seem insurmountable. Outdoors for All provides access to many outdoor pursuits through its programming and adaptive equipment rentals. Outdoors for All also offers group programming and provides training and equipment to make sure that social, recreational activities are as accessible as possible for all audiences regardless of ability. –Leah Quinn 

Freedom Reads 

This program is very special, as it builds small libraries in prisons to allow individuals a sense of adventure and transform a vision of what they could picture for themselves outside the walls of the prison. I love that the founder created this after his time in prison in solitary confinement and had a book completely change the course of his future. It is so special to know how important books can be for this population at risk for so many challenges as they reintegrate back into life outside prison. As its website states, “Books become essential when you want to imagine a new life for yourself.” –Nashrah 

The Uproot Project 

It will probably surprise no one that as a communications professional and a speculative fiction fiend, I deeply believe that today’s most important climate work is happening in organizing and storytelling spaces, especially those that reach beyond white-centering or apocalyptic visions and themes. The Uproot Project was founded “to address an urgent gap: the lack of representation of journalists of color in newsrooms across the country covering communities that are hit first and the hardest by the climate crisis…. We set out to create a network to support the work of our peers, while advancing the careers of reporters of color who have been historically underrepresented in environmental journalism.” While I can’t claim to keep up with its bustling Slack channels, I attended a great panel discussion it hosted last month on covering Indigenous stories as a non-Indigenous journalist, and I’ve read a number of articles from its member journalists to include in our Sightline Daily news roundup that I may not have stumbled on otherwise. –Serena Larkin 

Pike Market Senior Center and Food Bank 

During my time as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I had the pleasure of serving at the Pike Market Senior Center and Food Bank. I witnessed the incredible work they do in downtown Seattle. The Pike Market Senior Center strives to make each day better and safer for older adults, while the Food Bank serves people of all ages who face hunger. Together, they provide services, activities, and support to promote healthier, more self-sufficient, and fulfilling lives. With increasing food prices and more demand than ever, it’s a vital part of the Seattle social safety net that’s under considerable strain. Every dollar given goes to creating a better life for our neighbors downtown. –Terry Satran 

Bureau of Fearless Ideas 

The Bureau of Fearless Ideas is a dynamic community of youth, adults, volunteers, and families committed to harnessing the transformative power of words. Its programs, which are entirely free, offer tutoring, writing guidance, and publishing opportunities to young people aged 6 to 18. By fostering strong writing skills and celebrating diverse communication styles, the organization empowers these young folks to share their unique stories and become engaged, confident leaders. In each neighborhood it serves, the Bureau of Fearless Ideas creates a welcoming space that connects with the local community, promoting the belief that words can open doors to opportunity, create understanding, and build a better world. Alexa Woodard 

Is the Permitting Process for Transmission Lines Really Broken?

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Editor’s note: This is the third of three articles discussing the major challenges—planning, paying for it, and permitting—to building the transmission lines needed to transition to a cleaner energy future. 

Permitting reform is the topic du jour in US climate circles. Renewable energy advocates and fossil fuel boosters alike are rallying to speed governmental approval of energy projects. At the same time, some progressives decry this effort as a misguided ruse to dismantle bedrock environmental and community protections. 

How should climate leaders make sense of these debates? Just how big a barrier is permitting, really, to building the electric power grid Cascadia needs to decarbonize its economy? In short, how much should we worry about permitting? 

At first glance, permitting transmission facilities in the Northwest looks like a hot mess.1This article and series focus on transmission capacity just in the US portion of Cascadia, given the fundamental differences between American and Canadian electricity systems and grids.
The only new regional line, the Boardman to Hemingway (B2H) project, crawled through federal and state approval processes for 14 years.2Idaho Power started seeking permits in 2008 and in 2022 received one of the final authorizations necessary to begin construction.
Idaho Power and PacifiCorp, the line’s sponsors, still have not broken ground. B2H being the only new big wires project that is even close to construction in the Northwest may be further evidence that permitting is broken. 

However, future transmission projects in the region could have it easier. Recent federal policy and regulatory efforts to shorten review processes and improve permitting coordination may lower some of the hurdles B2H faced. And Oregon’s state-level review, which B2H underwent, is among the most complex in the region; projects routed through other states might start moving dirt more quickly. 

Still, the mounting climate crisis demands that Northwest policymakers do more than wait for the next transmission project to come up and hope for the best. They can bulk up staff capacity at regulatory agencies and tribes, which must review unprecedented volumes of new clean energy projects. They can immediately identify high-priority routes for new transmission lines and conduct preemptive environmental reviews and tribal consultations. They can enable—or better yet, require—tight alignment between state and federal review processes. None of these actions would mean jettisoning bedrock environmental protections or trampling on tribal and community rights. 

With 2023 on track to become the hottest year on record, the Northwest needs to move fast to approve critical transmission projects, without surrendering its tools to block dirty or unjust energy proposals. 

What is permitting, and how does it work in the Northwest? 

Permitting is the process of federal, state, and/or local governmental agencies granting a developer the necessary approvals to build, upgrade, or operate a transmission line.3Definition adapted from NRDC’s policy brief “Down to the Wire,” Sept. 2023.
The types of permits a transmission facility needs depend largely on where developers site the project and who owns the land it will traverse. 

In the Northwest, as in the West writ large, the high percentage of land the federal government owns almost guarantees that interstate transmission lines require federal permits. One-third of the B2H route, for example, runs across federal land. The map below shows the federal land in the United States, with different colors identifying which federal agencies have jurisdiction; areas shaded pink and labeled as Bureau of Indian Affairs are tribal reservations.4 See 2020 Congressional Research Service report of all the federal acreage as a percentage of total acreage for each state.

If a project crosses federal land, it will trigger review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and likely several other laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act. The National Historic Preservation Act requires government-to-government consultation with federally recognized tribes the project could affect, whether because it crosses tribal land or because the land it traverses holds tribal religious or cultural significance. 

Figure 1. Map of federal lands in the United States. 

Map of US federal lands

Source: GISGeography.

In addition, transmission line developers are likely to need state and/or local approval. In Montana, Oregon, and Washington, the state holds the ultimate authority for permitting most big transmission lines. Before state agencies can issue permits, both Montana and Washington compel environmental reviews modeled after NEPA, while Oregon requires a bespoke process for assessing projects against a set of environmental and other standards. Idaho has neither a state-level environmental review process for energy facilities nor a state-level permitting process. A transmission line running through the state needs permits from each county it touches. 

Is permitting broken? Examining three common claims in the Northwest 

Idaho Power gives at least three explanations for B2H’s snaillike approval process, and these arguments echo those that permitting reform advocates tend to make across the United States.5Idaho Power and PacifiCorp jointly own the B2H project, but Idaho Power took the lead on permitting.
Sightline analyzed each in turn, exploring their relevance given recent policy and regulatory developments and the broader Northwest context. 

Claim 1: Environmental reviews are unnecessarily protracted 

Permitting reform advocates tend to direct much of their ire at the purportedly excessively long environmental review processes that federal and/or state laws oblige governmental agencies to follow before issuing permits.  

At first glance, B2H’s experience supports reformers’ arguments. It took seven years for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to complete a NEPA-mandated federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and another four years for Oregon’s Energy Facility Siting Council (EFSC) to complete its state-level review.6There are three progressively more stringent levels of NEPA reviews depending on the likely significance of environmental impact: finding of non-significance, an environmental assessment, and an EIS. Regional and interregional transmission lines are almost guaranteed to trigger an EIS given the inherent complexity of transmission lines.
 7See BLM’s 2017 Record of Decision for additional details about B2H’s federal process.

However, the same fate may not befall future transmission projects in the Northwest. For starters, the seven years it took BLM to complete B2H’s EIS is an outlier; multiple independent analyses have found that EISs take, on average, roughly three years to complete. Further, the 2023 Fiscal Responsibility Act imposed a new, albeit controversial, two-year deadline on the NEPA process. And in August 2023, the US Department of Energy (DOE) proposed a new rule that would set two-year deadlines for federal environmental review and permitting of transmission facilities specifically. The DOE rule also aims to improve coordination between the multiple federal agencies that must grant a project approval. (B2H, for example, needed authorization from BLM, the US Forest Service [USFS], the Department of the Navy, and the Bureau of Reclamation.) 

In addition, some states in the Northwest impose deadlines or timeline goals, which could lead to faster future state-level assessments than the one Oregon completed for B2H. Montana, for example, gives its Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) nine months to complete state environmental reviews of transmission lines. 

“I don’t see the state being the roadblock,” Craig Jones, who leads environmental reviews and permitting at Montana’s DEQ, told Sightline. 

Indeed, Oregon may have the lengthiest review process in the Northwest. Some renewable developers consider the state to impose “one of the—if not, the—most onerous permitting processes in the country,” Max Greene, deputy director at the energy advocacy organization Renewable Northwest, said at a recent public EFSC meeting. While Oregon sets a 12-month deadline for EFSC to issue a site certificate, in practice, timelines can extend far longer than a year. That’s in large part because of Oregon’s automatic appeal requirement, known as its contested case proceeding, which allows members of the public to raise concerns about a project. A contested case proceeding is not subject to any deadlines. In the case of B2H, the process stretched for nearly two years—roughly double the time it took for other recent non-transmission projects in the state.8According to information provided to Sightline by email from Oregon’s EFSC.
EFSC is currently undergoing a rulemaking proceeding to improve the efficiency and clarity of its contested case process. 

Even so, multiple sources Sightline spoke to hypothesize that Idaho Power’s lack of familiarity with and experience in Oregon may be partly to blame for B2H’s lengthy state-level review. Plus, some decry the emphasis on time limits as ignoring the deeper issue of regulatory agency capacity constraints. Indeed, one of the only comprehensive reviews of NEPA timelines found that “staff availability, a lack of expertise, [and] inconsistent funding” are major drivers of NEPA delays. A senior representative at a major utility in the Northwest echoed the sentiment in a conversation with Sightline. 

“We don’t want a bad project pushed through that doesn’t answer questions,” she said. “Then we’re faced with lawsuits.” Instead, she said, she’d rather see further investment in staff capacity at state permitting agencies. 

Claim 2: Federal and state permitting processes are out of sync and duplicative 

Federal- and state-level environmental reviews are also difficult to align, even when they effectively work toward the same goal, according to permitting reform advocates. 

Again, this claim does appear to hold true in the case of B2H. Idaho Power first attempted to initiate its federal and Oregon environmental review processes in parallel. However, the company quickly found that doing so was virtually impossible, Mitch Colburn, Idaho Power’s vice president of planning, engineering, and construction, told Sightline. Thus, the utility paused the state-level review until the federal government had completed its analyses and approved the project. 

The difficulty in syncing the two processes is largely because, unlike nearly 20 other states, Oregon did not model its environmental requirements after NEPA. NEPA obliges federal agencies to evaluate a “range of alternatives” to a given project before making a decision, whereas Oregon’s process requires application of a set of standards to single project.9See here for a summary of the differences between NEPA and Oregon’s EFSC process.

“An applicant really must know what the final route approved by the lead federal agency will be to be able to conduct surveys and prepare materials necessary [for Oregon’s review],” an Oregon EFSC representative told Sightline. Oregon’s standards demand detailed analysis that often goes above and beyond what NEPA calls for, she explained. BLM analyzed more than 40 route variations for B2H; applying Oregon’s standards to all 40 of them would have been a gargantuan task. 

A future transmission project running through Montana or Washington may be better able to sync up state and federal reviews. (Idaho has no state-level review.) Both states modeled their policies after NEPA and allow state agencies to adopt NEPA analyses to avoid duplication. 

“We work together on one document to meet both of our needs since a lot of our [work] overlaps with [the federal government’s],” Jones of Montana’s DEQ explained. 

Similarly, in Washington, “if there is going to be a [state environmental policy act (SEPA)] review and a NEPA review, you can adopt portions of each other’s analyses,” a representative from Washington’s siting and permitting agency told Sightline. 

Claim 3: State and local interests hold too much sway over nationally important lines. 

One of the most common calls for transmission permitting reform in the United States is to expand the federal government’s power and allow it to override state or local inaction on or opposition to new wires. Unlike for interstate natural gas pipelines, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) cannot authorize interstate transmission lines over state objections or grant project developers eminent domain power over state, local, or private land.10The Natural Gas Act grants FERC the authority to issue a certificate of public convenience and necessity for interstate natural gas pipelines and for the holder of that certificate (i.e., the developer) to exercise eminent domain powers over state, local, or private land.

“I would have FERC be the one-stop shop [for permitting],” Adam Richins, Idaho Power’s chief operating officer, said on a 2023 podcast during which he shared “horror stories” from B2H’s permitting process. 

In fact, the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act did marginally expand FERC’s permitting authority over transmission lines. The agency can now approve a line that the DOE deems to be in the national interest if states have denied a permit for the project. Previously, FERC could only use this authority in the case of state inaction, not outright denial.11Since 2005, FERC has had the authority to permit transmission lines that are in DOE-designated “National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors” (NIETCs) if a state withheld approval for more than one year. It has never used this authority. The DOE is still in the process of designating corridors.

But many argue for expanding FERC’s authority even further. Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) controversial 2022 permitting bill would have allowed FERC to authorize interstate transmission lines that DOE deems are in the national interest without waiting for state denial or inaction. It also would have given transmission developers that received a permit from FERC eminent domain powers over state-owned land. Lawmakers cut these provisions, though included the rest of Manchin’s so-called dirty deal in the 2023 debt ceiling bill. Separately, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL) have twice introduced the Streamlining Interstate Transmission of Electricity (SITE) Act. This measure would grant FERC permitting authority over certain large interstate transmission projects even if they are not in DOE-designated National Interest Electronic Transmission Corridors. 

Expanding FERC’s transmission permitting authority is a worthy national decarbonization strategy. But doing so would change nothing about the federal permitting process, which was the longest part of B2H’s approval timeline. Plus, expanding FERC’s authority could spark political backlash in Oregon and Washington, given it would essentially render these states’ bedrock environmental review processes obsolete for certain transmission lines. It might be a better strategy, then, to exempt certain high-priority transmission lines from state-review processes through state policy that Northwest leaders devise with tribes, environmentalists, and others. 

State leaders can do more to alleviate permitting headaches 

Still, Northwest leaders can take proactive steps—and indeed, Washington already has—to hasten permitting processes for future wires projects critical to the region’s decarbonization goals. 

1. Fully staff state agencies and tribes 

State permitting and siting agencies and tribes need enough staff to be able to properly and quickly evaluate the swell of new clean energy projects, not just transmission lines, coming their way. But Oregon and Washington’s relevant agencies each count just roughly ten full-time employees working directly on siting and permitting.12Oregon information according to a conversation with a staff member from Oregon’s EFSC.
And many tribes lack the staff to evaluate projects for cultural or environmental impacts, let alone evaluate them more quickly. 

“When I first started [in 2005], we reviewed approximately 200 projects a month. We are up to, on average, 1,000 projects a month,” Steven Moses, the Snoqualmie Tribe’s director of cultural resources, explained as part of Washington’s 2022 Transmission Corridors Work Group. Moses was presumably referring to any projects requiring tribal review, not just clean energy ones. He works with a team of just three people who review projects. 

Partly as a result of the state’s Transmission Corridors Work Group’s recommendation, Washington directed $2 million of its 2023–2025 operating budget to the state’s permitting and siting agency, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) and more than $16 million to tribal capacity grants, including to support tribal “consultation on clean energy siting projects.”13Not to be confused with Oregon’s EFSC.
Oregon also recently granted its EFSC the authority to hire another siting analyst, according to Diane Brandt, Renewable Northwest’s markets and transmission director. 

Still, states can do more. A Sightline source who works closely with several tribes in the region argued that resources for tribal capacity are still far from sufficient to meet the tidal wave of new projects. Similarly, a utility executive told Sightline, “From my perspective, you can’t have enough [Washington] EFSEC staff.” 

All Northwest states would be smart to continue and deepen these capacity investments. 

2. Map and assess priority transmission routes 

Northwest leaders can also get a head start on future environmental reviews. They can convene tribes, renewable developers, utilities, the Bonneville Power Administration, local leaders, environmentalists, and others now to map all the potential transmission corridors in the region, assess their likely environmental and cultural impacts, and identify the highest-potential and lowest-conflict routes. As part of this effort, they could evaluate the suitability of siting transmission lines along highways or other already developed land. And they can leverage existing analysis by BLM to identify routes on BLM or USFS land in 11 western states that avoid “known resource and environmental conflicts.” 

Here, too, Washington is beginning to lead the way. In 2023 the state directed EFSEC to conduct assessments, known as “nonproject” EISs, for electric transmission lines in geographic areas suitable for those types of facilities. The law compels EFSEC to request input from federally recognized tribes and overburdened communities and to use the nonproject EISs as a starting point for future project-specific ones. However, as of September 2023, EFSEC had not yet started this work; the council was still trying to hire someone with the necessary expertise. 

