a path between two townhouses with evergreen trees
A contemporary townhouse development in Seattle. (Natalie Bicknell Argerious)

With a unanimous vote to conclude Tuesday’s meeting, Bellevue City Council initiated planning work that would allow middle housing — such as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), backyard cottages, duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes — in more parts of the city. The proposal represents a next step in the Council’s “Next Right Work,” a suite of planning initiatives that are themselves successors to the city’s 2017 Affordable Housing Strategy.

Back in July, the body advanced planning work to encourage micro-housing (apartments less than 400 square feet), reduce permit fees for affordable housing, and increase the allowed floor-area ratio (FAR) for residential developments. Council progressives voiced concerns that these actions would have limited impact on housing affordability and could divert staff time away from other more impactful initiatives.

At the recommendation of a consultant present at the meeting, Council directed city staff to perform a capacity analysis to understand what other proposals could be advanced by the planning department and in what time frame. Tuesday’s meeting represents the outcome of that work, with staff stating that work around middle housing and streamlining the permitting process for new housing could be completed without impacts to other projects.

As presented by staff, the middle housing Land Use Code Amendment (LUCA) would proceed in multiple phases. Phase 1 would seek to remove barriers to ADU construction, such as owner-occupancy requirements or off-street parking codes, and could proceed through the city’s Planning Commission without amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. However, work to allow denser housing types (up to quadplexes) in more neighborhoods would require changes to Bellevue’s foundational policy document, which does not currently envision diverse housing types for the city’s single-family zones.

Therefore, staff intend to time Phase 2 around the city’s Comprehensive Plan Periodic Update process so as to eliminate the need for additional code amendments down the line. With the adoption of Bellevue’s new Comprehensive Plan envisioned for the second quarter of 2024, staff expect the missing middle LUCA to be approved by Council shortly thereafter.

The anticipated timeline with dates starting in the fourth quarter of 2023 and going into the second quarter of 2024.
The city’s Planning Commission will be discussing code work on attached ADU regulations during quarters one and two of 2023. Code work around backyard cottages, duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes will be timed around deliverables for the city’s Comprehensive Plan Update, such as the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and the adoption of the new Comprehensive Plan. (City of Bellevue)

With Washington’s Legislative session in full swing however, there’s a substantial chance that this planning work will be superseded by state bills. The Senate’s SB 5235 and its partner in the House HB 1276 — sponsored by Senator Sharon Shewmake (D-Bellingham) and Representive Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), respectively — would address many elements planned for the scope of Bellevue’s ADU LUCA process. In their current forms, the bills would require a mechanism for separate ownership of an ADU, prohibit owner-occupancy requirements, and allow all single-family lots greater than 4,500 square feet to house both an attached and detached ADU (i.e. three dwelling units in total).

And just a few hours before Council’s vote Tuesday evening, the much-hyped HB 1110 from Representative Jessica Bateman (D-Olympia) received its first hearing in the House Housing Committee with significant public support. By allowing quadplexes on all residential lots and sixplexes on lots with two affordable homes or within half a mile of frequent transit, the bill (and its companion SB 5190 from Tacoma’s Senator Yasmin Trudeau) would actually go beyond the intended scope for Bellevue’s LUCA — forcing staff and Council to modify their plans if the bills pass as-is.

Councilmembers seemed well-aware of that possibility during Tuesday’s meeting, with Mayor Robinson remarking, “I’d love to be moving on this and show that we can do it and not have the state do it for us. I’d like to be a good example of what cities can do.” Longtime Councilmember Conrad Lee said, “The state is trying to do something [on housing], and we are doing something that I believe is much better and much more responsive. We don’t want to have them preempt us…Our definition of affordable housing has to address [neighborhood] character and the Bellevue way.”

Councilmember Jeremy Barksdale, who was the only Bellevue elected official to sign in support of HB 1110 in advance of its hearing Tuesday afternoon, emphasized the importance of allowing diverse housing types to meet diverse needs in the community. “There are people who serve our community in the retail sector and in other capacities who can’t afford to live here… There’s the potential for positive impact and not just negative impact [on neighborhood character].” Barksdale also advised his colleagues to think about a neighborhood’s aesthetics rather than its “character,” a concept which staff noted is hard to define.

Whether through state action or through local planning initiatives, Bellevue is positioned to eventually allow more middle housing in its borders. And with each process having just kicked off this month, there is still ample time for details and circumstances to change. However, with a rapidly-advancing legislative session, ample public support for state action, and real-world results not expected from the city’s LUCA process until mid-2024, time may not be on Bellevue’s side.

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Chris is a UW Environmental Sciences graduate who moved to Bellevue in 2015. When he's not busy being an urbanist fox on the internet, he's working on the Eastside to support efforts reducing greenhouse gas emissions and going to city council meetings to denounce the hegemony of automobile infrastructure. Follow him on Twitter at @Deutski1.