A photo of colorful townhouses with a tree in front.
One method of increasing housing affordability is to make it easier to build missing middle housing like townhouses, courtyard bungalows, and triplexes. (Credit: Natalie Bicknell Argerious)

Housing policy is front and center in the Washington State House this short session, as highlighted by a recent public hearing in which differing bills aimed at increasing affordable housing stock were debriefed and opened for public testimony. Governor Inslee-backed HB 1782, which would require cities planning under the Growth Management Act (GMA) to allow for the construction of missing middle housing types (e.g., duplexes and fourplexes) in zones allowing single-family homes or adopt a net minimum density equivalent, has rightfully attracted the most attention, but two additional housing bills, HB 1232 and HB 1981, are up for consideration as well.

In their current form, the two competing bills underscore how the Washington State Legislature could fall into the trap of passing legislation that masquerades as housing reform while really further enshrining into law exclusionary zoning practices. At the same time, passage of HB 1782 could put Washington State at the national forefront of legalizing middle housing types, including courtyard apartments of six units. This article will not go into depth on HB 1782, to learn more about the bill, read our previous story on the bill.

First up: HB 1232, a watered down housing bill

The first competing missing middle housing bill is HB 1232, sponsored by Representative Andrew Barkis (R – 2nd District). Of the three missing middle housing bills, HB 1232 is the most vague in its language and narrowest in its reach. The legislation was passed by the House last session as an engrossed substitute bill, but it failed in the Senate. Supporters are hoping it will make it across the finish line this time around; however, for those wanting to see affordable middle housing flourish statewide, there are several reasons to be much less enthusiastic about HB 1232 than HB 1782.

For starters, HB 1232 puts forth a simple, but pretty inscrutable requirement — that jurisdictions (i.e., cities and counties) planning under the GMA “consider single-family residences such as detached dwellings, duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes in urban growth areas (UGAs) in the housing element of [their] comprehensive plan.” Doing so would mean creating an “inventory and analysis of existing and projected housing needs that identifies the number of housing units necessary to manage projected growth.” Using that information, they would need to create a “statement of goals, policies, objectives, and mandatory provisions for the preservation, improvement, and development of housing.”

Within jurisdictions’ urban growth areas, this would mean the development of middle housing types, which are mostly undefined. Cities and counties would need to identify sufficient land for “government-assisted housing, housing for low-income families, manufactured housing, multifamily housing, group homes, and foster care facilities” within their urban growth area, and as a further nod to affordable housing development, they would be required to make “adequate provisions for existing and projected needs of all economic segments of the community.” Job growth is taken into account as well with the requirement that “housing locations” are taken into consideration in regards to “employment locations.”

Thus the bill, requires a lot of “consideration” without offering much clear guidance on what jurisdictions should strive for as end results. This is probably because Barkis wants to avoid proposing a bill that could be assessed as top-down or a one-size-fits-all solution by Republicans and conservative Democrats.

HB 1232 also contains the troubling requirement that cities planning under the GMA include in their comprehensive plan a housing element “ensuring the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods.” Since most residential neighborhoods across the state are zoned as single-family, the allusion to neighborhood “character” could mean enshrining lower densities into these neighborhoods, even if modest forms of missing middle housing, like duplexes, were to be permitted, in certain areas, by the law.

Additionally, unlike HB 1782, the bill makes no mention of larger missing middle housing types like courtyard apartments, which under HB 1782 could be up to six units. There are also no requirements to allow for great housing density near frequent transit, as included in HB 1782 (and HB 1981) as well.

In a move that would further limit its impact, HB 1232 would not apply outside of Clark, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston, and Whatcom Counties in cases where a jurisdiction reports findings showing that it does not have the infrastructure to support new development and will not have the infrastructure in place within the two-year planning period. Cities would also have the right to appeal countywide planning policies, which could open the door to obstruction by cities seeking to avoid housing growth. By contrast, in HB 1782, development approved under the law would be excluded from GMA appeals.

As a whole, HB 1232 would allow for more middle housing in some areas, but its lack of specific guidance makes it unlikely it would produce more than modest reforms. During the public hearing, it came up rarely in testimony — except for in a critique of the proposed bill as an “unfunded mandate” since it does not include a source of revenue to cover its costs, unlike HB 1782, which the Governor has penciled into his proposed budget, or HB 1981, which includes allowances for increasing both property and real estate excise taxes. While the bill does not appear to be popular, it could serve as a a counter-productive foil to HB 1782.

Next: HB 1981, a comprehensive bill with lots of potential loopholes

During the hearing, Representative Gerry Pollet (D – 46th District), sponsor of HB 1981, called his proposed legislation, “a fairly comprehensive bill about comprehensive planning.” It’s safe to say that “fairly” should be substituted with “very” in this case. From its language and goals, it’s clear that HB 1981 arose as a response to both HB 1782 and HB 1232, but also decided to tackle nearly every conceivable issue related to housing livability at the same time, pushing the bill to 46 pages.

When introducing the bill, Pollet laid out two major visions he is seeking to accomplish with the bill. The first is to recognize that not only is our state “growing at a tremendous rate,” but that this growth has been accompanied by an increase in economic and racial inequality. While Pollet acknowledges that “middle housing is not the only solution,” he did express that it should part of the solution, although in his point of view it cannot be separated from other planning decisions as well. And here we arrive at the point at which HB 1981 becomes very comprehensive bill, a feature that plays into the heart of his second vision.