Other states in the region can follow Washington’s example. In fact, in 2023 Oregon considered but did not pass a bill that would have required state agencies to identify ideal locations to site transmission lines. Lawmakers would be smart to revive that effort. 

And if advanced assessments end up failing to shorten the timelines for project-specific state reviews, leaders in the region could consider going a step further: they could waive some or all components of state-level project-specific reviews for proposals sited within designated priority corridors. (For a somewhat analogous example, in 2023 Washington exempted from its State Environmental Policy Act [SEPA] housing developments that comply with local comprehensive plans.) However, the state would need to solicit genuine tribal agreement on any effort to waive state-level reviews. Efforts to reform Washington’s SEPA several years ago “went horrible from a tribal perspective,” according to Moses of the Snoqualmie Tribe, who said tribes were “called in late” and “bullied by various groups.” 

3. Enable and formalize federal-state coordination

Finally, Northwest leaders, especially in Oregon and Washington, can do more to sync federal and state environmental reviews and avoid unnecessary duplication. Idaho Power, the permitting lead for B2H, and Oregon’s EFSC actually agree that that state’s process is fundamentally misaligned with the federal review process—a fact that suggests that action from Oregon policymakers is in order.  

The federal EIS for B2H, which stretches thousands of pages, assessed the project’s impacts on dozens of issues, including cultural resources, soil, minerals, paleontological resources, sensitive plant species, wetlands, wildlife habitat, endangered and protected species, agriculture, recreation, and wilderness lands. Oregon’s own review, which came in at more than 700 pages, assessed the project on several similar, if not identical, topics. At a minimum, surely Oregon can devise a way to conduct at least some of its assessments in conjunction with federal partners. 

In Washington, coordination between SEPA and NEPA may be easier. Still, no recent transmission project has practically tested it. As such, policymakers could proactively bolster and formalize collaboration between state and federal permitting agencies. Washington’s EFSEC could develop standard Memorandums of Understanding or cooperative agreements with federal agencies likely to be involved in transmission line permitting. Indeed, the agency could do that now with the federal agencies that will, along with Oregon, need to assess the Cascade Renewable Transmission project, the first new line to be proposed in years that would span Washington. 

Still, Oregon and Washington lawmakers may find that syncing federal- and state-level environmental reviews continues to elude transmission projects. In that case, they could again consider taking the further step of exempting certain new wires facilities—namely those already undergoing federal reviews and in agreed-upon corridors—from the additional layer of state-level review. 

Permitting reform that preserves PNW values 

Permitting reform has captured the attention of the United States’ climate and energy circles, including those in the Northwest. With B2H as the only regional transmission project in the Northwest moving forward, it’s hard to say definitively yet if its drawn-out permitting experience is the exception or the rule.  

Leaders shouldn’t wait to find out. They can expand state regulatory and tribal capacity to review new projects; identify and assess high-priority, low-conflict corridors for transmission lines; and formalize federal and state coordination of environmental reviews. Taking these actions does not mean jettisoning the region’s commitment to environmental protection or repeating the historic injustices of the last century’s energy build-out against tribal nations, when utilities and public agencies dammed salmon runs and homelands with little regard for the rights of Indigenous groups. 

The region can’t afford another 14 years to permit the next big transmission line. Proactive steps now, alongside a plan and way to pay for new lines, can help us get to yes at the clip the climate demands. 

In Every Washington City, Odd-Year Elections Crush Voter Turnout

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In every city in Washington, a 60-year-old state law suppresses voter turnout. It prevents municipal governments from doing the one thing that would reliably boost citizens’ participation in elections—a single change that would increase voter turnout by, conservatively estimated, 62 percent. 

The one thing in question would be to let cities and towns move their elections to the same date and the same ballots as state and federal elections. Doing so would allow localities to ride the turnout coattails of presidential and Congressional elections. 

Consolidating local with federal elections, a growing trend in US cities, is immensely popular with voters of every political stripe, enhances the representativeness of the local electorate, holds local leaders more accountable to local values and policy preferences, and can save millions of dollars of public funds. 

But the principal benefit of election consolidation is none of these things. The principal benefit is that it increases voter participation, giving many more residents a say in how their lives are governed. Election consolidation does so dramatically, and it does so ubiquitously. To quantify these effects, Sightline developed a new method for estimating the turnout penalty for cities’ off-cycle elections and the turnout bonus for legislative races’ on-cycle schedule. 

Every city suffered an off-cycle turnout penalty 

Specifically, Sightline calculated the turnout penalty of off-cycle elections in all of Washington’s cities and towns with populations of 10,000 or greater and found a turnout penalty in every single one for which data are available. The “turnout penalty” is the difference in turnout in a city between the 2021 general election and the 2022 general election.  

For example, the city of Seattle had 267,414 ballots cast in its November 2021 municipal election, when the mayor, city attorney, and two at-large city council members were elected. The following year, in the November 2022 general election, when Congressional and state legislative seats were decided, the city’s voters turned in 333,912 ballots. The off-cycle city races had about 66,500 fewer ballots, which is 20 percent lower than the on-cycle turnout. The turnout penalty of holding its municipal election off cycle was therefore 20 percent. 

Seattle’s penalty was relatively small. Spokane had a turnout penalty of 39 percent, and Tacoma’s was 43 percent. Lumping together all mid-sized and large municipalities, defined as those with 10,000 or more residents of voting age, the turnout penalty in the 2021 off-cycle election was 37 percent of all voters—more than 582,000 ballots not cast that year. That turnout differential is many multiples the size that get-out-the-vote drives ever achieve; indeed, no other election reform promises comparable gains in participation.  

All cities took an off-cycle hit, no matter size, urban or rural location, demographics 

As remarkable as the size of the penalty was its universality. As shown in Figure 1, not a single mid-sized or large municipality came close to matching its 2022 turnout in 2021.1Figures 1 and 2 cover municipalities of 10,000 or more voting-age residents. Sightline analyzed all municipalities of fewer than 10,000 voting-age residents as well. In every one of these municipalities for which data were available (143 of 208) turnout also increased from November 2021 to November 2022 (see accompanying spreadsheet).
Even the smallest penalty was fully 18 percent, in Anacortes in Skagit County. The largest penalty was a whopping 53 percent, in southern King County’s Covington. Stated in the inverse, Covington’s 2022 turnout was more than twice its 2021 turnout. (A complete list of Washington’s large and mid-sized cities with all their relevant data is in the appendix of this report, along with details of the methods Sightline used to compile and calculate them.) 

The size of the turnout penalty showed no pattern among cities. It doesn’t scale with city size, for example: the cities in Figure 1 are in descending rank by population yet show no correlation. Sightline tested for correlation with race or ethnicity and again found nothing. 

A small overstatement: Not accounting for down-ballot drop-off 

The turnout penalties in Figure 1 overstate in a small way and understate in a large way the potential increase in turnout that would come from election consolidation. They overstate because they are based on total ballots cast, not votes cast for local offices. Some of the voters who cast ballots in on-cycle federal and state elections leave blank the local races at the bottom of the ballot. Typically, this “down-ballot drop-off” is modest: 10 percent or less, according to Zoltan Hajnal of University of California, San Diego, the leader scholar of election timing in the United States.  

Meanwhile, Sightline analyses based on specific, contested local races, rather than total ballots cast, have demonstrated that Oregon’s on-cycle city and county elections nearly double the turnout of neighboring Washington’s off-cycle city and county elections. Just so, in a forthcoming analysis, Sightline shows that Wyoming’s on-cycle city elections roughly double the turnout of neighboring Idaho’s off-cycle city elections. 

A large understatement: Not comparing with presidential year turnout 

At the same time, the turnout penalties in Figure 1 dramatically understate turnout potential from election consolidation, because they are based on midterm elections rather than presidential ones. This effect swamps the effect of down-ballot drop-off.  

Calculated with respect to the 2020 presidential election, rather than the 2022 midterm, 2021’s off-cycle turnout penalty in large and mid-sized cities would have been not 36 percent but likely more than 50 percent. That is, down-ballot drop-off diminishes voter participation in city elections during on-cycle years by 10 percent or less, but off-cycle elections cost Washington cities 36 percent to more than 50 percent of their potential 2021 electorate.2Because redistricting after the 2020 census makes comparing November 2021 with November 2020 extremely complicated, Sightline compared November 2021 with November 2022 in all cities and other jurisdictions.
Down-ballot drop-off, furthermore, seems to be fairly consistent among voters of different demographic characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, and ideology, so it is likely to be a neutral factor on election outcomes. 


More than half a million WA voices weren’t counted in 2022 vs. 2021 

Expressed not as percentages but as numbers of missing votes, the turnout penalties show their scale. City elections in Seattle alone, for example, missed out on reflecting the preferences of almost 66,500 voters—people who voted in November 2022 but not in November 2021. Because of Seattle’s large population, this number is larger than the missed votes of the next two cities, Spokane and Tacoma, combined. This is true even though Seattle’s turnout penalty expressed as a percentage was 20 percent and those cities had turnout penalties around 40 percent.  

Figure 2 shows the number of missing votes in November 2021, compared with November 2022, in all of Washington’s large and mid-sized municipalities. Again, every single city missed votes in 2021, compared with its 2022 turnout, ranging from Seattle’s almost 66,500 to the roughly 500 voters who didn’t participate in Sunnyside, in Yakima County. Altogether, Washington’s large and mid-sized cities suffered the absence of 578,344 voters in 2021’s municipal elections who participated in the 2022 midterm election. 

Map 1 below reinforces the points: every city suffered a turnout penalty from off-cycle voting, and the size of the penalty varied across the state without regard to size or location. (You can click on cities to see their turnout penalty and details.) 

Map 1

Source: Map by Sightline Institute; GIS analysis by Ben Anderstone, Progressive Strategies NW; data from US Census Bureau, WA Sec. of State, county election administrators. View a full, interactive version of map.

Every legislative district enjoyed an on-cycle turnout bonus 

On the flip side of all that loss is a whole lot of gain when jurisdictions can piggyback on the turnout of an on-cycle, or even-year, election—the “turnout bonus.” Sightline calculated this figure for each of the state’s 49 legislative districts, as shown in Figure 3.  

The turnout bonus is the increase in ballots cast in the 2022 on-cycle general election (which included Congressional, state, and most county races3In Washington, all county elections are on cycle except those in King, Snohomish, and Whatcom Counites, and King is now phasing in a switch to on-cycle elections.
) over those cast in the 2021 off-cycle general election in the same district (which included city and other local races, such as school boards, plus statewide advisory votes). For example, voters in the 31st legislative district, which includes Bonney Lake and environs, cast 37,156 ballots in 2021’s off-cycle election and 66,482 ballots in the 2022 on-cycle election. That’s a 79 percent increase, or an on-cycle turnout bonus of 79 percent. 

Legislative districts (LDs) cover all voters in the state, including those in rural, unincorporated areas, rather than just those who reside in areas incorporated into a municipality, and the results are just as striking as for cities. The average LD turnout boost from on-cycle elections was massive: 62 percent statewide. The turnout boost reflects 1.2 million additional ballots cast, with turnout rising from 1.9 million in November 2021 to 3.1 million in November 2022. 

A repeated understatement: Not comparing with presidential year turnout

As for cities, so for LDs: even this 62 percent statewide increase is an understatement of the true turnout bonus that comes from on-cycle elections, because it compares an off-cycle year with a midterm rather than a presidential year.  

Washington recorded 4.1 million ballots in the presidential election of November 2020; in 2022’s midterm, the figure fell to 3.1 million. Comparing 2021’s 1.9 million ballots cast with the average of 2020 and 2022 turnout shows a statewide turnout bonus of 92 percent from on-cycle elections—almost half again as high as the 2022 statewide figure of 62 percent. 

All LDs saw a turnout boost, no matter size, urban or rural location, competitive local races, or demographics 

LD turnout boosts were ubiquitous, just like city turnout penalties. Voter turnout increased from 2021 to 2022 in every single legislative district. That is, in none of the 49 legislative districts in the state did voter turnout decrease from 2021 to 2022. Turnout rose even in places, such as the city of Seattle, that had hotly contested mayoral elections in 2021 and few contested races in 2022. 

The largest turnout boost was 127 percent in the 29th legislative district, a compact area stretching from the south end of Tacoma to Spanaway. There, municipal, school board, and other elections in 2021 only drew ballots from 17,134 people who lived in the precincts of the 29th LD. In 2022, those same precincts cast 38,908 ballots. 

The smallest turnout boost was 8 percent, in the 43rd LD in central Seattle. In fact, five of the six smallest turnout boosts were in Seattle legislative districts. The explanation for this pattern might be that November 2021’s ballot included contested races for Seattle mayor and at-large city council seats, while 2022’s ballot in Seattle was a sleepy affair with few competitive races in state or national elections. 

As for cities, so too for LDs: the turnout bonuses were not correlated in any important way with anything else Sightline could identify. They did not correlate with the district’s partisanship, population density, or race and ethnicity. And they showed no particular geographic pattern, as illustrated in Map 2. 

Map 2

Source: Map by Sightline Institute; GIS analysis by Ben Anderstone, Progressive Strategies, NW; data from US Bureau of Census; WA Sec of State; county election administrators. View a full, interactive version of the map.


Just so, the number of additional ballots cast in 2022, compared with 2021, was large and positive in every legislative district. Map 3 shows the scale of these extra ballots in the size of the square for each legislative district. The extra ballots were unrelated to the political party of each district’s legislative delegation, shown by the squares’ colors.  

Map 3

Source: Map by Sightline Institute; GIS analysis by Ben Anderstone, Progressive Strategies, NW; data from US Bureau of Census; WA Sec of State; county election administrators. View a full, interactive version of map. 

Bigger turnout, bigger support for winners? 

The upshot of the data seems to be that on-cycle elections would dramatically boost participation in democracy, without obviously favoring any particular constituency, party, region, or type of community—at least, none that Sightline has been able to measure. This stronger participation might enhance city leaders’ legitimacy and give them stronger mandates to lead. 

Looking at cases suggests the same conclusion: legislative leaders have vastly more supporters than do the mayors and councilors in their districts, and that’s true without regard to party or place. 

Laurie Jinkins, the Speaker of the House and a Democrat, represents the 27th district in central Tacoma, where the turnout bonus was 78 percent. That means that she and her Democratic colleagues Senator Yasmin Trudeau and Representative Jake Fey all faced 2022 electorates 78 percent larger than did their counterparts running for Tacoma mayor or district city council seats in the same precincts in 2021—a more challenging prospect, no doubt, but also a more representative share of the public and, therefore, a much stronger mandate to govern. Nearby, in and around Bonney Lake in the 31st district, Republican House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary had the benefit of an electorate 79 percent larger than the one that chose the mayor and council of Enumclaw. Thus, the leaders of the respective parties in the Washington State House of Representatives come from districts with nearly matching on-cycle turnout bonuses. 

On the senate side of the state capitol, the coincidence repeats. Senate majority leader and Democrat Andy Billig represents the 3rd district in Spokane, which saw a more than doubling of turnout from 2021 to 2022—an on-cycle bonus of 115 percent. Senate minority leader John Braun comes from the 20th district, the environs of Centralia and Chehalis, which returned 107 percent more ballots in 2022 than the previous year. 

All of these leaders, therefore, face electorates that are very roughly twice as large as the electorates that choose the city leaders from their districts, and that turnout boost only grows when you factor on-cycle presidential elections into the equation. 

Other examples abound. 

Democratic State Senator Patty Kuderer, for example, represents part of the area between Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish. In 2022, when she won reelection, turnout in her 48th LD was 48,500 voters. The previous year, in 2021, when half of the city council seats were on the ballot in Bellevue, Kirkland, and Redmond, the principal cities that overlap with her district, only 33,600 voters cast ballots. In other words, she faced an electorate 44 percent larger than did the city leaders in her district. 

Shelly Short is a Republican senator in the 7th district, which stretches from the Methow Valley across the northern tier of the state to Idaho. She is such a friend to Washington cities’ legislative agenda that their association gave her an award in 2021. One way to help them more would be to help give East Wenatchee and other cities in her district the freedom to increase their voter turnout by the on-cycle bonus, which was 66 percent in her district when she was reelected in 2022. 

Senator Claire Wilson and her Democratic colleagues in the 30th district faced 71 percent more voters than did their municipal counterparts running for office in her LD’s cities of Federal Way, Auburn, and Des Moines. 

Next door, in the 33rd district, Senator Karen Keiser and Representatives Mia Gregerson and Tina Orwall, all Democrats, won reelection in 2022 in a year with 69 percent more voters than turned out to vote the previous year in the overlapping city council districts of SeaTac, Burien, Des Moines, and Kent.  Representative Gregerson, at least, has been trying to do something about it: she’s sponsored a bill to consolidate local elections with federal ones in Washington in each of the past four years. 

