Washington Can’t (and Doesn’t Have to) Wait!

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The view from Mount Constitution on Orcas Island. How much longer will resident Orcas roam the Salish Sea? (Photo by Doug Trumm)

For years, Washington failed to fully address climate change, rising housing insecurity, and the impacts of decades of environmental injustice. This summer, wildfires coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, provided a very tangible sense of the growing threat resulting from this failure. 

The pandemic laid bare the risks of housing insecurity and demonstrated the increased risks of mortality from Covid-19 in areas subject to higher rates of pollution. July saw a peak in infection rates and then, in late August and early September, out-of-control wildfires across the state resulted in weeks of lethally unhealthy air and hundreds of thousands of acres of burned land. As the summer made clear, Washington cannot wait to mitigate climate change and increase community resilience. Nor can it wait to address decades of state policies negatively affecting communities of color, or resolve the growing crisis of housing insecurity.

Although these issues are complex, the legislature has a unique opportunity to directly address them all next year by passing much-needed legislative updates to the Growth Management Act (GMA). Futurewise’s Washington Can’t Wait campaign aims to ensure that the legislature passes three amendments, one focused on climate change, one focused on housing insecurity, and one focused on environmental justice. 

These issues are not new, and this summer was not the first time Washingtonians felt their impact. Climate change affects lives and livelihoods from private shellfish farmers, hit by low survival of juvenile oysters in acidic waters, to members of the Quinault Nation resident in Taholah and Queets, relocating because of rising seas. Climate change promises to bring more, and more intense, wildfires, more extreme temperature events, increasing rates of epidemic and pandemic disease outbreaks, rising sea levels, and increasing ocean acidification. Numerous species are at risk from the tiny American pikas calling from cracks in the talus to the Columbia’s Chinook salmon that feed us (and our orcas). It is not an understatement to label climate change as an existential threat. To mitigate climate change we must reduce emissions and increase carbon uptake. But it is not enough anymore just to mitigate, we also must build for resilience.

One million acres of Washington forest land burned in 2020 worsening air quality throughout the state. Leavenworth (pictured here) and the rest of Eastern Washington were hit hard. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Climate change overlaps directly with decades of environmental injustice and housing inequity. Washington’s communities of color face the highest risk of negative impacts from climate change, such as mortality and illness from extreme temperatures because historic redlining and other policies concentrating vulnerable populations into urban heat islands. These impacts overlap with other disparate health effects, for example, respiratory illness from pollution, deriving from environmentally unjust policies locating polluting industries unequally across the state. Housing costs continue to rise, forcing more than 30% of Washingtonians into residential insecurity where they spend most of their paycheck to cover rent or home ownership, or find themselves pushed onto the streets. This affordability crisis reinforces historic racially-biased housing policies. And those without a home, or facing insufficient housing, are most susceptible to the effects of climate change.

Remarkably, the GMA, which drives land use planning for the state, does not require cities, towns, and counties to consider climate change mitigation or resilience in their comprehensive planning. Nor does it require consideration of environmental justice, even though disenfranchisement arising from active, and less active but no less harmful decision-making, permeates land-use decisions and their impacts across the state. The Washington legislature has the opportunity in the next legislative session to make a difference by adopting updates to the GMA. 

The GMA has driven land use planning across Washington cities, towns, and counties for the past 30 years. It is the invisible framework for our day-to-day experience of the space we live in. The GMA requires cities, towns, and counties to identify critical areas, such as wetlands and habitat for threatened species. It mandates most of these entities to adopt comprehensive development plans and regulations for the implementation of such plans. In their plans, cities, counties, and towns must address 14 elements including a housing element, a rural element, and a transportation element. The GMA requires regional coordination of land use planning and public involvement in land use decision-making. 

Futurewise’s extensive experience helping shape the GMA’s legal contours since the act was first implemented means it has the unique capacity to identify gaps and draft legislative language that can effectively fill these gaps. These three proposed amendments will add language requiring planners to address climate change and environmental justice and update the housing element. The climate change amendment will require local governments to develop plans reducing emissions and creating accessible communities, with local access to parks, jobs, schools, and restaurants so that residents do not have to rely exclusively on private car transportation. The amendment will require local governments to plan communities resilient to the impacts of climate change. So, rather than waiting until residents suffer from disasters such as wildfires or drought, local governments will be required to protect lands that serve as buffers from climate change and identify the “hot spots” most likely to suffer from these disasters. 

The Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development studied displacement risk ahead of passage of the Mandatory Housing Affordability program. (Credit: OPCD)

The environmental justice amendment will require towns, counties, and cities to evaluate and address past inequitable land use policies that have harmed communities of color across the state as evident in resources such as the Washington State Health Disparities Map. Moving forward, local governments will need to consider environmental justice concerns in any new planning. The update to the housing element will require cities, counties, and towns to more fully plan for a diversity of housing and identify and address the historic redlining and other exclusionary housing policies across the state. Local governments will need to identify areas at high risk of displacement and implement policies to prevent people from losing their housing in these areas, as well as develop adequate shelters and supportive housing for people without homes.

The time is long past due to address these issues. The legislature must pass the three updates to the GMA in the upcoming legislative session. In 2024, many cities and counties will submit their updated plans. These legislative updates will ensure that the next series of plans address the climate change and housing crises, and incorporate environmental justice across land use planning. You can make a difference right now by telling your state representatives that we cannot wait anymore to address these issues. Join Futurewise’s Washington Can’t Wait campaign to help shepherd the legislation through in 2021.

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Jennifer Calkins, PhD, JD, is an attorney, evolutionary biologist and author who lives in Seattle with various creatures including teenagers. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Scientist-at-Work blog and National Geographic, as well as in a variety of peer-reviewed scientific and legal journals. She is the author of three books including, most recently, Fugitive Assemblage.

1 COMMENT

  1. Here is a link to Futurewise’s website and its Educational Panel Series for “Washington Can’t Wait” (10-29-2020): http://www.futurewise.org/action Although not highlighted, if you click on the listed resources it will take you to that specific agenda packet. For example, 10 questions to ask your city council, or the comprehensive article on the “The GMA After More Than 10 Years” written by Tim Trohimovich. I was glad to see Futurewise suggest a citizen carefully quiz their local elected officials on required public notice of development, something many cities try to hide.

    I first began following Futurewise in its early years mainly having to do with development in rural counties like Kittitas Co. which bristled under the GMA (which is why Futurewise’s support for limiting environmental appeals for certain housing actions and legislation disappointed me). Futurewise used the Growth Management Hearings Board quite well, even thought the GMHB was generally not helpful and was overly pedantic when it came to procedure, and as noted by Mr. Trohimovich quite deferential to local cities and especially rural counties.

    Both climate change and “equity” are somewhat new for Futurewise, although it has always been an advocate for the environment and rural lands, although as I have noted before I think HB 1923 backfired somewhat by allowing rural lots of 5 and 10 acres to upzone to three separate legal dwellings, but I guess that is better than recent actions by Snohomish Co. to expand density in its rural zones.

    [Off topic]

    The legislation Futurewise is promoting to accomplish its agenda under Washington Can’t Wait is not clear from its website. But if HB 1923 and past actions are any guide, along with zoning changes in Seattle recently and the PSRC 2050 Vision Statement, my guess is mandated multi-family housing in suburban residential neighborhoods, and increasing density in these same city’s commercial centers, which is why so much speculative buying has been going on by developers hoping for both a major upzone, and reduced parking requirements.

    [Off-topic, not succinct, repetitive]

    It would be counterproductive to preserve transit frequency in south Seattle and then move those low income residents to areas with much less transit frequency. I understand transit and transit TOD, and the priorities in the PSRC, but I don’t know if those advocates understand transit funding, which is directly proportional to transit frequency. There is regularly the chicken and egg argument whether transit or density comes first, but one way or the other you better have transit if affordable housing is the goal.

    [off-topic, longwinded]

    My prediction is the cities, especially on the eastside and through the SCA, will put up a fierce fight against mandatory zoning, but are open to evaluating climate change and affordable and equitable housing in their 8 year cycle updates to their comprehensive plans, although there is little they can do about transit in their cities.

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