Bill Would Prevent Cities From Banning Emergency Shelter, Homeless Housing

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A bill that passed the Washington State House of Representatives on Wednesday would keep cities from prohibiting homeless shelters and housing.

Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, who is the primary sponsor of House Bill 1220, said this is a response to recent actions in cities like Renton, where in December the City Council passed restrictions on homeless shelters that some nonprofit leaders decried as onerous.

But it's unclear if this bill would have an effect on Renton's law or similar codes such as Bellevue's, which don't ban homeless shelters outright but instead result in what some nonprofits have described as hundreds of hours of pre-permitting work.

The bill mostly deals with requiring cities to plan for enough shelter and cheap housing for low-income people in the community. As cities grow, Peterson's plan would require them to work with the state to figure out how much emergency shelter they will most likely need, and identify land and legal allowances for it.

But two sections of the bill make it illegal for cities' zoning codes to prohibit homeless shelters or emergency housing in multifamily, commercial and mixed-use zones where hotels and short-term rentals are allowed.

"If somebody can come through Bellevue and stay three nights at a hotel, why can't somebody come through Bellevue and stay three nights in a shelter because their car broke down and there's no place for them to go?" Peterson said.

Chip Vincent, Renton's planning director, declined to comment on the record about the bill.

On the West Coast, where nearly two-thirds of the country's entire unsheltered homeless population lives, according to 2019's annual census of homeless people, similar legislation exists in other states.

A California law passed more than a decade ago required local governments to encourage the development of emergency shelters, transitional housing and supportive housing for homeless people and treat them the same as other residential housing. It also said a jurisdiction cannot deny applications for those types of housing and shelter without "specific evidence-based findings."

Peterson said his bill also puts the burden on a city to prove why a shelter shouldn't be there, rather than on the applicants to prove why it should.

Republicans have largely voted against the Washington bill to this point. Rep. Keith Goehner, R-Dryden, who has voted against it several times — in committee and on the House floor — called it a "profound" change that goes against the purpose of zoning being locally controlled.

"You are prohibiting jurisdictions from basically declaring what is appropriate and what isn't for whatever areas of their county," Goehner said.

Carl Schroeder, government relations advocate with the Association of Washington Cities, thinks there is a lot of promise in the bill overall. But he said the sections against prohibiting shelters contradict the spirit of the earlier parts of the bill, which would give cities time and freedom to make planning decisions after the Washington Department of Commerce lets cities know how many shelter beds and low-income housing units they will need as they grow.

"We're trying to understand how to find a middle-ground path," Schroeder said. "We cannot have, collectively as the state, impossible-to-site shelters. We've got a homeless crisis."

The bill will now head to the state Senate for debate.

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