Giving cities the option to consolidate elections—and voters greater likelihood of voting 

Decades of familiarity have inured many people to the size and universality of turnout penalties and bonuses. The scale of these penalties and bonuses dwarfs almost all other factors that influence turnout. And the source of the penalties and bonuses is state law. In Washington, state law sets the date for municipal elections as November of odd-numbered years.  

This 1963 policy yields an imbalanced pattern of voting. State legislators run in years with large electorates. These larger electorates, according to academic research, tend to be a better match for the overall public than are small electorates: especially by age but also by race, ethnicity, and ideology. High-turnout on-cycle elections, other research shows, dilute special interest influence and improve accountability by ensuring that elected officials align with the values and beliefs of the majority of their constituents. City officials, meanwhile, run in low-turnout elections, facing less representative electorates dominated by older, whiter voters, including many homeowners.4 These representation effects are not visible in this report’s findings. Statistically, they would not be expected to be visible, given the size of the dataset and that Sightline examined the demographic composition of whole cities and LDs rather than the composition of the electorate that actually voted. The largest representation effect in other studies has been age, which Sightline did not examine in this study.

Like Arizona, California, and Nevada, though, Washington can release cities to move elections at their own discretion. Giving them that option would let cities shed the penalties of off-cycle elections and seize the turnout bonuses from moving local races onto the federal election ballot. 


Thank you to Ben Anderstone for data and GIS analysis, Jay Lee for statistical analysis, Todd Newman for research support, Zoltan Hajnal for review comments, Kate Macfarlane and Webster Chang for mapping and layout, and Devin Porter of Good Measures for graphic design. 

Appendix: Methods and data 

Sightline commissioned Seattle-based election analyst Ben Anderstone of Progressive Strategies NW to assemble complete voter turnout data for every precinct in the state for the 2021 and 2022 November general elections. He used Census Bureau voting-age population estimates and demographic estimates by ethnicity and race. He used voting records from the Washington Secretary of State and county election administrators. Ben aggregated the precincts to match the state’s 49 new, post-2020 legislative districts (LDs). He then calculated total ballots cast per voting-age resident of the district. By doing this, he provided a way to look at how the same voters responded to opportunities to vote for local and state/national candidates in every part of the state of Washington during a two-year period.  

Sightline also recorded the party identification of the delegations in all 49 legislative districts. Washington has uniform party membership among the delegations of almost all of its districts in 2023, but in the few rare exceptions, we identified the district’s partisanship based on the majority of the three legislators in each district, one senator and two representatives. Two of either party labeled the district as with that party. 

Sightline considered whether every precinct had elections in November of 2021 and 2022, and concluded that all did. Washington conducts statewide general elections in November of each year and, in November 2021, conducted statewide advisory votes. Thus, every active registered voter in the state would have received a ballot in that election, as in the November 2022 general election. In addition, every precinct in the state is part of a school district, even if it is in neither a municipality nor any other off-cycle local voting district: port, irrigation, public utility, surface water management, etc. Further, in 2021, three Washington counties conducted November 2021 general elections: King, Snohomish, and Whatcom. All other counties have on-cycle elections, and King County adopted an election consolidation charter amendment in 2022 that will phase out off-cycle elections over the years ahead. 

For the same two November elections, Ben Anderstone also aggregated precincts for all of Washington’s incorporated municipalities (cities and towns), though data were not readily available for some of the smallest towns. Finally, he aggregated data for each city council district in Washington cities that have such districts. 

To calculate turnout, we used not ballots cast as a share of registered voters but ballots cast as a share of voting-age population. This method helps to correct for the wide range of voter registration rates and their variation from year to year. One weakness with the method is that voting-age residents of a jurisdiction may not all be eligible to vote, because of citizenship status or felony convictions, for example. It also fails to reflect changes in population from 2021 to 2022. Still, Sightline used voting-age population as a more-consistent denominator for turnout than voter registrations. 

Sightline’s methods for calculating turnout penalties and bonuses look only at the increase, rather than the levels, of turnout, because it seeks to understand how turnout might change overall were local elections consolidated with federal elections. As indicated in the data tables accompanying this article, turnout varies widely among jurisdictions. Among legislative districts, in 2022, it ranged from 23 percent of voting-age population in the 15th LD near Yakima and Pasco to 63 percent in the 24th LD on the Olympic Peninsula. Among cities in 2021, it ranged from 11 percent in Sunnyside, near Yakima, to 59 percent in Anacortes, in Skagit County. 

To examine relationships between turnout penalties and bonuses, populations, population density, and race/ethnicity, Sightline Senior Research Associate Jay Lee conducted statistical tests of correlation using the software tool R. He also checked correlations with partisanship of the district, using as an indicator of partisanship the 2022 percent vote share of US Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat. 

One way to improve this method would be to add more off-cycle and on-cycle elections. Turnout varies considerably over time, depending on voters’ perceptions of the stakes in each election. So comparing only one on-cycle with one off-cycle election yields results more indicative than predictive. Counteracting this flaw is the conservatism Sightline employed by comparing off-cycle turnout with a midterm year, when turnout is much lower than in a presidential year. 

Turnout bonuses by legislative district

Washington Legislative District (LD)Location of district, principal citiesSenator, Rep 1, Rep 2 (2023)2023 Party of majority of district delegationLD Voting-age population (2020)Nov. 2021 general election ballots castNov. 2022 general election ballots cast2021 turnout (ballots cast/voting-age population)2022 turnout (ballots cast/voting-age population)2022 on-cycle turnout bonus (2022 turnout, as percent increase over 2021 turnout)
1Bothell, Lake Forest Park, KenmoreStanford, Duerr, KlobaD122,25239,36969,62232%57%77%
2Yelm, Pierce countyMcCune, Barkis, WilcoxR117,68429,44657,83225%49%96%
3SpokaneBillig, Riccelli, OrmsbyD125,23028,79761,85823%49%115%
4Spokane ValleyPadden, Schmidt, ChristianR121,88940,95366,71434%55%63%
5Issaquah, Sammamish Mullet, Ramos, CallanD116,38846,17672,31540%62%57%
6SpokaneHoly, Volz, GrahamR122,03140,94661,08534%50%49%
7northeast corner of stateShort, Maycumber, KretzR122,70241,79669,54834%57%66%
8Tri-citiesBoehnke, Barnard, ConnorsR114,87839,09359,55634%52%52%
9Pullman, southeast stateSchoesler, Dye, SchmickR128,00331,90267,04925%52%110%
10Mount Vernon areaMuzzall, Shavers, PaulD126,07150,59175,85040%60%50%
11Renton, Tukwila, KentHasegawa, Hackney, BergquistD123,86728,07948,17223%39%72%
12Monroe to WenatcheeHawkins, Goehner, SteeleR123,02440,88369,57233%57%70%
13Ellensburg, Moses Lake, central stateWarnick, Dent, YbarraR117,96333,97055,49529%47%63%
14Yakima, south central stateKing, Corry, MosbrucknerR116,36332,33448,19428%41%49%
15Pasco to YakimaTorres, Chandler, SandlinR105,37819,06323,71218%23%24%
16Kennewick to Walla WallaDozier, Klicker, RudeR119,29628,45255,98324%47%97%
17Vancouver to CamasWilson, Waters, HarrisR120,31832,86671,04327%59%116%
18Unincorporated Clark CountyRivers, McClintock, CheneyR119,53947,28266,36140%56%40%
19Aberdeen and environsWilson, Waters, McEntireR125,14037,92165,46630%52%73%
20Centralia, ChehalisBraun, Abbarno, OrcuttR119,69635,30672,91229%61%107%
21Edmonds, Everett, LynnwoodLiias, Peterson, Ortiz-SelfD124,22334,23458,26228%47%70%
22OlympiaHunt, Doglio, BatemanD124,66743,84469,19835%56%58%
23Bainbridge, BremertonHansen, Simmons, NanceD125,08243,01272,34134%58%68%
24Aberdeen, Port Angeles, Port TownsendVan De Wege, Chapman, TharingerD131,60951,15182,59939%63%61%
25PuyallupGildon, Chambers, JacobsenR119,28528,50257,33424%48%101%
26Bremerton, Gig HarborRandall, Hutchins, CaldierR125,36444,47876,17235%61%71%
27TacomaTrudeau, Jinkins, FeyD127,32733,30759,34026%47%78%
28Lakewood, University Place, TacomaNobles, Leavitt, BronoskeD120,74729,87147,16425%39%58%
29Tacoma, LakewoodConway, Moran, MenaD118,57317,13438,90814%33%127%
30Federal Way, Des MoinesWilson, Taylor, ReevesD120,03125,16842,96321%36%71%
31Bonney Lake, EnumclawFortunato, Stokesbary, RobertsonR118,81837,15666,48231%56%79%
32Mountlake Terrace, ShorelineSalomon, Ryu, DavisD127,12838,16766,09030%52%73%
33Burien, Seatac Keiser, Orwall, GregersonD122,93326,82145,25522%37%69%
34West Seattle, VashonNguyen, Alvarado, FitzgibbonD127,97855,49071,00543%55%28%
35Lacey, SheltonMacEwen, Griffey, CoutureR126,75341,43675,87833%60%83%
36Seattle (Ballard, Queen Anne)Frame, Reed, BerryD133,53867,18480,74750%60%20%
37southeast SeattleSaldaña, Santos, StreetD129,01048,65561,07738%47%26%
38EverettRobinson, Cortes, FosseD122,63427,20652,52522%43%93%
39Granite Falls, Lake Stevens, Granite FallsWagoner, Low, EslickR119,25736,18566,13730%55%83%
40Anacortes, Bellingham, Mt. VernonLovelett, Lekanoff, RamelD128,37350,58377,86839%61%54%
41Bellevue, Mercer IslandWellman, Senn, ThaiD119,16843,76565,84037%55%50%
42Blaine, BellinghamShewmake, Rule, TimmonsD123,43352,43875,96142%62%45%
43Central SeattlePedersen, Macri, ChoppD145,45159,59064,12341%44%8%
44Mill Creek, EverettLovick, Donaghy, BergD117,38739,49264,14234%55%62%
45Kirkland, RedmondDhingra, Goodman, SpringerD118,35641,72667,38135%57%61%
46northeast Seattle Valdez, Pollet, FarivarD131,44259,27872,42145%55%22%
47KentKauffman, Entenman, StearnsD119,57728,59550,82524%43%78%
48Bellevue, RedmondKuderer, Slatter, WalenD125,22333,61048,51727%39%44%
49Vancouver Cleveland, Wylie, StonierD123,34028,97052,79223%43%82%

Turnout penalties by city

CityVoting-age Population (2020)Nov. 2021 general election ballots castNov. 2022 general election ballots cast 2021 turnout (ballots cast/voting age- population)2022 turnout (ballots cast/voting-age population)2021 off-cycle turnout penalty (2021 turnout, compared with 2022)2021 Missing Votes (2022 ballots cast less 2021 ballots cast
Seattle 630,174 267,414 333,912 42%53%-19.9% 66,498
Spokane 180,961 52,475 86,468 29%48%-39.3% 33,993
Tacoma 175,227 42,768 74,666 24%43%-42.7% 31,898
Vancouver 150,427 34,569 66,916 23%44%-48.3% 32,347
Bellevue 120,263 33,124 49,993 28%42%-33.7% 16,869
Kent 104,299 20,652 35,880 20%34%-42.4% 15,228
Everett 87,826 18,636 33,994 21%39%-45.2% 15,358
Renton 84,351 17,697 32,551 21%39%-45.6% 14,854
Spokane Valley 80,043 21,791 39,021 27%49%-44.2% 17,230
Bellingham 77,879 30,018 43,276 39%56%-30.6% 13,258
Federal Way 77,734 16,353 27,047 21%35%-39.5% 10,694
Kirkland 73,177 21,684 37,975 30%52%-42.9% 16,291
Yakima 70,824 15,160 23,307 21%33%-35.0% 8,147
Auburn 65,153 12,503 24,028 19%37%-48.0% 11,525
Kennewick 61,193 16,154 25,642 26%42%-37.0% 9,488
Redmond 55,799 12,748 21,430 23%38%-40.5% 8,682
Marysville 53,415 13,153 24,343 25%46%-46.0% 11,190
Pasco 52,034 8,713 16,867 17%32%-48.3% 8,154
Lakewood 50,020 9,689 17,853 19%36%-45.7% 8,164
Sammamish 47,390 16,067 27,342 34%58%-41.2% 11,275
Shoreline 47,336 15,605 26,807 33%57%-41.8% 11,202
Richland 45,933 16,727 25,559 36%56%-34.6% 8,832
Olympia 44,806 16,505 24,758 37%55%-33.3% 8,253
Lacey 41,438 11,152 20,261 27%49%-45.0% 9,109
Burien 41,413 12,502 17,702 30%43%-29.4% 5,200
Bothell 37,573 12,223 20,042 33%53%-39.0% 7,819
Edmonds 35,484 15,857 23,457 45%66%-32.4% 7,600
Bremerton 35,482 8,387 13,140 24%37%-36.2% 4,753
Puyallup 33,685 9,917 16,878 29%50%-41.2% 6,961
Lynnwood 31,071 7,405 13,231 24%43%-44.0% 5,826
Issaquah 30,672 9,010 16,215 29%53%-44.4% 7,205
Longview 29,595 8,193 13,409 28%45%-38.9% 5,216
Pullman 28,582 4,457 7,717 16%27%-42.2% 3,260
Walla Walla 27,272 8,270 11,930 30%44%-30.7% 3,660
Wenatchee 27,247 8,559 12,716 31%47%-32.7% 4,157
University Place 26,929 8,376 14,811 31%55%-43.4% 6,435
Mount Vernon 26,472 6,866 11,854 26%45%-42.1% 4,988
Des Moines 26,030 7,334 11,375 28%44%-35.5% 4,041
Lake Stevens 25,516 8,921 15,198 35%60%-41.3% 6,277
SeaTac 24,740 4,772 6,978 19%28%-31.6% 2,206
Bainbridge Island 19,826 11,247 16,139 57%81%-30.3% 4,892
Tumwater 19,775 6,251 11,159 32%56%-44.0% 4,908
Mercer Island 19,711 9,899 13,358 50%68%-25.9% 3,459
Maple Valley 19,297 8,263 11,771 43%61%-29.8% 3,508
Kenmore 18,694 6,406 10,942 34%59%-41.5% 4,536
Camas 18,548 8,273 12,910 45%70%-35.9% 4,637
Oak Harbor 18,278 4,193 6,605 23%36%-36.5% 2,412
Moses Lake 18,088 4,622 6,465 26%36%-28.5% 1,843
Mountlake Terrace 17,350 4,315 8,622 25%50%-50.0% 4,307
Tukwila 17,220 3,336 5,135 19%30%-35.0% 1,799
Mukilteo 17,091 7,871 10,158 46%59%-22.5% 2,287
Mill Creek 16,548 5,119 8,656 31%52%-40.9% 3,537
Bonney Lake 16,530 5,004 8,801 30%53%-43.1% 3,797
Port Angeles 16,169 6,518 8,992 40%56%-27.5% 2,474
Covington 15,610 3,786 7,990 24%51%-52.6% 4,204
Ellensburg 15,530 3,826 6,536 25%42%-41.5% 2,710
Monroe 15,129 3,575 6,345 24%42%-43.7% 2,770
Battle Ground 15,113 4,970 8,421 33%56%-41.0% 3,451
Arlington 14,782 3,631 7,457 25%50%-51.3% 3,826
Anacortes 14,517 8,515 10,360 59%71%-17.8% 1,845
Centralia 13,881 3,274 5,727 24%41%-42.8% 2,453
Aberdeen 13,054 2,895 4,765 22%37%-39.2% 1,870
Washougal 12,905 4,279 7,173 33%56%-40.3% 2,894
Port Orchard 11,980 3,355 5,900 28%49%-43.1% 2,545
West Richland 11,634 5,100 7,523 44%65%-32.2% 2,423
Lynden 11,547 5,671 7,966 49%69%-28.8% 2,295
Cheney 11,226 1,692 3,112 15%28%-45.6% 1,420
Ferndale 11,185 4,152 6,677 37%60%-37.8% 2,525
Lake Forest Park 10,877 5,966 7,835 55%72%-23.9% 1,869
Sunnyside 10,626 1,119 1,670 11%16%-33.0% 551
East Wenatchee 10,557 2,857 4,793 27%45%-40.4% 1,936
Woodinville 10,248 3,415 5,910 33%58%-42.2% 2,495
Newcastle 10,202 3,489 5,212 34%51%-33.1% 1,723
Washington State 6,062,910 1,873,617 3,067,686 31%51%-38.9% 1,194,069
Total for cities in this list 3,459,193 1,049,290 1,627,634 30%47%-35.5% 578,344

Micro-housing: It’s Not about the Size but How You Use It

Find audio versions of Sightline articles on any of your favorite podcast platforms, including Spotify, Google, and Apple.

