Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell spoke during Governor Inslee's press conference on homelessness. (Credit: TVW)

Dozens of progressive councilmembers and mayors backed HB 1782, including Councilmembers Mosqueda, Lewis, Morales, and Strauss.

Battle lines are quickly forming on the statewide missing middle housing bill backed by Governor Jay Inslee and more than 30 state legislators. Mayor Bruce Harrell has raised concerns and has yet to endorse the bill as written. Four Seattle City Councilmembers have jumped onboard, however.

Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Dan Strauss, Andrew Lewis, and Tammy Morales signed a letter with more than 40 elected leaders from across the state urging passage of the bill. Additionally, Mosqueda championed the bill in her most recent newsletter.

“This legislative session, I’m excited to support critical housing bills to fix one of the major root causes of housing affordability crisis in our state: the ongoing and growing shortage of homes,” Mosqueda wrote. “Over the last decade, Washington added jobs twice as fast as it added housing, forcing Washingtonians to bid against each other for existing homes. A primary cause of the shortage is exclusionary zoning laws that ban middle housing from around three-quarters of the state’s residential land. And this holds true in Seattle, where nearly 75% of our residential land is zoned to ban new multifamily housing and apartments.”

House Bill 1782 passed out of House Local Government Committee on Tuesday — albeit after some amendments lessened its scope. The bill had first hearing in House Appropriations Committee on Saturday. There’s a companion bill, Senate Bill 5670, advancing in the Senate. It passed out of Senate Local Government Committee and is now in the Ways and Means Committee.

Still, worries remain that this effort could peter out like so many statewide zoning reform pushes before it. The politics of zoning and housing are not easy.

Some local leaders have been hesitant to stick their neck out on this issue, fearing reprisal from voters. Governor Jay Inslee offered some consolation to these local leaders at a press conference Thursday. “Governor Jay Inslee acknowledged the potentially career-ending position local leaders are in,” reported KUOW’s Joshua McNichols, who asked a question on the subject.

“Well, I get that. I’m an elected official – I know that – and what I do is encourage them just to blame it on me then,” Inslee said. “I’m taking some heat off the local officials.”

Recent public polling has indicated housing and homelessness is the top issue for Washington voters right now. More than 60% of likely voters favored a bill that would “change state law and zoning requirements to allow more homes like duplexes, fourplexes, and townhouses, including housing more affordable for lower- and middle-income families, near public transit lines, and in areas with a lot of jobs” compared to just 22% who opposed it. National polling has found similar results.

“Washingtonians really want a solution to this problem,” Inslee said, referring to homelessness. “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.”

Harrell’s concerns

Mayor Harrell was one of the local officials at the governor’s press conference, and he clarified he’s not opposed to the effort, even as he has declined to endorse the bill and has raised some issues with it.

“To say I’m against the bill, that’s an inaccuracy,” Harrell said. “What I’ve expressed and what our team has expressed in Olympia is just some concerns to make sure that in Seattle we have the level of community input that we want… So the principles of increasing density, of using our zoning as a tool to achieve the right level of density and affordability, we’re all in on those approaches. But we also know that we have constituents out there that also sometimes want to have, I don’t want to say a more granular approach, but they certainly want their due, the due process involved in communities. So I’m not opposed to it at all. There are just some concerns we’ve asked our teams to ask the legislatures about to make sure the community have the level of input that they want.”

It’s not clear how community input could be incorporated in what is intended to be a minimum statewide zoning standard near major transit stops. In practice, local control of zoning paired with design approval processes that center input from activist homeowners has meant most communities, especially those dominated by single family homes, say no to new housing rather than yes to it. Major cities have grown office space far faster than housing stock, driving up prices for scarce urban housing and leaving it to suburbs on the fringe to pick up the slack as best they can.

Last year Mayor Harrell campaigned against broad changes to Seattle’s single family zones, and sharply criticized his opponent Lorena González for backing such changes, which helped him run up huge margins in wealthy single family areas. Earlier in the week, the Mayor outlined his concerns with the bill in a statement shared with the media.

Bruce Harrell dominated along the coastal ridges, while Lorena González’s areas of strength were limited to places like Capitol Hill, the Central District, Columbia City, Westwood Village, Fremont, Greenwood, and Lower Queen Anne. (Viz by Jason Weill)

“After analysis by City staff, I believe additional work must be done to craft legislation that ensures additional flexibility in housing types and allows for more substantive community input – not to delay action, but to improve outcomes,” Harrell said. “Transit-oriented development must remain a top priority of the bill, with distinctions that take into account timelines and limitations of current transit expansion and cities with unique built and natural environments. Most importantly, a final bill must proactively prevent displacement.”

That statement was in reaction to the original draft of the bill, and when reached Wednesday Harrell’s Director of Communications Jamie Housen said City staff haven’t analyzed the amendments yet and were not yet in a place to comment. The mayor declined to elaborate on what specific anti-displacement measures he had in mind, or what he thought the appropriate zoning was for his home neighborhood of Seward Park, where the median home price has reached $1.1 million and single family zoning rules the land.

