Bill to Ease Washington's Housing Crisis Would Allow Up to Fourplex on All Residential Lots


OLYMPIA — Single-family homes may soon be less common in new development across the state.

A bill making its way through the Legislature would allow "middle housing" — up to a fourplex — on all residential lots in cities of 6,000 or more.

The proposal is making its second appearance in the Legislature, this time with more cities covered and with bipartisan support. It comes at a time when the Legislature is looking to address the housing and homelessness crisis in a number of different ways, including with zoning, renter protections and affordable housing availability.

"We need to make it easier to build homes of all shapes and sizes, so that everyone in Washington has access to a decent and affordable home," said Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia.

A number of cities across the state, including Spokane, have already changed their zoning laws to allow for more density in urban areas, but this bill would require all cities with 6,000 or more people do away with single-family zoning, though property owners could still build single-family homes on their lots.

All residential lots in those cities would be required to allow up to fourplexes. Additionally, the bill would require cities to allow sixplexes on all lots, if at least two of the units are affordable, or if the lot is within a half-mile of a major transit stop.

The proposal has received support from a number of lawmakers and housing organizations, but some criticism from cities that say they want to decide their own zoning laws.

"If we don't do something this session to address housing, it's a failure," said Republican co-sponsor Rep. Andrew Barkis, of Olympia.

Finding the right balance for state's 'changing needs'

Supporters say it is needed, but some cities remain concerned Washington has not built enough housing to keep up with population and job growth, Bateman said, and restricting the kind of housing that can be built to single-family homes prevents the state from meeting the demand.

"This bill is recognizing that we have to change how we allow housing to be built, to accommodate and to adapt to our changing needs," Bateman said.

Last summer, the Spokane City Council unanimously approved a temporary zoning ordinance to allow duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes and townhomes in all residential zones citywide for one year.

Councilmember Zack Zappone told the House Housing committee on Tuesday that 149 units are in pre-development and five have been permitted.

He said middle housing needs to be legal across the state.

"Spokane can't do this alone," he said. "It doesn't meet the scale of the problem."

The Association of Washington Cities, who in the past had been against expanding middle housing, testified in a House Housing committee hearing this week as "other."

Carl Schroeder, representing the group, said they are prepared this year to support expanding some middle housing zoning, but that this bill wasn't ready yet.

He said they support increasing middle housing on lots located near specific community amenities, such as schools or transits. Schroeder also had concerns about provisions that lowered some parking requirements.

Spokane Valley councilman Arne Woodard testified to the House Housing committee that a number of cities, including Spokane Valley, have improved their zoning laws and follow similar requirements to those in the bill.

Woodard testified as "other" on the bill, saying the Valley already allows some middle housing on lots. The bill does allow for cities to keep their current permitting requirements if they are "substantially" similar to those in the bill, but Woodard said "substantially" could be interpreted in many ways.

He asked that it be further defined to allow certainty about which jurisdictions are covered.

"We have to be smarter about using existing resources to reduce housing costs to make living in Washington state affordable," he said.

Similar to Woodard, Fourth District lawmakers had concerns about creating a statewide zoning regulation.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said zoning decisions should be made locally, and he is strongly opposed to a statewide solution.

Rep. Leonard Christian, R-Spokane Valley, said the Valley has already made a number of changes to its zoning laws, and that the state should respect local authorities to make these decisions.

Barkis said under this proposal, he still believes  there will be enough control and ability for cities to decide how they want a neighborhood to look.

He said he believes there should be local control, but there should also be consistency among some policies statewide.

Bateman said the state doesn't have time for a local approach, and that housing needs to be addressed on a coordinated, statewide level.

"We've tried local control at the city level for housing for decades, and it's gotten us here," Bateman said.

Leaders in both parties have indicated their support for the bill, though they have acknowledged there is still work to be done.

Middle housing a 'midterm solution' to crisis

Along with Spokane, a number of cities and states have passed similar changes, but it's still too early to see the full effects, as building housing takes time.

The city of Olympia began allowing middle housing on all lots in 2020. The state of Oregon legalized middle housing in 2019. Portland passed a similar bill in 2020 but had been working on it since 2015.

When middle housing is expanded, it often takes two to three years before any change is seen, Bateman said. This is a "midterm solution."

"If the majority of cities in the state have made it illegal to build middle housing, it is reasonable to assume you're not going to see a change overnight once they become legal," Bateman said.

Permitting, regulations and environmental reviews also all make it difficult to build, Barkis said. The premise of many of the supply-side housing bills is to reduce barriers and the time it takes to build.

Bateman said the state will help by producing template designs for builders and ensuring that cities process permits in a timely manner.

The Legislature is looking at a number of other proposals this session to address the housing crisis in the short term and long term.

Bateman said she looks at addressing housing in three buckets: supply, stability and subsidy.

Middle housing and expanding where accessory dwelling units can be built fit into the supply side.

On the stability side, legislators are looking at rent or utility assistance, protecting renters from huge rent increases, requiring landlords to give 180 days before a large rent increase and giving renters the option to challenge rent increases.

The Legislature is also looking at ways to increase investment into affordable subsidized housing.

In his proposed budget, Gov. Jay Inslee has requested a referendum to allow the state to increase its debt limit to $4 billion to build more affordable housing faster.

Other ideas to address the housing crisis this year include making it easier for first-time homebuyers to afford a home, revising state guidelines for cities' population growth and changing rules around condominiums.