Editor’s note: Guest author David Neiman is a principal at Neiman Taber Architects, where he is deeply involved in micro-housing as an architect, developer, and proponent in the public policy sphere. His firm works to create plentiful, high-quality, small unit housing, designed to support livability and promote community among residents. 

I’ve spent much of the last decade designing and developing micro-housing projects in Seattle. I’ve also become deeply involved in local and state policy debates around regulating this type of housing. During this time, I’ve witnessed a shift in how micro-housing is viewed and managed: beginning as a novelty and quickly evolving from a developer’s workaround to the neighborhood advocates’ nightmare, to the politicians’ headache and the bureaucrats’ bogeyman, all the while being slowly driven towards extinction by over-regulation. 

Despite this, and over the din of the loudest voices at the political extremes, I’ve seen a consensus emerge in policy circles recognizing that micro-housing is one of the simplest and most straightforward ways to put more homes into a housing market that is simply starving for them. It’s also one of the most effective ways to give people of modest means the opportunity to live in desirable neighborhoods with access to jobs, services, education, amenities, arts, culture, and an overall high quality of life. 

At all levels of government, politicians and policymakers are looking for ways to promote more of this type of housing. But they stumble on the question of “how small is too small,” where to look for guidance, and how to develop appropriate regulations that govern the size of micro-housing. Below I share key resources to inform this conversation, as well as a number of designs to help leaders envision how these homes could look and feel for the many neighbors who need them. Spoiler alert: A well designed studio apartment can be a lot smaller than most people think. 

Building codes over zoning codes; Or, health and safety over opinions 

First things first: it’s important to differentiate between building codes and zoning codes. Building codes regulate unit size by directly specifying minimum square footage of the floor area. Zoning codes take a more circumspect approach, using density limits, parking requirements, and per unit amenities that indirectly govern housing size.  

For the purposes of this article, we will ignore zoning codes, which are inherently political documents that vary from city to city. Instead, we’ll focus on the International Building Code (IBC), which is used in all 50 US states. It has a narrower mandate, which is simply (but importantly) to protect public health and safety and to safeguard against hazards in the built environment. While in practice, the ultimate rationale for a zoning code provision can be merely “because I said so,” the building code is supposed to have an empirical justification and so can be evaluated on that basis. 

The IBC regulates housing size by dictating the minimum size of “habitable” rooms. For instance, a studio apartment requires a 190-square-foot living room. Additionally, the IBC mandates that a kitchen, a bathroom, and a storage closet be provided. Combining those elements with the code-required circulation and accessibility clearances, a studio apartment’s minimum size usually ends up at about 300 square feet.1This measurement refers to the interior “paint-to-paint” dimensions of the apartment. The measurement method commonly used for listing apartment sizes, known as BOMA, includes wall thickness and typically results in a measurement about 10 percent higher.

A 300-square-foot studio apartment is by no means luxurious, but smaller apartments are quite common, and I would guess that most of us have lived in smaller spaces at one time or another. In Seattle, a 300-square-foot studio rents for approximately $1,600 per month, making it affordable for people earning around $64,000 annually. That’s fine if you can afford it, but nearly half of Seattle’s renters can’t afford to pay that much for rent 

To serve these neighbors, either we need to build housing that is smaller and more affordable than what conventional development can deliver, or we need to provide subsidized housing to a large percentage of our population. Realistically, our present social safety net can’t even provide for our most vulnerable populations, let alone people who are fully employed but simply earn a modest salary. This is where micro-housing can play a crucial role. 

Imagining a new micro-housing norm 

Of Cascadia’s major cities, I’m most familiar with Seattle, which has been a national leader in micro-housing. In recent years the city has built thousands of micro-homes in various forms. One type is a smaller studio apartment that Seattle calls a Small Efficiency Dwelling Unit (SEDU). This type of housing has been legal for over 20 years, offering residents smaller and more affordable alternatives to traditional studios. 

Housing advocates in Washington are working on legislation this year to legalize this kind of small studio apartment throughout the state. But to get there, legislators and policymakers first need to understand that this type of housing is humane, safe, and dignified. To show that, let’s compare what the code allows today to some smaller, more affordable alternatives. 

Status quo: Today’s typical micro-housing studio 

Here is what a typical 300-square-foot studio apartment plan looks like (see Figure 1). It features a 190-square-foot living room, which accommodates a bed, a couch, and a small dining area. Additionally, there’s a compact kitchen, a storage closet, and a bathroom.  

If you’re a developer aiming to provide the most homes at the lowest cost, your goal is to reduce the unit size to get the most units possible into a floorplate. Under current rules, you can’t reduce the living room below 190 square feet, and accessibility codes mandate a minimum bathroom size, typically 5 feet by 8 feet. To squeeze in more units per floor, the only option is to shrink the kitchen and storage space to the bare minimum. Here is a plan of what that looks like. 

Figure 1: A mandated 190-square-foot living room in a 300-square-foot home reduces kitchen and storage spaces to their absolute minimums. Image by Neiman Taber Architects.

Status evolved: More livability, less living room 

Now let’s try a different approach. From a livability perspective, empty floor space is probably the least important feature that a person needs in their home.  

In this redesigned plan of the same unit, we’ve increased the kitchen size, providing more countertop workspace, additional storage and cabinets, a washer-dryer unit, a desk, and bookshelves. There’s still enough room for furniture, but by trading some living room area for more practical built-in features, we’ve created a significantly more comfortable home. And the total unit size is still 300 square feet. 

Figure 2: A revised design with a 140-square-foot living room in a 300-square-foot home increases kitchen counter space and adds more storage space, built-in furniture, and even a washer-dryer. Image by Neiman Taber Architects.

Use the slider below to compare the two designs: the first with its 190-square-foot living room and the second with its 140-square-foot living room—and added kitchen counter space, storage space, built-in furniture, and even a washer-dryer. Which would you prefer to live in? 

These two plans demonstrate a simple point: If you’re trying to design a building code to make a small unit more livable, forcing the living room to be larger is the wrong approach. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the IBC does. 

The origins of the IBC’s 190-square-foot living room mandate 

It’s worth a moment to discuss where the requirement for a 190-square-foot living room comes from. It’s not a universally accepted number. Until the 2018 IBC code update, the minimum standard for a living room was 220 square feet. Seattle’s SEDU standards allow for a 120- to 150-square-foot living room, depending on how you measure it. The IBC also allows congregate housing units—i.e., where residents have a private bedroom but share things like a kitchen, dining room, and other common spaces—with living spaces as small as 70 square feet. These are all forms of permanent housing meant for use by the general public, yet the size requirements vary widely.  

A skeptical observer might wonder if these square footage requirements have any empirical basis or are merely arbitrary. A review of historical codes would prove the skeptic right. The Uniform Building Code, the predecessor to the IBC we use today, was first published in 1927. About two decades later in 1946, it introduced minimum room sizes, including an 80-square-foot living room. In 1964 the requirement grew to 90 square feet. In 1973, the requirement suddenly more than doubled to 220 square feet 

The square footage minimums do not stem from a long tradition nor any particular health or safety principle. The fact that today’s standard arrived suddenly in the early 1970s likely has more to do with urban politics of the day. At that time, most American cities were in decline, losing their population and tax base to the suburbs and struggling with high crimes rates. In reaction, many cities enacted policies aimed at getting rid of small, low-cost housing types like SROs where poor people lived.  

Another way: Public health-informed priorities and sizing 

Public health experts have long acknowledged that the built environment heavily impacts human health. The National Healthy Housing Standard (NHHS), developed by public health professionals, serves as a tool for planners, elected officials, and policymakers to design regulations for housing that are based on the public health literature.2Document pages 30–33 specify kitchen, bathroom, and minimum space recommendations.

So what does the NHHS standard recommend for minimum living room sizes? A mere 70 square feet. However, this is not the end of the story. While the IBC focuses primarily on living room size, the NHHS gives more attention to subjects such as cleanliness, adequate storage, and functional food preparation. 

For example, the NHHS stipulates the need for a kitchen with both a range top and oven, a refrigerator and a freezer, and a designated space for utensils and cooking tools. It also requires a kitchen to have a washable backsplash and cleanable floors. In contrast, the IBC remains mostly silent on these matters, requiring only a microwave oven, a sink, and a mini-fridge. 

Another example: The NHHS mandates the use of low-pile carpets, non-absorbent flooring, low-VOC finishes, and other requirements aimed at providing cleanable surfaces and healthy indoor air quality. The IBC is silent on these matters. 

In general, if we look to the IBC as a guide for designing micro-homes, we end up with larger and more expensive housing units than necessary, often lacking important livability features. In contrast, the NHHS permits smaller and more efficient homes but demands other essential amenities for livability, well-being, and sanitation. 

What would a better micro-home look like? 

At this point we’ve established a few things.  

  1. The current standards are somewhat arbitrary. 
  2. Living room size is not a reliable measure of livability. 
  3. A better standard would focus much less on unit size and more on design elements that support healthy lifestyles.  

Clearly, we can build humane, quality housing smaller than what the IBC code allows today, but the question remains: how small is too small? Below are floor plans for micro-homes with living rooms of 120, 95, and 70 square feet in 250-, 220-, and 200-square foot units respectively—and plenty of space for living well in each.  

The 120 in a 250: A Seattle SEDU-compliant option 

Figure 3: A 250-square-foot studio that is Seattle SEDU-compliant. With a 120-square-foot living room, it can’t accommodate both a bed and couch in the living space. Image by the Neiman Taber Architects.

We’ll begin with a small studio along the lines of what Seattle allows for a Small Efficiency Dwelling Unit (SEDU). It complies with all of Seattle’s regulations, including some of the city’s idiosyncratic rules about countertop areas, storage configuration, and how to measure the living room.  

In total, this SEDU measures 250 square feet. At this scale there is room for a basic kitchen, bathroom, and storage area, plus the minimum required 120-square-foot living room. The living room area can comfortably fit a dining room table plus one more large piece of furniture. Unlike the larger 300-square-foot studio in Figures 1 and 2, we don’t have enough space for both a couch and a bed, so we opted for a convertible sofa that can serve both purposes. 

The 90 in a 220: More kitchen and storage, plus a washer-dryer 

Figure 4: A 220-square-foot SEDU variation, with a smaller living room and more kitchen space, storage, and even a washer-dryer. It complies with Seattle’s SEDU rules for total square footage but not living room square footage. Image by Neiman Taber Architects.

This design is a variation on the SEDU. It meets the city’s minimum total square footage for a Seattle SEDU, but it dispenses with the city’s living room size minimum. (The design also meets the minimum requirement for a small studio under a similar program in San Francisco.) 

This is the scale of unit that was typical for SEDUs in Seattle before 2016, when building officials enacted a series of code interpretations that changed the way that habitable space is measured, requiring a larger living room area. Compared to the slightly larger unit and living room above, here we can still fit the same suite of furniture, but also a larger kitchen, a more useful storage area, and a washer-dryer. For comparison, this living room is about 95 square feet, so losing just less than a quarter of the living room space of the prior design. 

The 70 in a 200: NHHS-approved, with handy built-ins, more kitchen and storage, plus washer-dryer 

Figure 5: A 200-square-foot micro-home with a 70-square-foot living room boasts more kitchen and storage space, plus a handy built-in bookshelf, all compliant with the National Healthy Housing Standard. Image by Neiman Taber Architects.

The NHHS says that the minimum habitable space for a dwelling unit’s living room is 70 square feet. So let’s look at what that accomplishes in terms of the overall unit size and layout 

We’ve kept a similar suite of amenities in the kitchen and bathroom as the prior design, meaning more kitchen countertop and storage, plus a washer-dryer. And with only 70 square feet of living room area, there’s still enough room for a sleeper sofa and dining table, plus we’ve increased the functional use of the room with a built-in bookshelf. It’s cozier than the versions with larger living rooms but still a functional home that serves a person’s basic needs well and comfortably. The overall size of this unit comes out to just over 200 square feet. 

Policymakers should prioritize livability and an abundance of housing options 

The IBC standards that we use today to regulate small unit housing are clearly counterproductive. They prohibit the creation of smaller, more affordable units that could help put a dent in our housing crisis, and they prioritize space over livability, functionality, and cleanliness.  

If lawmakers have concerns about the livability of small units, they should look to the standards of the NHHS for guidance. Current living room requirements have no empirical basis; they make our housing less plentiful and more expensive; and contrary to their intent, they result in less functional housing units with fewer amenities. It’s possible to make desirable homes for people far smaller than the size required by the IBC. The options we illustrated work well down to about 200 square feet.  

It’s possible to go even smaller. In our congregate housing projects, units can be as small as 120-150 square feet when the building also provides common kitchen, dining, and other amenities that supplement the private units. This illustrates a larger point, which is that beyond the basics, the specific features of the private unit are often less important than the quality of the environment in which they are situated. 

Likewise, micro-homes work best in neighborhoods that provide residents with easy access to amenities such as parks, grocery stores, libraries, schools, restaurants, retail, and services.  

Policymakers can unlock housing opportunities for thousands more people in Washington and across Cascadia by amending our state building code to reduce the minimum living room size, allowing builders throughout Washington to create plentiful, affordable homes for their communities.  


Recent Reforms Could Make a Real Neighborhood of Downtown Anchorage

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Anchorage is exceptional. You can be neighbors with moose and see the aurora from your deck. But on housing policy, Anchorage conforms to the Anytown, USA model of zoning rules that stock neighborhoods with a generic product: suburban one-unit homes. The intentions behind the code weren’t necessarily nefarious, but the effects certainly are. Anchorage zoning code limits market choice, contributing to a shortage of homes across the price spectrum, and weakens Alaskans’ spending power by flooding the state’s economic hub with the priciest of housing types.

The severity of Anchorage’s housing shortage has brought Anchorage’s conservative mayor and majority-progressive Assembly into agreement on reforms to help expand housing choice. In the past year, they have made accessory dwelling units easier to build, repealed parking mandates, which can block housing and business development, and introduced a potentially game-changing rezoning ordinance that put a spotlight on the concept of middle housing. In a unanimous vote in April, the Assembly updated downtown zoning code to encourage more housing development on the acres of parking lots and other underused properties in the city center.

The downtown reforms were a necessary step toward unlocking millions of square feet for housing and the businesses that support car-optional downtown neighborhoods. Adding more units downtown could help stabilize prices city-wide, provide more apartment-style living options, and achieve the city’s longtime goal of keeping downtown’s vibrant summer economy alive year-round. Downtown businesses need customers after the tourists leave in the fall. With remote work likely here to stay, Anchorage’s office workers aren’t enough. The only way to create a permanent pool of customers is to turn downtown into a place for locals to live.

Scant housing in Anchorage’s “most desirable neighborhood”

Most Anchorage residents live in suburban neighborhoods that look like countless others across America. But many would happily move to a more urban setting if the market produced the type of housing they truly preferred. Household sizes have shrunk in the last two decades, both in Anchorage and nationwide, and cross-generational competition for more compact housing is fierce. A downtown flat can fit the lifestyles and budgets of these smaller households—empty nesters, retirees, young professionals, and single parents—better than an overlarge single-unit home. In a 2018 Anchorage Economic Development Corporation housing survey, nearly one-third of 1,110 respondents ranked downtown as one of their top three neighborhoods. The city’s Downtown District Plan calls it “the most desirable neighborhood in Anchorage.”

There’s a huge disconnect between demand and supply. Between 2000 and 2020, the share of one- and two-person households in Anchorage grew. At the same time, the share of households with three or more people shrank. And yet, Anchorage’s housing market prioritizes the one-unit-per-lot model—the largest, most expensive housing type. In 2000, 46 percent of occupied homes were single detached houses. Twenty years later, the market share of these houses had swelled to 58 percent. Adding more housing units downtown can help correct the imbalance in the market.

Existing housing units in downtown Anchorage (Image Credit: Municipality of Anchorage, Anchorage Downtown District Plan 2021)

Existing housing units in downtown Anchorage (Image Credit: Municipality of Anchorage, Anchorage Downtown District Plan 2021)

Only 614 units exist in the downtown core, according to municipal data. In producing its 2021 Downtown District Plan, the city began exploring ways to add another 1,400 housing units and envision what they might look like. But the architecture firm contracted to produce renderings depicting the Plan’s vision for new housing downtown came back with bad news. The city’s own zoning code, written years earlier, discouraged attractive, modern residential developments.

“They hired us to do the renderings, and we found we couldn’t accurately portray the vision in a way that was true to what was possible according to Title 21 code because a lot of these newer residential building types the plan called for downtown were not allowed,” said Mélisa Babb, a landscape architect who managed the project for architecture and design firm Bettisworth North. “We kept having to come back and say, ‘Well, you can’t build that nice new tower because we can’t do residential like that downtown.’”

Concept illustration of a mixed-use corner block of homes

This block of homes would have been illegal before the Anchorage Assembly unanimously passed downtown zoning code revisions in April 2023.

This realization gave rise to reforms for the three zoning districts that make up downtown, roughly bordered by K Street, 9th Avenue, Gambell Street, and the Ship Creek industrial area. Among the changes:

  • Expands the list of businesses and institutions allowed to operate downtown
  • Bans new surface parking lots
  • Adds flexibility to design constraints or gets rid of them entirely

Changes to land use rules alone won’t lead to abundant housing downtown, but they are a low-cost way for the city to remove obvious regulatory barriers. These and other zoning reforms are part of a larger suite of support for downtown housing that could include financing and tax incentives, as well as public spending on sidewalks, lighting, and safe options for non-motorized and public transit.

Bans on convenience stores and other businesses lifted

Walkable neighborhoods have huge appeal for people who envision themselves living downtown. Across the country, neighborhoods with high walk scores command premium prices because demand for walkable neighborhoods exceeds supply. They require, among other features, the close proximity of housing with key businesses and services. But in Anchorage, downtown caters primarily to visitors and office workers. Without a critical mass of residents, the businesses essential to everyday life are rare to nonexistent. Eateries, bars, and retailers abound, but some shut down or shorten their hours when customer traffic dwindles outside tourist season. Downtown Anchorage has two convention centers and plenty of coffee shops but no grocery store. It has a half-dozen cannabis retailers but no pharmacy.

Downtown Anchorage has two convention centers and plenty of coffee shops but no grocery store. It has a half dozen cannabis retailers but no pharmacy.

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The recent round of code reforms lifted prohibitions on businesses that would support residential life downtown, such as convenience stores, veterinary clinics, and community centers. Other newly allowed institutions include an aquarium, school and university facilities, and pet boarding. The reforms also eased restrictions on small libraries.

“All these things were not allowed,” Babb said. “It’s invisible. You’re not going to see the difference until people open new businesses.”

The code changes alone won’t be enough to actually bring these new businesses downtown, but they do remove a major barrier. For example, the University of Alaska Anchorage now has the option to move offices or entire academic programs to city center, just as other universities have elsewhere. Adding student housing downtown would drive growth for existing businesses and perhaps attract others.

Convenience store owners should have an easier time now that their businesses are no longer prohibited. Proprietors have long used a loophole that classified them as restaurants as long as they sold food prepared on-site (which explains why you can get a chowder to-go and lip balm at that place on 4th Avenue). The reforms give them the option to jettison their commercial-grade kitchens and focus on selling snacks, band-aids, and beverages.

A much more diverse ecosystem of retail, services, and eateries would bring about more consumer choice, support neighborhood cohesion, and lay the groundwork for residents to leave their cars at home. Crucially, the city would need to work with the state to make downtown, including 5th and 6th Avenues, more bike and walker-friendly, while still accommodating motor vehicles. These and other changes can make downtown Anchorage living accessible to more people who don’t own a personal vehicle, want to minimize time spent in a car, or can’t drive for medical reasons. Pro-driving die-hards should likewise support safe alternative transit, like the city’s protected bike lane pilot projects. Fewer drivers mean less traffic and more available parking spots for them.

As a recent Brookings Institution report noted, “Ironically, an American economy that prides itself on consumer choice offers less transportation choice than our global peers.” By allowing more types of businesses downtown, Anchorage has moved an increment closer to transit diversity.

Surface parking lots banned

Surface parking lots encase huge swaths of downtown, turning some of the most valuable property in Anchorage into urban dead zones. Instead of millions of square feet of housing, boutique hotels, or cool restaurants generating the property taxes Anchorage relies on to function, the city center hosts acres of asphalt deserts. To slow the creep of this wholly inefficient use of land, the Assembly banned all new surface lots. (New multilevel parking structures are still allowed since they use land more efficiently.)

The search for parking downtown can be a minor hassle, but not for lack of spots. It’s just that most drivers (myself included) want a cheap spot on the street. The truth is that excess parking riddles the city, especially downtown. A 2007 study by the Anchorage Community Development Authority found that at peak downtown drive times, 5,445 parking spaces went unused. Driving tends to rise and fall with economic activity. With the 2023 economy slower than it was in 2007, the number of empty spots is plausibly even larger now, according to an analysis in the 2021 Downtown District Plan.

The city calculated that the unused spaces represent about 1.5 million square feet of “at grade” development (meaning just one story)—and that doesn’t count the multiple stories that could have been built above those spaces. With property taxes as the municipality’s main revenue source, the underutilized space represents a loss in funding opportunities for additional services and public infrastructure investments. But it also represents future opportunities for growth and improvement.

Surface parking bans aren’t common, but Anchorage isn’t alone. Last year Cincinnati instituted a temporary ban on new surface parking lots downtown. Its city council votes this year on whether to extend the ban in the urban core.

Pink highlights showing buildable lots in downtown Anchorage. Most of the highlighted lots host surface parking. (Image Credit: Municipality of Anchorage, Anchorage Downtown District Plan 2021)

Pink highlights showing buildable lots in downtown Anchorage. Most of the highlighted lots host surface parking. (Image Credit: Municipality of Anchorage, Anchorage Downtown District Plan 2021)

Surface lots are lucrative and relatively cheap to maintain, giving owners little incentive to sell at prices that would make an urban residential project pencil out. The rates that lot owners charge for parking essentially cover the minimal property taxes they pay, giving them a way to wait out the market while generating income on an otherwise vacant property.

Instead of millions of square feet of housing, boutique hotels, or cool restaurants generating the property taxes Anchorage relies on to function, the city center hosts acres of asphalt deserts

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“A lot of the larger parking lots downtown are owned by out-of-state operators,” said Anchorage Assembly member Daniel Volland. “They can essentially sit on that land while everything else is improved around them. And the property value goes up over time, and they can sell it for a big reward.”

Volland said that moving the downtown core away from being a giant parking lot will require additional policy tools. For example, the city could establish a stormwater utility funded by fees on the impermeable surface of the land. A grass lot with natural drainage would incur lower fees than a parking lot whose runoff would enter city storm drains.

A split-rate property tax, where the tax on the land itself is more heavily weighted than the building, is another idea for incentivizing surface parking lot owners to improve their property. Volland floated the idea of a land value tax that also provided residential property owners some relief.

The city for decades didn’t force developers or landowners to provide a defined number of spots for vehicles downtown, though it did for the rest of the city, at least until last year. And yet the problem of excess parking is arguably worse downtown than in any other part of Anchorage. The zoning code’s so-called “bonus table” for downtown incentivized parking by allowing developers to add more square footage to buildings but only if they added more parking or other features. As part of the reforms, the Assembly got rid of the bonus table, too.

Lowering the hidden dimensional barriers

The Assembly also modified the rules dictating the size, shape, and spacing of lots and buildings. Known as “dimensional standards,” these arcane columns of numbers in a typical zoning code determine a city’s beauty and livability (or ugliness and un-livability, depending on your viewpoint). Let’s say a developer wants to turn a giant parking lot into apartments with a convenience store and restaurant on the ground floor. Dimensional standards that require a setback, or buffer zone between the sidewalk and the edge of the building or between buildings, could add significant costs to the project.

The Assembly also modified dimensional standards downtown by

  • Reducing front, rear, and side setbacks to zero and allowing buildings to cover 100 percent of a lot, giving neighborhoods like Ted Lasso’s in London a chance to take root in Anchorage; and
  • Getting rid of rules that set minimums for lot sizes and lot widths in all three downtown zones, giving property owners the flexibility to pursue a wider range of building shapes and sizes, like Rue Wellington in Montreal.

Federal height limits related to Merrill Field, the nearby municipal airport, still apply, and range from about 260 feet on the east side of downtown, gradually increasing to 480 feet on the western edge. But apartment buildings reaching those heights are unlikely in the near future. The Assembly added de facto height restrictions in the form of building step-backs, where floors above a certain height must be set back a certain distance from the edge of the building. In the central business district, the step-back rule kicks in at 112 feet, or about 10 stories. Building step-backs add to construction costs and may discourage builders from exceeding the height at which the requirement applies. No complaints here, though. A 10-story apartment building in downtown would add a significant percentage of housing to the area. The iconic Haussmann apartment buildings of Paris max out at 66 feet and none exceed six stories.

A downtown that’s everything to everyone all at once

Alaska communities and other tourist destinations often reserve the best of themselves for visitors. By opening downtown to more residents, the city can share the neighborhood with locals while continuing to accommodate tourists and the rest of us in Anchorage who are by turns office workers, theater-goers, bar-hoppers, restaurant patrons, and recreationalists. But in creating a downtown for residents, the city shouldn’t lose sight of what makes it work for visitors. Tourists flock to destinations, like cruise ships and Disneyland, that offer a large chunk of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs within walking distance. Ideally, downtown would provide the same all-inclusive resort convenience for its residents, along with everything else people appreciate whether or not they’re wearing their tourist hats: safe, clean streets, low vehicle traffic, public art, beautiful outdoor places to people-watch and socialize, and a strong sense of exactly where they are.  

Learning from the Least Housed

Find audio versions of Sightline articles on any of your favorite podcast platforms, including Spotify, Google, and Apple.

Governments rule and fund from the center, and markets typically build for the top down. How, then, do those on unserved fringes adapt and house themselves? 

To find out, look around. As Cascadians scramble for solutions to our housing crises, we could all gain some new ideas by observing the innovations of those already on the edges. 

For the last decade I have taken a deep interest in—and it has taken me into—researching and living on the housing periphery. I’ve lived in warehouses, across a wide archipelago of house-sits and couch-surfs, and on rural sojourns off grid. I’ve lived in backyards, houseless villages, parking spaces, and prototype structures and vehicles. Living on these ever-shifting social shorelines, I am increasingly convinced that if we are all to survive and thrive, we must let the edges teach us.  

Living in more “makeshift” housing has taught me to make and shift my own ways of living. It’s about playing the cards in hand, deftly. Surprisingly often, I discover unexpected ways it sharpens my game: I’ve learned that sleeping under a cloth roof gives me soft illumination in the morning and an energetic wake-up. I’ve learned that hot water bottles aren’t merely more efficient than hot air; they’re also cozier. 

Cascadian housing policy can sharpen its game, too. Drawn from my experiences and research, I’ll discuss here three related housing approaches for radical agility and affordability. 

  1. Create evolvable housing, not temporary shelter: “New Starter Homes” 
  2. Facilitate self-building: Let people define, design for, and build for their own needs
  3. Roll out the ultimate scalable infill: The “Wheeler House” vehicle dwelling

1) Create evolvable housing, not temporary shelter: “New Starter Homes” 


Three eclectically designed tiny houses on wheels sit around a courtyard covered by a sun shade, atop a large smooth concrete slab that features painted polka dots, chairs and tables.

Choose your habitat. Above: Custom tiny houses at former Caravan Tiny House Hotel, 2021, photo by Tiny House Expedition, used with permission. Below: “Pallet Shelter” brand pods for homeless people in Portland, photo by Tim McCormick, 2020.

Village of "pod" homes with a city in the background
In recent years, US governments have invested a lot of money and focus in “pods” (temporary, free-standing, typically pre-fab structures) for unhoused people. In many cases, I believe, a better response would be quickly available housing that can evolve into permanent housing. 

A recurring priority in disaster and homelessness response is reconnecting people with a regular, sustainable life as soon as possible, minimizing limbo. That sense of living in suspension, including the use of temporary housing forms, can inhibit recovery and redevelopment. Ian Davis’s 1978 classic, Shelter After Disaster, argued this point, and it’s a key part of the “Housing First” homelessness response philosophy.  

A “sustainable life,” however, is not the same as getting to a permanent situation, conventional housing, or restoring the former state of someone’s affairs. Placement into something termed “permanent” might not be someone’s goal, could prove a dead end, or could soon become unsuited to a person’s or family’s evolving needs.  

Instead, to rebuild lives, people need to see they are on a sustainable path, one on which they can step forward and self-determine rather than dwell in stasis or feel themselves as just a service recipient. People also generally want options to stay in, design, build, adapt, expand, and control or own their own homes. By contrast, pods and leased motel rooms don’t offer long-term and self-determined paths, nor is it sustainable to “reintegrate” people into conventional housing they can’t see a path towards affording. 

So, what exactly are pod shelter sites usually missing? A direct, self-determining path to sustainable housing. Pod structures are typically temporary and non-durable, and residents aren’t allowed to stay on. Even the site itself is usually only temporarily permitted and planned for its location, even as subsequent housing options are by no means assured. Sites are also typically run by organizations that don’t themselves provide long-term housing. Likewise, as recently reported by The Oregonian, other common approaches such as rent assistance and hotel or motel stays often come with looming deadlines but no visible path to stability. 

Applying this idea of creating direct paths of adaptation rather than interim states, I propose the “portable affordable dwelling,” or PAD, as an alternative to the now-pervasive pod. Or we might adapt a phrase from the real estate industry and call it the “new starter home.” 

In this model, multiple levels of government, advocacy, design, and local communities variously collaborate to develop fast but evolvable, creative housing approaches. These could include portable homes that eventually become cottages in a backyard or cottage cluster—“the food cart of housing,” as I put it to Portland City Council last spring. Relatedly, a site itself, or the micro-community it hosts, might evolve from an outdoor shelter site into cottage cluster housing, a resident-owned mobile home park, or even a Baugruppe-type, resident-run co-op building.  

Developing housing in stages is common practice in the developing and more recently developed world, such as Chile’s “half-a-house” concept, which prioritizes a basic, high-quality structure that can be expanded later if the owner chooses. I saw a similar approach in action this year while living and working on the site of a Portland nonprofit, Cascadia Clusters, which develops alternative housing forms. “New sites offering outdoor alternative shelter in Portland should be allowed to evolve into sites that have more permanent structures,” its director told a local TV station earlier this year.

2) Facilitate self-building: Let people define, design for, and build for their own needs

A disassemble-able pop-up frame for an 8’x10’ cottage.
A disassemble-able pop-up frame for an 8’x10’ cottage.
The pop-up with a shed roof and sleeping loft, and fabric shell and bracing being added.
The pop-up with a shed roof and sleeping loft, and fabric shell and bracing being added.

One of the key lessons policymakers can learn from alternatively housed neighbors is that people can and do build for ourselves, if allowed. For example, I recently built a lightweight, small cottage prototype for myself, in just a few days (shown under construction above), using “grid beam” DIY building methods. My beams are the same reusable, square, perforated steel tubing used for street signs all over Portland. The “Summer Pavilion,” as I have called this prototype, serves me now as a workspace and trailer-port.  

Most housing professionals might see a laughable plaything. To my beginner’s mind, though, the Pavilion offers many possibilities and fits my present needs. I designed it as an agile, immediate, small home that, if I choose, can later be upbuilt into a more substantial, permanent, year-round home. I can add rooms to it, such as a kitchen and bathroom, or I can place it inside an existing room or building, to efficiently and flexibly offer its modular storage, sleeping platform, and desk/table. And because I can disassemble and reassemble the Pavilion as I like, I can put it in storage for a time or relocate it to stand as a backyard ADU, part of a village cluster, or even a rural off-grid cabin. 

For me, this upbuild-able, disassemble-able, highly portable home is appealing, appropriate, and empowering—even joyful in a way. A self-built cabin like this indeed feels in some ways more fit and helpful to me than being handed keys and placed into the gold-standard, capital-A Affordable Housing solution: a new, subsidized, permanent apartment.  

What’s more, the Pavilion uses just $500 in reusable materials, where the apartment costs about $500,000. But the law and our affordable housing practices, in their majestic equality, disdain homes like my Pavilion as “substandard.” They instead uphold human dignity by offering one lucky person a mayoral-class apartment. The ninety-nine others who are unhoused are offered only hope.  

So, prioritizing both affordability and self-determined paths to stability, I would offer such housing kits to unhoused neighbors along with support to legally site and upbuild them. Such lightweight but capable housing is suited, I believe, to many people who need and want fluid, low-cost dwellings. To adapt that quote about fishing: Give a person a house, and you house them for now. Teach them to house themselves, and you house them for life.  

3) Roll out the ultimate scalable infill: The Wheeler House vehicle-drawn dwelling 

Have I successfully rattled any conventional American middle-class housing ideals yet? Well, let’s move on to what I’ll call the Wheeler House. 

A 2016 prototype of the Wheeler House.

Less palatial than the 8’x10’ Summer Pavilion, this dwelling easily mounts on a 5’x8’ car trailer. In roof-down position, it appears to be a small tool or storage trailer about the height and length of a sedan. 

The Wheeler House can park in a driveway, street space, or garage, yet also has sleeping and work space, a hinge-up roof, and a pop-out patio or deck. It also includes standing height inside, wash and shower space, and a composting toilet.  

Sketch dimensions of a wheeler house concept

Sketch by Tim McCormick

Wheeler Houses don’t need to stand alone. One or more could be used as movable work or sleeping spaces that are components in a larger dwelling compound. They can also offer versatile private, focus, or refuge spaces amid a larger village or co-housing context with shared facilities. Under Portland’s current zoning, a Wheeler House can also legally be used as a detached bedroom or an accessory structure in a backyard. 