Councilmember Mosqueda had already offered a counterpoint in her Tuesday newsletter. “The argument of ‘local control’ is often used against state leadership on land use and zoning,” she wrote. “However, as the National League of Cities notes, in these cases the state is not standing in the way of cities taking local action — they’re setting a baseline and floor for cities in the state on progressive action on zoning reform.” Mosqueda pointed to Paid Family Medical Leave, fair housing laws, police accountability laws, and vaccine mandates as comparable examples of the state setting a minimum standard for local jurisdictions.

“These bills will provide needed leadership on a statewide issue so that we can address the scale of our housing shortage — and doing it now rather than waiting years, even decades, for local action while our cities grow increasingly less affordable,” Mosqueda concluded.

Mayor Harrell’s 7,000-square-foot lakeview home is worth $3.9 million and has gained more than $150,000 in value in just the last month, according to the real estate site Zillow. Harrell bought the home for $1.4 million in 2011, meaning the home value has nearly tripled in a decade as Seattle’s housing affordability crisis has festered. Much like missing middle housing critics on the Seattle Times editorial board, Harrell is positioned to benefit from the housing crisis as a homeowner, rather than suffer the repercussions many tenants have.

Amendments diluting reform

The package of amendments includes a requirement for cities to adopt anti-displacement measures, although it doesn’t get specific about to how to carry that out. An amendment from Rep. Tana Senn (D-Mercer Island) also dialed back the density level, removing the requirement to allow fiveplexes and sixplexes within in a half-mile of major transit stops, and instead settling for fourplex zoning. The senate companion bill hasn’t seen such an amendment yet.

An architectural diagram shows range of housing options highlighting Missing Middle housing types ranging from duplexes to 20-unit apartment buildings. (Opticos Design)
Missing Middle housing types ranged from duplexes to small apartment buildings in this graphic. Washington State’s bill would focus on fourplexes or sixplexes. (Credit: Opticos Design)

At the behest of Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle) more exemptions were also worked into the bill, and more loopholes were worked into the alternative average minimum density plan that may push cities to use them, including the ability to avoid upzoning all areas within a half-mile walk of major transit stops. The revised alternative average density plan may allow cities to guide development in the way Harrell desires — although an opposite approach may also be feasible for cities looking to continue to shield wealthy single-family areas from changes and continue to funnel development toward lower-income areas.

Rep. Pollet has portrayed himself as a champion of affordability and equity in amending the bill, but he has benefited from the housing crisis, too. Pollet’s Maple Leaf home is worth $1.1 million, according to Zillow. Real estate records show he purchased it in 1990 for $174,000 and even appealed a property tax assessment a few years later before watching his home double, triple, and quadruple in value. Thirty years later, this easy path into the middle class is no longer open to first-time homebuyers, denying many the housing security and a comfortable retirement that earlier generations of middle class Washingtonians took for granted.

Privileging homeowners in our political system

The difficulty in reforming Washington State’s outdated housing policy is linked to the way its elections are set up.

Since mayors and councilmembers are elected in odd years in Washington State, their election is determined by an electorate that is smaller and skews Whiter, wealthier, and older than in even years, when more people turn out to vote. That’s why Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-SeaTac) has proposed a bill moving local elections to even years. For now though, many local leaders see single family homeowners as key to their reelection prospects.

Although statewide polling suggest adding missing middle housing in single family zones is popular, primaries held in odd years do empower candidates who oppose such changes, since it appeals to likeliest voting demographic in those elections and gains attention from important endorsing bodies like the Seattle Times editorial board that favor preserving single family zoning.

Looking ahead

Governor Inslee remained optimistic that the bill would pass, and he said he valued Mayor Harrell’s input.

“From my viewpoint, I consider the mayor’s leadership to have been productive in this because I think he recognizes that we need to build more housing for people in the middle and in the lower end and that he’s asked us to consider some ways to perfect this approach,” Inslee said. “I’m very pleased at the tenor of that conversation.”

The Urbanist’s petition urging state lawmakers to back missing middle housing legislation has more than 1,200 signatories. Send a letter to your legislators here.

Mayor Harrell’s full statement from Wednesday is below:

I ran for mayor on a pledge to address the affordable housing crisis by embracing additional housing in every neighborhood and ensuring community voices shaped that process. I ran on a promise that communities of color would no longer be an afterthought in these discussions and displacement prevention would be taken seriously – not just as another obligation, but as a priority. 

I appreciate the spirit and intent of the ‘Missing Middle’ bills being discussed in Olympia. We desperately need to increase our housing supply and the diversity of available housing. I am proud that Seattle has led the way on building and improving affordable housing in the Puget Sound region — this work must continue. And the truth is that we cannot address the scope of this crisis without participation from cities throughout Washington.

That said, when considering land use changes of this magnitude, it is crucial to get the details right. After analysis by City staff, I believe additional work must be done to craft legislation that ensures additional flexibility in housing types and allows for more substantive community input — not to delay action, but to improve outcomes. Transit-oriented development must remain a top priority of the bill, with distinctions that take into account timelines and limitations of current transit expansion and cities with unique built and natural environments. Most importantly, a final bill must proactively prevent displacement.

I welcome the robust and nuanced conversations I know legislators are having in Olympia, and I am optimistic that these issues can be addressed — and the legislation improved — so that we can advance and implement a truly equitable, thoughtful policy that fulfills the goal of rapidly expanding quality, affordable housing for all people.

— Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell

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Executive Director

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.