The Edmonds City Council voted to not accept a grant funding work studying additional housing options in single-family zones, signaling a reactionary posture on housing. (City of Edmonds)

Last week, the Edmonds City Council voted to tell the city’s mayor, Mike Nelson, and city staff not to proceed with accepting a “middle housing” grant from Washington’s Department of Commerce that would provide resources to study options to add different types of housing to currently single-family areas. The grants, which are available to cities around Puget Sound in advance of their major Comprehensive Plan updates in 2024, provide resources to conduct racial equity analysis and establish anti-displacement policies that are required under state law. A core requirement of the grant is that cities look at adding density in at least 30% of the area zoned single-family within their borders.

The vote, which came after several community members spoke at the meeting urging the council to not apply for the grant and outrage about the idea circulated online, is largely a signal that a majority of the Edmonds City Council is not in favor of dramatically changing the 61% of land in the city zoned as single-family residential. Nothing in the terms of the grant requires Edmonds to actually implement anything after going through the analysis, a fact that was reiterated by Director Of Planning And Development Susan McLaughlin ahead of the vote. “Any approach will be Edmonds-driven, and not dictated by outside agencies,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin noted that the City of Edmonds is expected to accommodate an additional approximately 13,000 residents by 2044 as its share of growth determined by the Growth Management Act, and that a buildable lands capacity analysis conducted by Snohomish County in 2019 concluded that current zoning doesn’t have capacity to accommodate around 4,000 of those residents. Councilmember Vivian Olson was interested in finding a way to hand-wave that number away, suggesting that single family houses with fewer people in them right now might take on more residents even as climbing home prices put the median house in Edmonds out of reach of many families. But that’s not in fact how the process works, with additional zoned capacity required no matter how many people are actually living in areas zoned as single-family.

The requirement that 30% of the city’s single-family zones come under review was the aspect most councilmembers latched on to as a reason to reject applying for the grant. Councilmember Neil Tibbott called that requirement “disturbing,” citing a number of 181 residents per year that would be needed to make up the capacity shortfall. “In the past we’ve never had a problem reaching those goals, we’ve always exceeded, in fact, the number of people we’re adding to our city, whether it’s through multifamily construction in different parts of the city, or other avenues. I think this academic exercise starts with the wrong premise,” Tibbot said, seemingly unconcerned with enabling the residents of Edmonds to be able to age in place in their own neighborhoods or allow young people who grew up in the city to be able to move back into their neighborhoods, much less allowing new people to live in all parts of Edmonds.

McLaughlin told the city council that the grant wouldn’t provide a task that the city would not already be doing otherwise around its 2024 Comprehensive Plan major update, and also pushed back on councilmembers by pointing to the work the City did in 2017 and 2018, noting a recommendation on studying middle housing solutions like duplexes and triplexes had come from the Housing Commission.

A significant majority of the Edmond’s current zoned capacity exists directly alongside the SR 99 corridor in the southeast quadrant of the city, keeping the rest of the city walled off and ensuring that most of the new residents to the city over the coming years will be exposed to the air pollution and particulate matter (and traffic safety danger) of the seven-lane state highway running through the city. While the SR 99 corridor does have some of the best transit access in the city, almost none of that zoned capacity extends radially from transit stops, ensuring multifamily buildings act as a buffer for the lower density homes nearby.

A map showing the buildable lands in Snohomish county indicated in light and dark green.
The 2019 Buildable Lands report showed Edmonds doesn’t have enough capacity to handle planned growth, with most of the excess zoning capaicty located along the SR 99 corridor. (City of Edmonds)

With this move, Edmonds appears poised to join Lynnwood in adopting a reactionary position toward welcoming new residents. In Lynnwood, several city councilmembers have railed against the idea of accommodating more housing in its mixed-use Center City neighborhood near its coming Link light rail station, causing the city to pull back on putting forward an ordinance that would streamline environmental review for new housing in that district. Edmonds is also making knee-jerk reactions around its downtown area, implementing things like interim development standards that have effectively killed at least one project, a 24-unit apartment building that had received an immense amount of criticism from Edmonds residents when it went before a design review board earlier this year.

A rendering of a large mixed use apartment building around a corridor.
New apartments are taking shape on SR 99, adjacent to seven lanes of traffic. The rest of Edmonds is mostly walled off from new housing. (City of Edmonds)

Councilmember Susan Paine was the only councilmember to vote against the motion saying “no thanks” to the Department of Commerce grant; Paine’s colleague Laura Johnson, who frequently joins her on lonely votes as the Edmonds council’s progressive wing, wasn’t present. Paine prompted the city staff present to remind the council that only 6% of the land in Edmonds is currently zoned for multifamily housing, an argument that didn’t appear to sway any of the other councilmembers present, who were more interested in signaling their commitment to local control. Paine called the displacement analysis that would be conducted as part of this work “critical,” prompting McLaughlin to explain how this work would take concerns over displacement from a “philosophical concern” to actual, real data.

It’s possible that Mayor Mike Nelson could go around the city council and decide to pursue the grant, with the application due next week. Either way, since the grant didn’t commit the city to anything and would have funded work that the City is already doing, the difference might not be significant to the future of Edmonds. More meaningful will be the approach to housing from the majority of the Edmonds city council, with the vote last week a strong signal that this majority is in favor of continuing the current status quo.

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.