Another case where a Wheeler House might be rather handy is after, say, a massive Cascadia earthquake, if your home is gone or uninhabitable. A dwelling that’s secure, off-grid, and pullable by two people by hand or one on bicycle might be useful once the region’s petro-industrial complex has collapsed and gasoline and utilities are unavailable. In the meantime, you could have yourself a nice backyard studio, guest room, or fun micro-trailer to take down to the coast occasionally. Plus, perhaps you could house someone in need in your driveway. 

That brings me to another possible use for the Wheeler House: dismantling homelessness. In Portland in July 2023, a new citywide camping ban made the habitations of thousands of the poorest Portlanders likely illegal. These residents became subject to citation and jail sentences overnight, even as it remains legally contested how this policy could be compliant with Federal court rulings and with Oregon law HB 3115, which require shelter or accessible space to be reasonably available.   

Many argue, persuasively, that a lot of unsheltered people will not voluntarily go to today’s city-run shelters or don’t consider them reasonably available. This may be due to issues including inconvenient location, trauma from previous shelter experiences, restrictions on schedules or cohabitation, and prohibition of pets, possessions, and vehicles.  

Sketch of a simple wheeler house design

Sketch by Tim McCormick

Basic-variant Wheeler Houses, including provisioning the trailer base and vehicle registration, could rapidly house hundreds or thousands of people for about $2,000 each. This would be a quickly deployable, customizable, and evolvable alternative to street tent camping or residence in broken-down vehicles parked on city streets. A complementing “Parking-Dwelling Permit” system could help manage allowed locations, vehicles, services such as garbage and waste, and good neighbor agreements.  

Radical? Yes. But planners and housers are gradually coming around to seeing more legitimate possibilities in mobile dwellings. For more on such designs’ historical, cultural, and legal contexts, see my talk at the 2022 National Vehicle Residency Summit, “Vehicles as Housing, Housing as Vehicle.” 

Dynamic housing for open futures 

Marginally housed people like me know that there is loads of available space in the world. In North America, that is often thanks to sprawling and fractured urbanscapes, overbuilt parking lots, giant roadways, big houses, and little-used yards. 

Our main obstacle in this crisis isn’t a lack of space. It’s our own shackled thinking. Paraphrasing Hamlet: we could be kings of infinite space, were it not that we dream poorly.  

We need to challenge cultural assumptions that land use and buildings and housing placement must be permanent—that is, fixed in place and forever after—in order to be legitimate. This way of thinking, and the land use rules enforcing it, freeze up vast space and potential, often enshrining waste, disuse, and inequity. We urgently need to be building our lives, our homes, and our cities for permanent adaptability. 

We don’t really need to suffer the endless thirst of scarcity, nor allow for so many the misery of unsheltered homelessness, when we live in this ocean of space. We all just need, at a given time, a place or two that suits us, fitting our diverse lives, needs, priorities, and preferences. There are ample ways for all of us and all of them, if we can open our eyes, imaginations, hearts, and policies and allow building from the bottom up. 

Who Will Pay for Cascadia’s Transmission Lines?

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Editor’s note: This is the second of three articles discussing the major challenges—planning, paying for it, and permitting—to building the transmission lines needed to transition to a cleaner energy future. 

Transmission lines cost a pretty penny. Take for example the only new regional transmission project that will break ground in the Northwest anytime soon. Idaho Power and PacifiCorp’s 290-mile Boardman to Hemingway line will cost more than $4 million per mile, for a total of $1.2 billion. And that’s hardly the steepest line in the works in the United States right now; developers anticipate footing multibillion-dollar bills for several large transmission projects outside Cascadia.1This article and series focus on transmission capacity just in the US portion of Cascadia, given the fundamental differences between American and Canadian electricity systems and grids.

Most incumbent transmission developers in the Northwest, namely the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and investor-owned utilities (IOUs), balk at building projects sporting these price tags.2Investor-owned utilities are private, for-profit utilities owned by shareholders, including Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric, and PacifiCorp.
BPA shies away from large investments that would require it to raise rates on its public power customers and assume additional federal debt. And most IOUs fear tying up billions of dollars for years or even decades only to risk state regulators ultimately not allowing them to recoup their investment. As a result, neither BPA nor IOUs are investing in the grid infrastructure Cascadia desperately needs to decarbonize. 

But if building transmission lines is expensive, not building them is exorbitant. Total decarbonization costs could rise by up to $13 billion if the Northwest does not expand transmission capacity. And unless Cascadia builds a grid that can support the end of climate-destroying fossil fuels, we will pay the highest price of all in the form of more devastating wildfires, oppressive heatwaves, and dangerous droughts. 

All Northwest leaders can help untangle the financial impediments to building new lines. Washington senator Maria Cantwell and the Northwest congressional delegation can pressure BPA to deploy more low-cost federal debt to the cause. The Oregon and Washington state legislatures can set up state entities to partner with private non-utility transmission developers. Oregon governor Tina Kotek and Washington governor Jay Inslee can initiate the development of a multistate cost allocation agreement to offer IOUs greater assurance that they will earn back their transmission investments. The best and least expensive options are those that leverage low-cost public financing so as to maintain to the extent possible the Northwest’s relatively low electricity prices. Still, given the dire urgency of the climate crisis, all options are worth pursuing. Otherwise, Cascadians will be left holding the bag, coughing up for expensive and inefficient infrastructure projects while the planet burns. 

BPA’s priorities: Low debt, low rates, few builds 

BPA is, as Sightline has written about extensively, the Northwest’s transmission giant. And it looks flush with cash to pay for new wires: it has only tapped $5.7 billion of the $17.7 billion Congress authorizes it to borrow from the US Department of the Treasury.3The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act increased BPA’s federal borrowing authority from $7.7 billion to $17.7 billion. Of the $10 billion increase, $4 billion will not be available until 2028. BPA has tapped $5.7 billion as of September 2022.

But BPA doesn’t see it that way. Understanding why requires looking back at the agency’s foundational statutes, which direct it to sell power from US government dams on the Columbia River to “public bodies and cooperatives” at “the lowest possible rates.” These “preference customers,” as they are known, include municipal utilities like Seattle City Light, public utility districts (PUDs) like Snohomish County PUD, consumer-owned cooperatives like Umatilla Electric Cooperative, and tribal utilities like Yakama Power. Just as these preference customers depend on BPA for power and transmission service, so too does BPA depend on them. US federal statute requires BPA to recover its costs, including debt repayment and interest, by selling power and transmission service; BPA does not receive annual Congressional appropriations. As of 2022, a full three-quarters of BPA’s operating revenue came from selling power, primarily to the agency’s preference customers. 

In other words, if BPA were to reach further into its deep pockets to build a few multibillion-dollar transmission lines, it would need to pay back its federal loans by raising rates on its customers. And BPA has given no indication it is willing to do this. In fact, BPA’s 2022 financial plan emphasizes the opposite: maintaining low rates, reducing interest expenses, and lowering its debt-to-asset ratio. The agency’s financial challenges in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which included a precipitous drop in BPA’s cash reserves and concern that it would not be able to repay its US Treasury debt, likely contribute to the agency’s skittishness. 

As a result, BPA places most of the financial risk for new transmission projects onto renewable developers that need BPA’s grid to zap power from solar and wind farms to homes and businesses across the Northwest. BPA’s requirements, including that developers post a security deposit or letter of credit to cover the cost of a transmission upgrade or new line until it is up and running, can be too high a hurdle for some developers to clear. And when no one wants to foot the bill, nothing gets built. 

Then there is the contentious issue of whether BPA, to cover the cost of a new project, would raise its transmission rates only on the developer(s) that requested the additional grid capacity or on its entire customer base. Some, like the Northwest & Intermountain Power Producers Coalition (NIPPC), which represents the region’s independent renewable developers, argue that raising rates only on developers “can be a kiss of death” for their solar or wind projects. Plus, NIPPC contends, doing so ignores the broad benefits that new transmission provides to all BPA customers. Others disagree.  

“Why should a public facility pay for a transmission upgrade that is designed to help one private entity provide power to another private entity?” asked Nicolas Garcia, policy director for the Washington Public Utility Districts Association (WPUDA), in a conversation with Sightline. He argues that since BPA’s preference customers already rely almost entirely on carbon-free electricity from BPA’s hydropower resources, they shouldn’t pay for grid upgrades, the purpose of which is to help IOUs clean up their power sources.  

Still, appetite among BPA’s preference customers to see the agency invest in more transmission wires may be growing. Garcia acknowledges the need for more transmission capacity, especially across the Cascade mountain range. Lauren Tenney Denison, director of Market Policy & Grid Strategy at Portland-based Public Power Council (PPC), a membership group that includes BPA’s preference customers, echoed the sentiment. While traditionally raising transmission rates “has been a huge concern” for PPC’s members, she told Sightline, she sees interest growing in getting new projects built. 

In sum, BPA is sitting on billions of dollars of federally financed debt. But despite enjoying the statutory authority to tap this money and construct new wires, BPA approaches this essential climate strategy with wariness and trepidation. And IOUs, which own most of the rest of the region’s grid, aren’t hankering to pay for new large lines, either. 

IOUs make an easier buck on small, local projects than on regional transmission lines 

IOUs only profit by investing in new infrastructure. In theory, then, building pricey transmission lines should look like a sweet deal to them. But in practice, most IOUs consider transmission lines, especially large regional ones, too risky for four main reasons: 

A. Transmission lines take longer for IOUs to build and recoup costs on than other infrastructure projects.

While a new solar or wind farm might take around five years to get up and running, transmission projects can drag on for 10 or even 20 years, primarily due to lengthy siting and permitting processes.4 For example, see several timelines for Washington renewable projects.
Idaho Power and PacifiCorp first proposed the Boardman to Hemingway line almost 20 years ago, and it still hasn’t broken ground. 

“No certainty for 15 years is unacceptable for a utility business,” Mitch Colburn, vice president of Planning, Engineering, and Construction at Idaho Power, told Sightline. “Our shareholders don’t want us to take big risks.” 

These delays matter because IOUs cannot recoup their investment in transmission lines through state-approved electricity rate increases until the line is “used and useful” to ratepayers. And if the utility ends up having to cancel a project before completing it, the company will have to eat any costs it already spent. Such was the case with Portland General Electric’s (PGE) Cascade Crossing transmission project, which would have carried power across the Cascade mountains, now a heavily congested route. After opposition from BPA, which argued that the line was unnecessary, PGE canceled the project in 2013 and lost the $50 million it had already spent.5According to a Sightline interview with a representative from Portland General Electric.
The utility has not proposed a major transmission line in the decade since. 

B. IOUs worry that state regulators may not allow them to recover transmission project costs through higher rates.

Compounding the timing challenge is that IOUs do not know if state regulators will ultimately allow them to recoup their investments by raising retail rates. 

“The limit is the willingness of state commissions to put more and more projects into rate base,” said Maury Galbraith, executive director of the Colorado Electric Transmission Authority (CETA). And building lines that cross multiple states adds to the challenge.  

“Take a hypothetical transmission project to bring wind from Wyoming to Oregon,” Shaun Foster, transmission strategy manager at PGE, explained. “We could see a scenario where Wyoming regulators don’t allow that.” 

Indeed, this dynamic already plays out in the Northwest. PacifiCorp has developed an agreement for how to allocate its transmission costs (and other costs) across the six states where it operates.6PacifiCorp’s service territory includes parts of California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
Public utility commissions in all six states must agree to the terms, a process that is “neither clean nor easy,” according to Bob Jenks, executive director of the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board (CUB), which is party to the agreement. 

C. The sheer cost of transmission lines makes them hard for IOUs to finance.

That transmission lines are billion-dollar or multibillion-dollar projects further exacerbates the timing and regulatory uncertainty IOUs face.  

“Most utilities don’t have the balance sheet to carry a $2 billion transmission line,” Foster said. Indeed, most IOUs in the Northwest have less than $5 billion in long-term debt on their books today; in that context, an additional, say, $1 billion in long-term debt—for a single project that may not pay itself back for at least 10 years—is usually too big a risk to take on.7Source: PSE, PGE, Avista, and Idaho Power Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Form 10-K. Utilities finance capital expenditures through a combination of debt and equity.

The major exception again is PacifiCorp, the utility giant owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy. It already possesses one of the largest privately held transmission systems in the United States and is investing billions in new transmission projects across the western United States.  

D. IOUs must compete for regional transmission lines, but they enjoy monopolies over local ones.

Finally, large regional transmission projects are unattractive to IOUs because of the different requirements that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) places on them compared with local transmission lines. Since 2011 FERC has required that utilities compete to build regional lines, but it allows them to maintain monopolies over wires in their own service territories. While FERC had intended this rule to spur competition at the regional level, in practice it simply encouraged utilities to forgo regional transmission projects altogether.  

Instead, utilities focus on local transmission projects where there is “no competition to them and they can do anything they want,” explained David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a nonprofit utility watchdog. FERC is now considering re-granting utilities monopoly rights over regional projects, but many public interest groups argue that this would be a step in the wrong direction.8This is known as the “right of first refusal.”
9See September 19, 2022, public comments under FERC Docket No. RM21-17-000.
An alternative approach could be for FERC to open up competition for local transmission projects.  

As a result of these compounding disincentives, IOUs spend chump change on regional transmission projects. The chart below shows that since 2016, Northwest IOUs have deployed nearly $10 billion in ratepayer money to new generation and distribution projects and just $2 billion to transmission ones.10Distribution lines are low-voltage power lines in neighborhoods that carry electricity to homes and businesses. Transmission lines are long-distance, high-voltage power lines that carry electricity from their source to substations.
The vast majority of these transmission investments are for local projects; PacifiCorp and Idaho Power are the only IOUs in the Northwest proposing any regional transmission lines.11Idaho Power is a co-developer on several of PacifiCorp’s projects, but PacifiCorp is a majority owner.

Chart showing the bottleneck of 5 times the amount of projects on generation and distribution than transmission 

Northwest leaders can help break the transmission funding deadlock 

Northwest leaders, from state legislatures to the Northwest congressional delegation, all can play a role to unleash funds for new transmission lines. The best and least expensive options are those that leverage low-cost public financing, whether via BPA or a state-led entity (options 1 and 2 below). But, given the urgency of the climate crisis and the current transmission deadlock, all three strategies outlined below are worth pursuing together. 

1. Washington senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and the Northwest congressional delegation can encourage BPA to assume more low-cost debt.

The least expensive strategy would be for Northwest leaders to pressure BPA to use more of its federal borrowing authority (i.e., take on more debt) to proactively build new lines. Unlike an IOU, BPA has no profit motive, and it has access to some of the lowest-cost financing available. BPA’s weighted average interest rate for its federal debt was 3.1 percent, according to its 2022 annual report; that’s less than half the 7.23 percent that Puget Sound Energy, Washington’s largest IOU, reported as its weighted average cost of capital the same year. Plus, as the largest supplier of electricity in the Northwest, BPA could soften rate impacts by spreading the costs of large transmission projects over a wide swath of customers—something a single utility could not do. 

But encouraging BPA to assume more debt will be no easy task given its stated financial priorities to do essentially the opposite. Changing those priorities will require leadership from the Northwest congressional delegation, which some observers regard as BPA’s informal de facto board of directors. Especially critical would be buy-in from Senator Maria Cantwell, who led the charge to increase BPA’s federal borrowing authority by $10 billion and recently applauded BPA’s decision to take steps toward $2 billion worth of transmission improvements. 

2. The Oregon and Washington legislatures can create state entities to partner with non-utility transmission developers.

In parallel, Northwest legislators could establish state transmission entities with the ability to partner with non-utility transmission developers, following the lead of Colorado and New Mexico.12All the >projects New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority (RETA) has or is developing are in partnership with merchant developers. The Colorado Electric Transmission Authority (CETA) has not initiated any projects yet but anticipates primarily and potentially exclusively partnering with merchant developers to develop new lines.
These transmission developers, known as merchant developers, are far less risk-averse than BPA or IOUs are. That’s in part because they do not face the same heartburn as utilities do over recouping their project costs through state regulatory proceedings. Instead, merchant developers earn back their investments by selling transmission capacity to utilities or renewable developers, who in turn pass along the costs to ratepayers. But merchant developers’ risk tolerance comes at a premium.  

“These developers really aren’t interested in the ratepayer impact,” said Galbraith of CETA. “What they want to lock in is a profit margin for their investors and shareholders.”  

The potentially higher cost of merchant transmission lines might be mitigated, though, if a state entity partnered with them and opened the door to low-cost financing. Both Colorado and New Mexico’s transmission authorities can issue government-backed revenue bonds, which are, Galbraith explained, “if not the lowest cost capital, pretty close.” He is interested in arrangements with merchant developers that would require them to use some of this low-cost capital in exchange for the benefits of partnering with CETA, most of all its eminent domain authority.  

