Housing advocates were hopeful for significant progress at the Washington legislature in 2024. Most of the bills introduced around the issue failed to advance to the finish line. (Ryan Packer)

In the first few days of 2024 as the Washington State Legislature prepared to go into session, state leaders shared hope that the energy around housing issues would carry over from the last session into this one, creating a “year of housing 2.0.” However, as the 60-day session wrapped on March 7, only a few of the bills intended to address housing supply and affordability were heading to Governor Inslee’s desk. Rent stabilization, despite narrowly making it out of the house, again fizzled in the state senate.

2023 was a productive year for housing policy, with state re-legalizing additional types of residential density in traditionally exclusionary neighborhoods across the state. The headliner was a “missing middle” housing bill, but the legislature also passed one of the nation’s most progressive accessory dwelling unit (ADU) legalization bills, invested a record amount of dollars in the state’s housing trust fund, reformed state condominium laws, and took steps to repair the damage sustained by decades of housing discrimination. But several major bills didn’t make it across the finish line last year, and housing leaders hoped the legislature would pick up where it left off in 2024.

Despite seeing a record number of bills pre-filed and ready to go before the first gavel even fell, the momentum from 2023 just wasn’t there. The fact of the short session, with 45 fewer days to move bills compared to last year, impending legislative and statewide elections this November, and pressures from local governments to hold off on more changes all likely played a role, but what’s less clear is whether it will be 2023 that proves to be an outlier.

“[After] the ‘year of housing,’ we ended up reconvening in the Lieutenant Governor’s office with a whole bunch of the stakeholders pre-session, and they were really excited for this to be the biennium of housing. I think we failed,” Senator Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma) told The Urbanist on the final day of the session. “If anything, it feels like the pendulum swung back from the momentum that happened last year, and that feels worse than if it were just another year where we didn’t end up meeting our obligations to house people in this current crisis.”

Last November’s roundtable, hosted by Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck and Senator Yasmin Trudeau, tried to continue the momentum of 2023’s year of housing in 2024. Reviews of the results were mixed at best. (Lieutenant Governor Heck’s office)

Other legislators are more optimistic about the legislature’s long term prospects.

“I think that we made light progress on housing this session,” Representative Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia), architect of last year’s middle housing bill, told The Urbanist. “There’s a couple bills that I’m excited and proud of, and more bills that I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to get across the finish line.”

Bateman, finishing her second term in the House, recently announced that she would seek the seat of departing Senator Sam Hunt (D-22, Olympia), putting her inside the chamber where progressive policies, particularly around housing, have recently been watered down or quietly killed.

The Senate kills lot splitting — again

The momentum from last year’s barnburner of a session on housing seemed to be maintained at the start of 2024, with the House choosing to pass House Bill 1245 on its very first day in session, January 9. Sponsored by Rep. Andy Barkis (R-2, Olympia), it required cities to allow property owners to split residential lots as long as the resulting lots remain 2,000 square feet or larger, opening up potential homeownership opportunities in cities across the state that currently have very restrictive minimum lot sizes.

But the bill never even received a hearing this year in the Senate, dying in the same committee where it had been halted in 2023, the local government, land use, and tribal affairs committee. Its failure to advance was one of the first signs that the “year of housing 2.0” might be out of reach.

One of the Senate’s smallest committees, made up of just three Democrats and two Republicans, the local government committee is chaired by Sen. Liz Lovelett (D-40, Anacortes), a former member of the Anacortes City Council. Being in that committee gives a Democratic senator considerable leverage to modify and halt legislation, particularly on bills that aren’t bipartisan, but also on ones that are, like HB 1245. And the chair of the committee has even more leverage to halt bills. It was in this committee that this year’s neighborhood cafe bill was gutted, turning it from one that would have opened up residential neighborhoods across the state to more small businesses into one that likely would have imposed onerous regulations on existing ones.

Rep. Bateman, a sponsor of HB 1245, noted concerns about passing the bill last year at the same time as the middle housing bill, HB 1110. Local governments were concerned that the impact of HB 1110 would automatically be doubled with the ability for property owners to split their lots. The Association of Washington Cities (AWC), the lobbying group for municipal governments across the state, cited concerns about the “potential [for HB 1245] to act as multiplier […] doubling the required density.” Many cities across the state haven’t grasped the full implications of HB 1110, let alone prepared to take additional steps.

“I think people perhaps understandably, were a little concerned and fearful, [about] passing middle housing and then also passing the lot splitting bill and conflating that with seeing this multitude of housing on one lot,” