Laurel Demkovich

(Washington State Standard) Washington lawmakers, cities and housing advocates are all in favor of building denser housing near transit stops.

But no one can agree on exactly how to do it.

With about seven weeks to go in the legislative session, Democratic lawmakers are working on a new “transit-oriented development” proposal. A similar bill ran aground last year, passing out of the Senate but not making it to a full vote in the House. Like its predecessor, this year’s measure – House Bill 2160 – could face a difficult road.

In short, the proposal would require most large cities to allow denser housing near train or bus stops, but some parts of the bill – certain affordability requirements, safeguards to avoid pushing existing residents out of their neighborhoods, and limits on parking – face criticism.

“It’s not perfect, but nonetheless this is important policy that will make meaningful progress where we need it most,” bill sponsor Rep. Julia Reed, D-Seattle, told the House Housing Committee last week. 

Supporters say it could be one of the quickest ways to get new housing built, which will be essential to meet Washington’s need of more than 1 million homes in the next 20 years, half of which must be affordable for people at the lowest income levels.

Opponents, on the other hand, say the affordability requirements in the bill are too strict and that the bill does not offer enough flexibility for individual communities.

The proposal has already passed its first hurdle, clearing the House Housing Committee earlier this week with only support from Democrats. Its next stop could be the House floor – if leadership decides to bring it up for a full vote.

In the Senate it could face even more challenges. Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, the legislation’s sponsor in that chamber, said there are still a number of concerns in the Senate from members of both parties.

What’s in the proposal?

Under the bill, cities would have to allow dense housing in “station areas.”

This includes areas within one-half mile walking distance of stations for light rail and commuter rail lines, or “fixed rail guideway systems,” like streetcars. It also covers areas within a quarter mile of a stop for bus rapid transit systems that receive federal transportation dollars. Bus rapid transit refers to bus lines with features like dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority.

Around transit stops, the bill sets minimums for how much space must be in a building compared to the size of the lot where it’s located – a measurement known as a floor-area ratio. The effect is that cities and other local governments would no longer have the power to establish rules permitting less dense housing in these places.

There are also perks for developers who build affordable housing. Buildings near transit that qualify as affordable for at least 50 years or that include supportive housing, which typically has services to help people out of homelessness, would by default be allowed to squeeze even more building square footage onto lots.

The bill sets affordable housing minimums for buildings in station areas as well.

At least 10% of residential units in buildings must be affordable for at least 50 years. Affordable is defined as units where the monthly costs do not exceed 30% of monthly income for renters whose income is 60% of the county’s median household income, or for owners whose income is 80% of the county’s median household income.

Additionally, the legislation would limit cities from requiring off-street parking for housing built in station areas – except for use by people with disabilities or delivery vehicles.

Implementation of the new requirements proposed in the bill would not be until 2029 for cities completing comprehensive plan updates this year. This includes most Puget Sound region cities. All cities that rewrite their comprehensive plans after 2024 must follow the new requirements within six months of the update.

Disagreement over details

Though Republicans support transit-oriented development, Rep. Mark Klicker, R-Walla Walla, said this proposal is not the right approach and that it creates uncertainty for cities and businesses.

Critics have raised concerns about the restrictions on parking requirements and lack of flexibility for cities.

Meanwhile, tensions are growing over the affordability requirement. Some say it is not enough to ensure new housing is attainable for people who need it most. Others, including realtors and developers, argue it is too strict and will disincentivize market rate development.

Last year, there was significant concern around the proposal not creating enough affordable housing and instead displacing longtime residents of neighborhoods near transit, particularly those with lower incomes and people of color, Trudeau said.

Trudeau said the bill has specific provisions to avoid displacing people.

It would require cities to analyze whether denser housing would create this issue. And they could delay implementation if they can demonstrate it is a risk. The bill would also set up a work group to study anti displacement strategies across the state.

“We want to be sensitive and give flexibility but also make sure cities aren’t taking advantage of it to avoid building denser housing,” Reed, the House bill sponsor, said.

Bill Clarke, policy director for Washington Realtors, said the density requirements in the bill are lower than what many cities already have in place, while the affordability requirements are higher.

He also questioned how the bill would affect different parts of the state. While affordable housing construction is more common in cities like Seattle, where there is significant public funding, he said, it can be tougher in places that rely more on the private market for financing and development.

Carl Schroeder, at the Association of Washington Cities, said the group supports the affordability requirements but that there should be more flexibility.

“If the state is going to upzone, we want to ensure there’s public benefit from that, but if that does stop general market rate development, we want to be able to pull back from that,” he said.

Nick Federici, at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, acknowledged that most large-scale housing projects for people below 50% of the average median income are built in part with subsidies or public dollars.

But requiring only 10% of new units in a building to be affordable should be feasible for many developers, he said.

“Certainly that’s not too much to ask from developers who frankly are going to develop a lot of housing at market rate and above,” Federici said.

Shoreline Mayor Jim Hammond, who testified in support of the bill, told the House Housing Committee that since his city implemented transit-oriented development policies, which include a requirement for between 10% and 20% of new units to be affordable, thousands of new units have been built or are about to be built.

Many supporters of the bill, including House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, say the affordability requirements are its most important part.

“It would be a shame if we did all this development, and it was once again an opportunity for people with higher incomes to have a better lifestyle,” Fey told the House Housing committee. “That would be a policy failure.”