By contrast, New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority (RETA) has not issued any bonds to help pay for the projects it has pursued with merchant developers. But that may be because its transmission lines export power; ratepayers outside New Mexico will bear the costs of the lines, likely lessening RETA’s concern with lowering project costs. 

3. Governors Jay Inslee and Tina Kotek can lead a multistate cost allocation framework for regional transmission lines.

Finally, Northwest states could collaborate with utilities and BPA to agree on a way to allocate the costs and benefits of regional transmission projects. “If a regional body identifies a cost allocation framework, utilities have some semblance of assurance when they seek recovery at a state regulatory body,” said Foster of PGE. 

Developing this type of agreement would, however, require a regional planning body, whether a regional transmission organization or some other entity. Today the Northwest sorely lacks this type of forum, as Sightline covered extensively in the first article in this series. Creating one would necessitate leadership from Northwest governors, likely beginning with those already committed to addressing the climate crisis. While NorthernGrid, the region’s current planning body, does technically have a cost allocation process and methodology, as FERC requires, it has never used it for any project, and state representatives have no influence over it.13See August 17, 2022, comments by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, Oregon Public Utility Commission, Washington State Department of Commerce, and Oregon Department of Energy in FERC Docket No. RMI21-17-000.

Jenks of the Oregon CUB agrees with Foster that a planning process that identifies how to allocate costs and benefits for necessary regional projects would likely increase the willingness of state utility commissions to allow IOUs to recover their transmission investments. However, he does not believe state regulators should preemptively approve IOUs’ potential transmission investments. Utilities can, he argues, “mismanage any project,” leading to potentially exorbitant costs for ratepayers. Plus, any transmission project that an IOU develops will inevitably be more expensive than a project that can leverage public financing, such as one BPA could build. 

Some improvements could come when and if FERC finalizes a new rule it proposed in April 2022 that would require transmission planning entities, including NorthernGrid, to actively involve states in cost allocation processes. However, even if FERC finalizes this rule, BPA’s participation in any Northwest cost allocation framework would be entirely optional because the agency is not under FERC jurisdiction. As such, state leaders would still need to pursue a voluntary multistate, multiparty cost allocation agreement that includes BPA so as not to put all the financial burden for new regional transmission lines on IOU customers. 

Not paying for more transmission capacity is the costliest choice of all 

Transmission lines are expensive, but not building them is costing the Northwest dearly. As BPA and IOUs close their purses to regional transmission projects, our region is racking up an ever-worsening climate bill. In just the few weeks since Sightline published the first article in this series, hundreds of people in British Columbia and Washington lost their homes in devastating wildfires, Seattle’s air quality ranked the worst in the world, and Portland hit its highest August temperature on record and third hottest of all time. All the while, ratepayers are stuck paying billions for inefficient grid projects. 

Northwest leaders, including Senator Maria Cantwell and Governor Jay Inslee, can break this logjam. They can lessen the impact on ratepayers with solutions that leverage low-cost public finance, though the climate crisis demands that all options be on the table. The question facing the Northwest is not whether we will pay, it’s what we will pay: the cost of a few more electric wires, or our health, livelihoods, and a livable planet. 

Sightline fellow Laura Feinstein contributed research to this article.

Four Ways to Improve Portland’s Housing Affordability Mandate

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In 2016, when Portland’s city council voted to start requiring a share of homes in new buildings to be made affordable to lower-income Portlanders, some predicted disaster. 

“Could well make the city’s housing affordability problems demonstrably worse,” urban economist Joe Cortright warned. 

Others rejoiced. 

“Would harvest the windfall profits that our wildly inflated housing prices are creating,” John Mulvey, a housing advocate with the East Portland Action Plan, predicted. 

Others said that it might need to be adjusted in the future. 

“At the earliest possible stage, if there is a need for us to reconvene and rethink any part of it… I want to make sure that that’s baked into our policy,” City Commissioner Nick Fish said. 

Well, it took six years for the city to get around to it, but that self-assessment is finally underway—and it points the way to a handful of relatively modest changes that could mend (and not end) a program that looks like a pretty good deal for both tenants and taxpayers. 

Since last fall, I’ve been honored to serve among 10 fellow Portlanders on the city’s volunteer “inclusionary housing calibration work group” that has teamed with the city’s staff and consultants to dig into the program’s numbers, goals, outcomes, and future. Though there have been a few moments of healthy tension, the process left me impressed by the city staff’s interest in getting the details of this policy right. 

In that time, I’ve also learned just how unusual Portland’s program is among similar “inclusionary zoning” programs. The key difference: unlike almost all similar programs in the United States but like more productive flavors of inclusionary zoning such as this one in France, Portland’s program is at least partially funded. 

In Portland, the public pays for the program in the gentlest of ways: by waiving some taxes and fees on buildings that comply with it. And as the city’s contractor found, that waiver can potentially be enough to make the program work. The catch: if the program will both maximize the number of below-market homes and avoid driving up market prices, it needs full funding. 

Happily, full funding is within reach. With just a few tweaks, criticism of Portland’s program would likely recede. In fact, it can become a model for other North American cities that want to mandate mixed-income homes in new buildings. 

Here’s what that would take. 

1. Define success 

Portland’s program has an essentially qualitative purpose statement: the program should “increase” the number of less expensive homes available in areas with “superior access to quality schools, services, amenities and transportation,” especially affordable to households making less than 60 percent of the city’s median income. (For a one-person household, that’s $47,400; for a three-person household, it’s $60,960. At those incomes, federally defined “affordable” rents, including utilities, are capped at $1,185 for a studio, $1,524 for a two-bedroom, and so on.) 

Having a purpose is good. But Portland hasn’t actually set any quantitative criteria for the city to judge this program’s success or failure. This is bad. 

Here’s one simple figure that could be used to evaluate the success of the program: not just to “increase” but to maximize, given available public resources, the number of new homes in desirable areas that are affordable to Portlanders making 60 percent of the median income. 

This is a crucial difference. Any construction at all under a mandatory inclusionary housing program will “increase” the number of below-market homes built, compared to a city with no such program. Someday, Portland might mandate that 40 percent of homes in new buildings have regulated affordability, with no public funding to offset those costs. If that set of rules resulted in a single 100-unit building each year, the current program language would count those 40 homes as a sign of success. 

But in a city of 600,000, just 40 new below-market homes per year isn’t a success. It’s a flop. A “maximization” policy, by contrast, wouldn’t be satisfied with a flop. Instead, it would keep pushing Portland to fund its mandates. This is what’s needed to make them productive. 

This principle can unite Portland’s left (which tends to advocate most fiercely for below-market homes) and center (which tends to advocate most fiercely for market-rate homes). A strong inclusionary housing policy is a win-win from both these perspectives. 

2. Fully fund it 

The crucial piece of a healthy inclusionary zoning policy is simple and intuitive: public benefits require public expenditure.  

The good news is that this expenditure doesn’t need to be huge. 

The city’s economic consultant found that although Portland’s inclusionary housing program is not currently fully funded, there’s a clear path to getting it there, at least for rental properties. But it will take a little time to explain why the program is working in one part of the city and not in another. 

2a. Today’s program in central Portland: fully funded and cost-efficient 

Below is a financial analysis of Portland’s program as it applies to the “Central City,” local planning jargon for both the skyscraper-studded downtown and the ring of neighborhoods around it on both sides of the Willamette River, west to Interstate 405 and east to approximately 12th Avenue. 

The tables below summarize research by BAE Urban Economics, a consulting firm hired by the Portland Housing Bureau to interview local development industry professionals and capture current development cost factors. This first table imagines a hypothetical 7-story apartment building in central Portland. Four Central City scenarios for that building are listed: a “high-rent” location and a “medium-rent” location, and in each of them the city’s two primary ways for buildings to comply with inclusionary housing rules, the so-called 60% MFI option (in which buildings set aside 10% of their homes to rent at fairly low prices) and the so-called 80% MFI option (in which buildings set aside 20 percent of their homes to rent at more midrange prices). 

Here are two important things to notice in this sea of numbers: 

In these Central City scenarios, the program is healthily funded. Look at the bottom line, labeled “cost-benefit ratio.” This is the cost of the inclusionary housing program (to the public, in waived taxes and fees) divided by the benefit of the program (to the public, in the form of rents that are lower for some homes than they would otherwise have been). 

For a program in perfect balance, the figure would be 1.  

In each price scenario (“high-rent” and “medium-rent”), the developer of this hypothetical project has an option (60% AMI) where the tax and fee breaks (“city incentives/fees”) exceed the costs of offering some homes below market value (“cost to market rate developers”).  

However, because the program also puts some administrative costs on landlords that aren’t captured above, it may make sense to target a ratio a bit above 1. Is 1.4 or 1.6 more tax abatement than necessary? That’s debatable. However, we might not want to worry about it because…

Even in the fully funded scenarios, the “incentives per affordable unit” line is below $250,000. This is the combined value of all the city’s tax and fee waivers divided by the number of below-market homes. As affordable homes go, this is quite a good deal. In Oregon, apartments in dedicated “affordable housing” projects currently require an average of about $225,000 from the state trust fund and federal tax credits, typically matched with locally administered federal and local funds. The city’s inclusionary housing program, by contrast, is doing the whole job with that sum in local funds alone.

Consider, too, that these affordable homes aren’t cutting corners by concentrating poverty in low-rent areas. The whole concept of inclusionary housing is that it ensures that some low-price homes end up in the sort of desirable areas where people are willing to pay relatively high market prices. If the public wants to make investments in affordable housing, this looks like a relatively efficient one. 

2b. Today’s program outside central Portland: underfunded and malfunctioning 

Outside of central Portland, by contrast, the city’s economic analyst found signs of trouble. Here’s the same table again, this time with “low rent” scenarios added: 

Outside the Central City, the program is deeply underfunded.
Check out the crucial “cost-benefit ratio” line this time. In the places outside the Central City where people most want to live (the places that can command the highest rents), the program is only about 20 percent funded today. For a hypothetical four-story, 84-unit apartment building, the project is short at least $1 million, which means that these 84 homes (nine to 19 of which would have been priced below market) won’t get built at all until market-rate rents in Portland climb by hundreds of dollars per month. That’s probably not the world Portland’s leaders want to create. 

Even in medium-rent scenarios, the program is at most half funded. It’s not until you get to truly low-rent parts of Portland (mostly east of Interstate 205) that the program comes close to balance again, simply because there’s not much difference between the officially “affordable” rent and the market rent. But in low-rent areas, market rents generally aren’t high enough for anyone to be building new apartment buildings anyway. 

When an affordability mandate is heavily underfunded, developers start bending over backwards to game it. Pages 12 to 15 of this city slideshow offer a tour of the ways that’s happened in the last several years: buildings that are slightly too small (19 units) to trigger the affordability mandate; big projects split into multiple 19-unit buildings; and buildings of nothing but studio apartments, to get a tax break on a housing type that’s already inexpensive.  

A city analysis found that though these 12- to 19-unit buildings still aren’t common, the number of new homes in such buildings approximately doubled when the city’s affordability mandate was introduced in 2018, and that number has been more or less consistent since. That’s real-world evidence of an underfunded program that is a net cost burden on projects of every size. 

Bringing the program into balance would require a larger property tax abatement. Why is the program fully funded in central Portland but not elsewhere? Because in central Portland, local taxing districts currently waive property taxes on the entire building for 10 years; outside the Central City, they waive those taxes only for the below-market units. There’s a simple fix here: the city and Multnomah County would need to agree to temporarily waive property taxes on a larger share of buildings outside the Central City as well. 

The program would be fully funded just by waiving taxes that are not currently being collected on buildings that do not currently exist. 

3. Smooth it out 

As you may have gathered by now, one awkward thing about Portland’s inclusionary housing system is that it assumes there are exactly two parts of Portland: the Central City and everywhere else. 

But that’s not how Portland works. Neither Southeast 16th Avenue nor Southeast 162nd Avenue is in the Central City, but economically they’re in different worlds. Things change over the years, but this has been the case for decades. This is what accounts for the big differences between the “high-rent” and “low-rent” parts of the “outside central Portland” table above. 

One way to make Portland’s system smarter without introducing needless complexity would be to map the city into three parts rather than two. In fact, the city already has a useful map: 

Map of the Portland, OR metro area showing rent costs in a color coded design

Source: Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability’s Anti-Displacement Action Plan

Every five years, the Portland Housing Bureau updates this map of “opportunity” in the city of Portland. Parts of town that are physically close to jobs and have schools with high graduation rates, frequent transit, and other amenities get high opportunity scores (the deepest shades of red in the map above). This score is informed by lots of empirical research (this, for example) showing that the location of our home greatly affects our lives, especially as children. To give more people the choice to live in places they feel are right for them, it makes sense for the city to prioritize below-market housing in the highest-opportunity areas. 

These “opportunity areas” also correspond roughly to rent levels—and, therefore, to the viability scenarios for inclusionary housing. Depending on the numbers, Areas 5 and 4 might fall in one category, with the highest tax abatements; Area 3 in a second category; and Areas 2 and 1 into a third. 

That would roughly ensure that projects anywhere in town could be fully funded while minimizing waste. 

Another possibility for Areas 2 and 1 might be for the city to raise the trigger for its program somewhat, from 20 units to 30 or 35. That would reduce regulatory burden on smaller-scale investments in those areas and reflect the fact that at least right now, there’s not actually a big difference between market rents and “affordable” rents. These lower-opportunity areas mostly need investment, period. 

4. Focus it on folks who need it more 

Since 2015, when Oregon’s legislature allowed affordability mandates to exist, some have chafed at one of the so-called sideboards the state has imposed: legislators required any such program to let developers comply by building a certain share of homes at 80 percent of the median income. 

In Portland today, that means $63,200 for a one-person household and $81,280 for a three-person. Do people making that much money sometimes struggle to afford good housing? Of course. But generally speaking, if you make that much money, you can find a decent market-rate home in Portland, if not a new one. More than half of all homes in Portland rent for less than the rent of a one-bedroom home affordable to someone making 80 percent of the city’s median income. 

That’s not the case for someone earning 50-60 percent of the citywide median (e.g., nursing assistants, preschool teachers, clerks, retail workers). That’s approximately the point at which public subsidies start making a big difference to whether people get housed. 

A possible solution: Portland can comply with the letter of state law by allowing an 80 percent option without fully funding that option. Almost every developer would choose the fully funded 60 percent option instead. The end result: directing the government’s limited tax abatement dollars to people in more need. 

A few things to avoid 

Most of the suggestions above are consistent with a letter of recommendations, released on July 28, from the advisory work group I’ve been part of. That letter also recommends some more technical tweaks (like a simpler and more objective way to identify “equivalent” homes) and some suggestions for future work (like a similar math exercise for condo projects, which have all but vanished since the affordability mandate launched and might require a different approach to fully fund). 

It’s worth briefly mentioning three possibilities that could unintentionally harm the program and, as a result, the tenants who benefit from it. 

  • Doling out public subsidy on a case-by-case basis. In theory, it would be very efficient to allocate projects only as much tax abatement as a developer can prove their building needs if it’s going to exist. The trouble is that development math isn’t so clear-cut. A project that pencils in May might no longer pencil in October, or vice versa. This would inevitably lead to guesswork and, potentially, discretionary decisions by city staff or even elected leaders. This might be good for well-connected local developers but it would also be a mess. It might even be better to slightly underfund some buildings than to introduce this much uncertainty. 
  • Fully funding only big buildings. Big buildings can be great for cities and for neighborhoods, but so can medium-size buildings such as three-story apartment buildings that don’t require land assembly or Wall Street investors. Sometimes you need one or two medium-size buildings before you can get the next big one down the street. Portland shouldn’t go out of its way to juice up big projects at the expense of smaller ones. 
  • Thinking this is the only policy that matters. Portland’s affordability mandate has been blamed for a lot during its young life. Debate is healthy, but Portlanders shouldn’t let a debate fool them into thinking this mandate is the only reason apartment construction has ebbed, or that fully funding it would be enough to make every new project work. 

Fortunately, all these possibilities are easy to avoid if the city wants to.  

And despite a lot of drama over the years, that’s consistent with the rest of this program’s calibration. A decade of public debate and a year of mathematical self-scrutiny have come down to a few boring, straightforward steps for local leaders. Portland and Multnomah County should decide what exactly this program is supposed to do; fully fund that mission; and then get on with the rest of their important work.

Oregon’s Land Use Law Creates Wildfire-Adapted Communities

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William Kuhn, who lost his Bend, Oregon, home in the Awbrey Hall Fire, has a warning: “Anyone who decides to live on the edge of the forest risks losing their homes. We know that.” 

Once considered rare, the “fire weather” that fueled the 1990 Awbrey Hall Fire is now a fixture of Cascadia’s climate. “It’s not a question of if, but when fires come through,” said Boone Zimmerlee, Deschutes County’s fire-adapted communities coordinator. 

