I don’t know if you heard, but urbanists are developer shills. At least that’s the common conception. In reality, many of us are quite critical of certain developers and projects, while recognizing that absolute opposition to developers would get us nowhere. If developers are evil, they’re a necessary evil–at least until we rise up, seize the modes of production, and turn Seattle into only to a full-blown socialist metropolis in which the government leads a huge construction boom to affordably house everybody.
No sign of the revolution yet, though.
Enter the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties (MBA). The MBA built much of the sprawl that blankets the Puget Sound Region today. They’re no angels. Nonetheless, the legislative vision they’ve laid out for 2018 isn’t all bad even if there’s a few stinkers in it. Plus, MBA members do provide a valuable service: they build a lot of housing–including some townhomes and denser housing types–in a region that sorely needs more homes.
The MBA’s vision consists of 10 policies they think could address housing affordability and attainability in the state and Puget Sound region. These policies range from increasing minimum net density for residential development in Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) to reforming completeness review for permits. It’s not a comprehensive list of what we should do. Nonetheless, some of the policies appear to be worthy of urbanist and legislative support.
On the other hand, there is one policy in the plan–a sprawl-inducing solution in search of a problem–that is decidedly concerning:
- Minimum Single-Family Residence Requirement. The MBA is proposing that local comprehensive plans by cities and counties contain specific targets for detached single-family housing. This policy should obviously be concerning since it would perpetuate low-density suburban sprawl and exacerbate regional inequity. More housing is indeed necessary, but detached single-family is not a path to attain affordability or sustainability in a rapidly growing region. Moreover, most cities already provide tons of detached single-family zoning, Seattle included. This one is straight of Brier Dudley.
Some policies that urbanists should find encouraging include:
- Short Plats. Short plats with nine or fewer lots within a UGA can be exempted from the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and tend to be approved administratively by municipalities instead of requiring a more complicated approval process. Short plats are a means to divide land into individual lots that can be built on, often for homes. The MBA is proposing an increase to the number of lots that can be approved in a short plat when located within a UGA. They’ve pegged the number at 30 lots or fewer since many municipalities already exempt multifamily constriction with 60 or fewer dwelling units from SEPA. These developments are routinely approved administratively, too. The MBA’s proposed change would help remove a lot of process for medium-sized residential projects. However, this could also have the effect of limiting mitigation measures under SEPA that may otherwise be desirable.
- Minimum Net Urban Density. The MBA is proposing that the Growth Management Act be modified to set a minimum net density for residential development at six dwelling units per acre in UGAs. Many cities in the Puget Sound have zoning regulations that allow substantially less development on a per-acre basis, which ultimately impacts how much development can happen. This also can further exacerbate suburban sprawl. Minimum net urban density would require our sprawl to at least be semi-compact–better than nothing.
- Simple Majority for School Bond Measures. The MBA is proposing a change to the majority needed to pass school bonds for maintenance, repairs, and capital improvements for schools. Under the MBA’s proposal, bond levies would only need a simple majority instead of a 60% supermajority. This higher barrier makes it difficult to pass levies. However, there is a self-serving reason for the MBA to push for this since it could have the effect of reducing obligations to pay school impact fees in some jurisdictions. Still, this reform seems sensible and should be expanded to all levy types.
- Condominium Liability Reform. The MBA is proposing changes to the state condominium liability laws. These laws can have the effect of greatly discouraging apartment-style and detached single-family housing sold as individual units since there is high liability risk to builders after selling units. The MBA had laid out four specific issues to be addressed in the liabilities laws such as narrowing the definition of a construction defect and requiring a plaintiff to show actual or likely material damages to a unit or common element. One of the proposed changes related to binding arbitration might be a step too far, but it certainly appears our liability laws are much too onerous given the dearth of condo development and explosion of apartment development.
- Unit Lot Townhouse Codes. The MBA is proposing full implementation of an option for individual ownership of townhouse lots in all municipalities. Some cities, such as Seattle, allow lots to be as small as the footprint of a townhouse unit. This means that a unit owner also owns the land beneath the structure and any other areas included in the lot. Unit lot townhouse codes do not require a state law change, but rather a willingness of local communities to adopt them as a subdivision option. This type of change can be incredibly helpful since developers can then sell townhouse units as lots instead of condos. That ultimately makes them a more appealing housing product to build.
For a closer look, the MBA’s policy package is available online.
Doug Trumm is the executive director of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.