In Pollet’s perspective, tackling inequality means engaging in planning that ensures all communities have parks, tree canopy, sufficient road and transportation infrastructure, stormwater infrastructure that prevents pollution from entering the watershed, public schools in which class sizes meet state standards, and more. It also means housing growth should occur without displacement and that ample affordable housing should be constructed in areas with increased zoning capacities.

Many people want to achieve the goals set out by Pollet. The problem, however, is that housing policy is not necessarily the place to put all of these aspirations into law. From tree canopy coverage to sewer and stormwater infrastructure, under HB 1981, cities would have many different avenues for exempting, delaying, and appealing new density requirements — and unlike in HB 1782, these appeals would be allowed to go through under the GMA. Taken together, the bill shapes up to be a “chose your own adventure” manual for how to avoid legalizing middle housing in your jurisdiction.

It’s important to point out that all of these additional planning considerations are heaped onto a bill that would further the growth of (very) gentle density. Although it follows a similar approach to HB 1782 by requiring middle housing types or the adoption of a net density equivalent in cities planning under the GMA, HB 1981’s density target’s are lower across the board.

One key difference is courtyard apartments are limited at four units instead of six units, and lot sizes have different zoning capacities. For instance, fourplexes are only allowed on lots of 5,000 or more square feet. Despite the fact it would likely produce relatively modest amounts of new housing, the anti-displacement and affordability measures in HB 1981 are stringent. Cities of more than 25,000 residents, for example, would need to ensure that one out of every four new units of housing (25%) is affordable or that developers pay affordable housing fees. Such steep affordability requirements in small developments may mean that many projects will not be financially feasible, as townhome developers have warned previously with lower Mandatory Housing Affordability requirements in Seattle.

Also, areas that have a density exceeding five housing units per acre would be required to have tree canopy or green open space to “prevent extreme heat islands to protect and improve the physical and mental health of residents in urban settings.” To put that statement in context, five to six housing units per acre is typical in many single-family zones with yards, street trees, and planter strips buffering them from the street. Not exactly areas known for lacking greenery — although, studies have shown that allowing multifamily development is not necessarily a kiss of death for tree canopy.

For areas that have a density of 33 or more housing units per acre, access to tree canopy or green space must be present within one half mile. Taken together, the bill defines this as adding a new “built environment livability element to the GMA.” While the bill includes funding provisions for planning, it does not state how park and green space elements would be funded.

Pollet was keen to emphasize during the hearing that the bill would not allow homeowner’s associations or other common interest communities to use by-laws or covenants to restrict what housing types can be built in their areas. While Pollet asserted this could be major issue in his legislative area, it is unclear how many of these group have restrictions that are legally enforceable, and, in any case, local permitting departments rarely enforce private covenants that the public has no interest in. Still, Pollet presented this provision as vital to “ensuring that every community is part of the solution and opened up to racial, ethnic, and economic integration.”

Another notable feature of HB 1981 is the provisions it includes that would finance the planning it would require. Jurisdictions would be able leverage a progressive real estate excise tax on the sale of all properties over $500,000 in value. The tax would begin at 0.03% and increase to a maximum of 0.11% on properties over $3 million in value. Proceeds from the tax would be deposited into the local government planning support account and distributed as grants.

At the end of his introduction, Pollet urged his fellow lawmakers to be collaborative as they shape the housing policy that moves forward. “I want to have a thoughtful discussion, to talk about how we bring this all together in one vision,” Pollet said.

But the size of Pollet’s vision may present a challenge and so far his proposed legislation does not appear to be making many waves, although it may pick up support as the session advances.

A variety of opinions expressed in public hearing

Joe Flanagan spoke on behalf of the Governor in favor of HB 1782 during the public hearing, and he was not alone to speak in support of the bill. Elected representatives from Olympia, Everett, and Bothell, as well as environmental advocates, including spokespersons from the Sierra Club Washington, Futurewise, and Climate Solutions voiced support as well.

But detractors were also present during the public hearing and criticism came from leadership in cities like Auburn, Tacoma, Federal Way, Renton, Spokane Valley, and Covington, showing there may be an uphill battle ahead for municipal support of HB 1782.

Many critics pointed to the fact that their cities had already developed growth plans under the incentive-based legislation HB 1923 passed in 2019. They lamented the loss of “local control” that would come with HB 1782 and the fact that some elements of plans developed with citizen engagement would be nullified by the proposed law. However, as an analysis of Home in Tacoma has shown, these initiatives may not be accelerating zoning reform at a pace necessary to effectively confront the current housing affordability crisis.

Carl Schroeder of the Association of Washington Cities, a critic of HB 1782, pointed out in his testimony that over half of Washington cities already allow at least one missing middle form of housing in their boundaries. While he intended this statistic to highlight why the law is unnecessary, what it really shows is that the current zoning practices are falling short of the need and still struggling to catch up to housing demand.

Pollet was correct that missing middle housing cannot be the only tool Washington State uses to combat its affordability crisis; however, that does not mean it should be left on the table or passed in a manner in which it has little discernible impact on ending exclusionary zoning. By all assessments, HB 1782 offers the best means by which to use middle housing to increase affordability. Over the coming weeks, it will be interesting (and nerve wracking) to see how the legislation holds up against its competitors. Hopefully ideas from competing bills will not undermine the best features of HB 1782.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is Managing Editor at The Urbanist. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.