This is the kind of housing NIMBYs are freaking out about. Roman_Makedonsky / GETTY
Everyone drop what you’re doing, the new substitute House bill just dropped!!!
In case you haven’t heard, in this year’s short legislative session, some heroic elected officials are trying to tackle Washington’s ludicrous under-supply of housing by ending bans on the construction of housing options such as duplexes and townhouses close to transit lines. Other (villainous) officials are trying to stop them, because God forbid anyone pay less than a half million dollars to live in a dilapidated shack. Among those trying to water it down are suburban mayors, including Seattle’s Bruce Harrell, Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph, and Covington Mayor Jeff Wagner. (An ethos proudly self-identified as “selfish” by one supporter of housing limits who lives in a condo, and who apparently didn’t realize she was saying the quiet part out loud.)
Well, after a bunch of wrangling on Monday, the House version of this “missing middle” bill has squeaked through a round of eliminations, but with a whole bunch of changes — 256 of them, to be precise. But its passage is far from assured.
So, what’s changed? Most of those 256 changes are pretty minor, and they involve some basic reorganization of the bill. The new version also adds some new definitions for housing terms, such as “cottage housing” and “stacked flat,” both of which are exactly what they sound like.
The latest version also adds a sort of preamble explaining why the bill is necessary, including some language about protecting open space and tree canopy — which may be some sly weasel-language designed to torpedo housing with phony environmental concerns, as happened in California recently.
But the biggest change is dropping the definition of “courtyard apartments” from six units down to four. That’s a huge bummer. With home prices and rent soaring way beyond anything that’s reasonable, every unit is a much-needed pressure-release valve. But Rep Gerry Pollet has been pushing to reduce the size of new housing, and it looks like he got his way.
The bill also clarifies how the state is meant to assist counties and towns during implementation. It also adds a requirement for cities to address “deficient” infrastructure — a fancy way of saying “make sure the water pressure’s good” — and also ensuring that they’ll be able to maintain transit frequency. Those adjustments sound reasonable, but, as with the “tree canopy” language, it’s possible that those new paragraphs could be used to delay new housing: “Oh, we can’t build new housing until we upgrade the fire hydrants, which we PROMISE is absolutely necessary, please just trust us on that,” that sort of thing.
Or a particularly truculent city might just decide to cancel transit service altogether, since they can’t be made to maintain transit frequency if the transit doesn’t exist anymore. As with many controversial bills, it can be hard to separate compromise positions from poison pills slipped into the legislation.
But there still could be plenty of changes ahead. The bill will continue to undergo intense negotiations, and it will need to get a vote on the House floor by next Tuesday, February 15, in order to survive.