Edmonds — along with dozens of other cities across the state — could be in for a significant zoning change if the Washington State Legislature passes legislation allowing multifamily housing in areas now designed for single-family homes. It is a big “if,” since this is the fourth time lawmakers have considered the legislation, but for the first time Gov. Jay Inslee has thrown his political weight behind the zoning changes.
Substitute Senate Bill 5670 and House Bill 1782 would allow duplexes and up to six-unit buildings to be constructed in some Edmonds neighborhoods. The issue is the political hot potato of the 2022 session.
But both bills face a Feb. 15 deadline — the last day to consider (pass) bills in the chamber (the House or Senate) in which they originated. Both passed out of their initial committees and are moving on; no floor votes are yet scheduled. In addition, lawmakers are wrestling with other critical legislation that includes rewriting police reform bills and addressing growth guidelines, transportation, firearms, the environment and elections.
The housing legislation is important because if it becomes law, it would upend local zoning codes. The two bills being considered allow for:
“Creating additional middle housing near transit and in areas traditionally dedicated to single-family detached housing.”
— Language of SSB 5670 and HB 1782
If passed, the legislation would apply to any city in the state with a population of 20,000 or more. It calls for allowing multi-family replacement in any single-family neighborhood within a half-mile walk of “a major transit stop.” In Edmonds, that includes the ferry terminal, Sounder train station and at the Rapid Transit bus stops on Highway 99. It could include bus stops that provide service every 15 minutes, but a city source tells us Edmonds bus routes do not operate that often. The bills also give these communities some “wiggle room” and allows them to create a housing formula “to determine the minimum number of units they need to take and then allowing them to put that density where they want so long as their plans don’t perpetuate housing segregation.”
That would seem to reinforce the vision in the city’s current Comprehensive Plan, which is adding more housing along portions of Highway 99. The 241 units in the building above, near the south end of the portion of Highway 99 running through Edmonds, are nearing completion.
The legislation would also require cities to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in neighborhoods that are more than a half mile from transit stops. It calls for cities to update their comprehensive plans two years after the legislation passes to permit these housing types.
Two lawmakers representing portions of Edmonds — 21st District Sen. Marko Liias (D-Everett) and 32nd District Rep.Cindy Ryu (D-Shoreline) are among the bill’s sponsors.
The idea behind the measures is to cut the cost of new housing by allowing the smaller multiplexes in neighborhoods that currently allow only single-family units; those who move in split the high cost of the land. The legislation doesn’t guarantee a lower price on these housing types, but affordable housing advocates have argued that this denser housing would be cheaper.
Preserving single-family zoning is perhaps the biggest hot-button issue in Edmonds. The Edmonds Citizens Housing Commission was formed by a resolution of the Edmonds City Council on April 16, 2019 with the following mission statement:
“Develop diverse housing policy options for (City) Council consideration designed to expand the range of housing (including rental and owned) available in Edmonds; options that are irrespective of age, gender, race, religious affiliation, physical disability or sexual orientation”
Among the recommendations the commission submitted in January 2021 were proposals for the city to address the issues of “missing middle” housing in single-family neighborhoods, equity housing incentives, medium density single-family housing, creation of neighborhood villages and cluster, or cottage housing options.
Of all the commission’s recommendations, the following got the most pushback in the Citizens Housing Commission poll conducted in August 2020:
- 56% of respondents in one housing poll “strongly opposed” guidelines/incentives for duplexes/townhomes in lieu of single-family units.
- They cited “opposition to increasing density in single-family neighborhoods”
- 57% supported creating multi-family housing transition zones near transit or neighborhood business
- But 42% opposed that idea.
The Edmonds City Council has studied some of the commission’s recommendations but has not taken action on these particular items. Councilmember Will Chen, who had served on the Edmonds Housing Commission before his election, summed up the dilemma Edmonds faces: “I want to protect single-family zoning while finding solutions to meet the housing needs by increasing density where it makes sense,” he said.
The states of Oregon and California have already passed laws on these housing issues. If the state Legislature does pass similar legislation, all cities will face tough questions and even harder decisions. Gov. Inslee offered to take some of the heat off local politicians, telling reporters that the locals can blame him.
“Washingtonians really want a solution to this problem,” the governor said, “but we know the only way to do that is to increase density, and that is a little more controversial. So, I think the state needs to step up and take some leadership on this.”
We will know very soon if lawmakers in Olympia are willing to do just that.
— By Bob Throndsen
Editor’s note: Reporter Bob Throndsen is a former member of the Edmonds Citizens Housing Commission, which was disbanded after issuing its final report in January 2021.