The 2013 Green Ridge Fire burns in the Deschutes National Forest (source: US Forest Service).

Building wildfire-resilient communities is key for climate adaptation. As I recently documented, the best tool for the job is guiding growth away from areas of fire hazard, which I call fireplains. Building new homes within existing urban areas, or “infill,” is the safest solution, followed by compact development contiguous with existing city limits. 

This is exactly what the residents of Bend, Oregon, did circa 2009, when they invoked the state’s landmark 1973 land use law and prevented houses from being built in a fireplain by instead directing growth inside city limits. 

Across the state, Oregon’s land use law has been silently protecting life and property from wildfire. As Rory Isbell of Central Oregon LandWatch noted, “If you think of where the Labor Day fires burned a few years ago, up and down the Santiam, the McKenzie, and the Clackamas, if they’d had big, sprawling residential suburbs, the fires would have been a heck of a lot worse.” 

Bend’s case shows how growth management policies can empower Cascadians to build wildfire-resilient communities. It also offers correctives to upgrade Oregon’s land use law, or at least to improve how it is used. 

Growth is coming 

Along with the rest of the West, Cascadia’s population is growing. To keep up with the influx, by 2040, Idaho needs to build about 660,000 new dwellings, and Washington will need an additional three million. 

Population is growing fastest in areas abutting or intermixing with wildlands, called the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Specifically, people are flocking to fireplains, where wildfires naturally return every few decades. 

Cascadians face a choice: continue to grow fastest in places that inherently require millions of dollars of firefighting every year, or direct growth into compact communities. 

As a “nature lover’s dream,” the city of Bend, Oregon, is among the fastest growing cities in the United States. Over the next 50 years, the city will likely more than double its population, welcoming 120,000 new residents. 

The big question: where will they live? 

North Sister and South Sister, Three Sisters Wilderness, Deschutes National Forest (source: Bonnie Moreland).


Pushing more houses into a fireplain: An ill-advised solution 

Bend sits directly east of the seasonally dry Deschutes National Forest, putting it at the edge of a “frequent fire” zone, where wildfires naturally return every 35 years or earlier. 

In 2009 the city of Bend and Deschutes County announced plans to expand Bend’s urban growth boundary and add as many as 5,000 new dwellings in this fireplain. The map below illustrates the proposed expansion. (The area within Bend’s original 2009 urban growth boundary is shown in white; the proposed expansion area is shown in pink.)

Map showing the various parts of a planned expansion outward for Bend, OR (into fireplains)
To the west of Bend, this proposed expansion
overlapped with the footprint of the Awbrey Hall Fire that had burned homes and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people less than 20 years prior. The wind-whipped fire rebuffed the attack of fire crews fighting the main blaze’s 150-foot flames and the exponentially expanding spot fires ignited by flying embers. Within ten hours, the fire spread six miles, jumping over three major roadways and the Deschutes River. 

The Awbrey Hall Fire would have been catastrophic had the wind shifted slightly and blown the wildfire head-on into downtown Bend, which could have caused a domino effect of house-to-house ignitions. But to the relief of residents and drivers idling in the backup of fleeing vehicles, a quirk in the weather saved the city. In the end, only 22 homes were destroyed, no lives were lost, and all fire crews came out safely. 

Residents redirect new construction to safety 

When Bend and Deschutes County proposed expanding the city’s urban growth boundary into this fireplain, residents objected. Not only was there a high fire hazard but converting this natural area to houses would also degrade the sensitive watershed around Tumalo Creek, which empties into the Deschutes River. The creek provides rare surface waters and riparian habitat in an area where porous soils mean that the Deschutes is mostly fed by groundwater. 

To protect this natural area, residents used Oregon’s statewide land use law to appeal the new development. The law, in addition to preserving farm- and forestland, aims to limit urban sprawl by prohibiting subdivisions outside designated urban growth boundaries around cities and towns. Cities and towns set urban growth boundaries to accommodate about 20 years’ worth of growth, and the boundaries can only expand after the enclosed area is developed. 

The Oxford Building in Bend’s upzoned Central District (source: City of Bend).

Bend residents and the nonprofit Central Oregon LandWatch successfully argued that the city had not considered existing opportunities for growth inside the current urban growth boundary. Over the past decades, Bend had grown outward subdivision by subdivision with very little multifamily construction and almost no mixed-use development outside the small historic downtown. So when city planners were forced to look, they found lots of room to grow within city limits. 

The city revised the plan, shrinking the growth boundary expansion by 70 percent and redirecting some housing growth inward by upzoning nine “opportunity areas” inside existing city limits 

In the heart of downtown Bend, within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and the river, a swath of underutilized and vacant land is now zoned for residential development up to six stories tall mixed with commercial and retail spaces. Bend also secured funding for climate-smart urban infrastructure such as school capacity, sidewalks, bike lanes, and street trees for its new residents. Bend’s Central District is becoming a place, as Isbell put it, “where people can actually live and not have to drive a car everywhere.”  

Elsewhere in the city, Bend accommodated future growth by upzoning areas of single-detached housing to allow multifamily construction. 

The map below contrasts the proposed expansion (shown in pink) with the much smaller footprint of the revised expansion (shown in purple). As before, the area of Bend’s original 2009 urban growth boundary is shown in white. Scattered within this existing boundary, the upzoned opportunity areas are in green. 

Map showing how the new Bend, OR plan builds infill housing instead, away from fireplains

The new plan drastically reduced the expansion of the urban growth boundary and limited the number of homes in the fireplain west of Bend, leaving room for a fire break between the city and Deschutes National Forest.

While wildfire played a minor role in the appeal,1Bend residents had argued, under Goal 7, which mandates that counties identify hazards, that wildfire hazard made the proposed development inappropriate. However, the court ruled against them. Goal 7 only requires counties to identify natural hazards and does not specify how to protect against them. Isbell and Paul Dewey, former director of Central Oregon LandWatch, both argue that Goal 7 needs to be revised in light of the huge fires that burn in Oregon.
wildfire hazard has since become a top public concern in Bend, and all sides in the negotiations, from developers to plaintiffs, credit the revised plan as a wildfire success story. In 2014, before the new growth boundary was finalized, the Two Bulls Fire blazed just west of Bend, burning 6,908 acres, prompting the evacuation of 635 households, and only avoiding the city by a lucky change of wind. 

By redirecting houses away from the fire-prone Deschutes National Forest, Oregon’s land use law is saving lives and property, not to mention untold firefighting dollars. 

Loopholes for leapfrogging 

The full story is more complicated. While Oregon’s growth law has succeeded in protecting forest- and farmland, cities have sprawled more than intended, often in the low-density and leapfrog patterns that pose the greatest risk of wildfire damage. 

First, by itself, the land use law would not have prevented Bend from sprawling into the fireplain. It was Bend residents’ wielding of this law that led to more compact growth. According to Isbell, “it took a lot of community organizing and advocacy to shrink the expansion.” 

Bend has expanded subdivision by subdivision (source: City of Bend).

Second, exurban “exception areas” allow large-lot development outside growth boundaries. So even with an organized and resourceful community, Bend residents had to compromise. Like many Oregon cities, exurban land surrounding Bend was zoned for exception areas of minimum lot sizes of 2.5 to 10 acres per dwelling. (For reference, a 2.5-acre minimum restricts building to one house for every two-and-a-half football fields’ worth of land.) Without expanding the urban growth boundary, developers could build large-lot houses. This was their bargaining chip. On the other hand, without expanding the urban growth boundary, they couldn’t build the high-density subdivisions that are most profitable. 

To prevent a landscape crisscrossed with large-lot development, residents negotiated to allow a greater number of subdivisions than existing exurban zoning would have permitted in exchange for a compact placement of development that minimized habitat loss and wildfire risk within a modestly expanded urban growth boundary. 

Third, counties can authorize large-lot development (greater than one acre per house) within urban growth boundaries on land not annexed into a city. When this happens, subsequent subdivision of these lots becomes less likely and costlier, causing future development to leapfrog over these areas and accelerating the need for an urban growth boundary expansion. 

Bend avoided this fate through explicit amendments in the Deschutes County subdivision code. Paul Dewey, former director of Central Oregon LandWatch, credits the success in part to collaboration among property owners, community advocates, and government officials. 

“The county and the city have worked really well together,” he said. “Despite a wide spectrum of political views, this plan had far more public support than opposition.” 

climate-smart cities are fire-smart cities 

On the other side of the equation, cities aren’t necessarily making infill easy. Where it’s allowed, local governments typically don’t nurture the growth of compact, vibrant cities. 

With its revised growth plan, Bend upzoned some areas designated for single-detached housing and allowed vertical growth and mixed development in its walkable downtown. And since the Oregon legislature passed HB 2001 in 2019 and complementary reforms, internal growth will now be easier in all Oregon cities. 

The pressure is on to house Oregon’s growing population, which will likely require about 30,000 to 40,000 new homes every year. By nurturing compact, vibrant, and climate-smart cities, land use laws help address the classic challenges of growth: coordinating infrastructure and public services, efficiently using land, and protecting natural resources. 

They also safeguard against wildfires, which makes land use laws invaluable firefighters in our increasingly fire-prone region. 

Keeping houses out of fireplains makes it easier to return beneficial fire to forests. Pictured is a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) burn near Bend (source: US Bureau of Land Management).

From Vermont to Oklahoma, Legislatures Challenge Parking Mandates

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In the 2023 legislative session, more than a dozen US states have proposed legislation to reduce or eliminate parking minimums.  

“It’s exciting,” said Tony Jordan, founder of the national Parking Reform Network, which connects advocates and policymakers with resources. To Jordan, the number of state bills introduced signal a quietly growing number of people working on the issue. “It’s becoming very popular.” 

For decades, nearly every town across North America has required all new homes and businesses to have a pre-determined number of parking spaces. But as widespread housing shortages and empty office buildings multiply, states are increasingly taking up the effort to roll back parking mandates instead of waiting for cities to adopt new codes one by one. Last year, Oregon and California both adopted policies that struck down parking mandates at the state level.  

Widespread parking reform proposals have yet to be as successful in other states, but the number of bills popping up in states across the political spectrum illustrates the movement’s growing influence.  

Reducing parking minimums is most commonly found as one part of a larger reform package to increase housing supply, like in Colorado’s comprehensive More Housing Now bill. Legislators from multiple states, though, have begun to address parking minimums directly with simple bills only a few pages long. In Oklahoma, a bill was introduced that would have ended parking minimums outright. Washington attempted to eliminate mandatory parking near frequent transit stations. Another transit-oriented measure in New Jersey would cut parking minimums near transit in half; that bill is still alive, having passed the state senate in May. 

Stand-alone parking bills

Arizona HB 2259 

To prohibit parking mandates statewide for all affordable housing. Failed in committee. (Did not pass)

Maryland HB 819 

To remove parking minimums within ¼-mile of all existing or planned Metro or Purple Line transit stations, in anticipation of a new 16mile light rail line in the DC area. Passed the House unanimously, but the Senate dropped the bill after Montgomery County (the only jurisdiction affected) pledged to introduce a similar measure at the local level. (Did not pass)

New Jersey S 3605/A 4984 

To reduce local parking mandates by 20, 30, or 50 percent based on proximity to a transit station. Passed the Senate 21-12 in May, now in House committee. (Pending)

Oklahoma  S 246 

To prohibit local governments from imposing minimum parking requirements. Failed in committee. (Did not pass)

Washington HB 1351/SB 5456

To eliminate parking minimums within a halfmile of frequent transit. Failed in committee. (Did not pass)

Parking reformers’ biggest 2023 wins so far have come in Vermont and Montana. Despite very different political majorities, both states legalized more housing while capping local parking mandates at one parking space per home through much of the state. Other successful housing supply bills, like ones that legalized accessory dwelling units, included pre-emptions of parking requirements. 

Parking reform in abundant housing policies

Arizona SB 1117 

Part of a larger state zoning reform, this bill aimed to eliminate parking mandates for residentially zoned areas in cities with more than 30,000 residents. After this bill failed a Senate vote, a very similar provision was briefly amended into another zoning reform bill, HB 2536, which also failed in the Senate. (Did not pass)

Arizona HB 2272 

To require cities with over 75,000 residents to adopt a housing plan and 7 of 13 zoning reforms; eliminating parking minimums was one of them. Failed in committee. (Did not pass)

Colorado SB23-213 

Part of the comprehensive 150+ page More Housing Now bill. To eliminate parking minimums for multifamily housing near transit stations and for accessory dwelling units, and middle housing types. Passed the House, failed in Senate. (Did not pass)

Maine HP 1071 

To establish a new state program to assist in redevelopment of commercial corridors. Eliminating parking minimums, in addition to other zoning changes, would have been required for project areas. Failed in committee. (Did not pass)

Massachusetts S.858/H.1379 

Part of a broad housing supply proposal to eliminate parking minimums for multifamily housing within ½-mile of transit stations. Caps parking minimums for accessory dwelling units at 1 space per home, with driveway tandem parking allowed. Vacant commercial properties to be free from parking mandates if being converted to housing, if 20 percent of the residential space is dedicated to affordable housing. Hearing scheduled for July 26, 2023. (Pending)

Montana SB 245

Originally proposed with no parking requirements, this bill that legalized multifamily housing in commercial areas ultimately set a statewide cap on parking minimums: 1 parking space per home in cities with over 5,000 residents. (Passed)

Montana SB 528 

Legalized 1 accessory dwelling per lot, no parking required. (Passed)

Montana SB 382 

The Montana Land Use Planning Act requires local governments to adopt at least 5 zoning reforms from a list of 14, one of which is to eliminate or reduce parking requirements to 1 space per unit. (Passed)

New York S162/A5700 

To prohibit local governments from imposing parking mandates, along with other exclusionary zoning practices. Failed in committee. (Did not pass)

New York A6670 

This transitoriented development bill would have restricted local governments from regulations that effectively prevent the construction of buildings, including parking requirements. Failed in committee. (Did not pass)

North Carolina HB 409 

To legalize accessory dwelling units. Local parking requirements may not apply. Passed the House 106-7, now in Senate committee. (Pending)

Rhode Island S 1037 

Capped local parking minimums at 1 parking space per home for low- to moderate-income housing, up to two bedrooms. (Passed)

Texas HB 3921/SB 1787 

To ease regulatory barriers for small lots (under 4,000 square feet), local parking mandates to be capped at 1 parking space per lot, and no covered parking can be required. Would apply to cities over 85,000 residents. Passed out of the Senate, but did not advance to a House vote. (Did not pass)

Vermont S.100 

This omnibus housing supply bill capped parking minimums at 1 space per dwelling in areas served by water and sewer infrastructure. Outside of those areas, 1.5 parking spaces per home can be required for multifamily buildings under certain conditions. (Passed)

Vermont H.68 

This House version of a housing supply bill would have set a statewide zoning standard at 1 per dwelling. Failed in committee. (Did not pass)

Washington HB 1337 

Eliminated parking minimums for accessory dwelling units within ½-mile of a frequent transit stop. Elsewhere, cities cannot require more than 1 space per home for properties smaller than 6,000 square feet, or 2 per home for larger lots. (Passed)

Washington SB 5466 

To eliminate parking minimums in areas near transit stations as part of a broader transitoriented upzoning package. Passed the Senate, failed in House. (Did not pass)

Washington HB 1110 

Eliminated parking minimums for middle housing within ½-mile of a frequent transit stop. Elsewhere, cities cannot require more than 1 space per home for properties smaller than 6,000 square feet, or 2 per home for larger lots. (Passed)

These efforts were buoyed by 2022 breakthroughs in state-level parking reform. Both Oregon and California adopted policies to make parking fully optional for properties near transit service, and for certain uses in Oregon. The new policies went into effect in both states on January 1, 2023. 

Oregon’s parking reform survived the legislative session intact. The sole public hearing on a bill that would have nullified the state’s new land use and transportation rules was canceled after more than 140 Oregon residents and organizations submitted testimony to oppose it. It was never rescheduled. 

In May, California Representative Robert Garcia broke another barrier, elevating the issue to the federal level by introducing the People Over Parking Act in Congress. Modeled after California’s state law, the bill would eliminate parking requirements within a half-mile of transit service. He was joined by Representatives Earl Blumenauer (OR), Greg Casar (TX), and Seth Moulton (MA). 

The shifting Overton window is a welcome development to advocates like Jordan, who first got involved with parking reform a decade ago. He described the phases of policy change like steps on a ladder. “First, they cap what you can do. Then you legalize certain kinds of housing without it. And then maybe you go for the transit stations,” he said. “Eventually someone’s going to do the whole thing.”  

The day when parking minimums are wholly relegated to the past might be a ways off yet, but it’s clear that interest in removing them isn’t going away anytime soon.  


Did we miss one? Let us know about your statewide parking reform at editor@sightline.org.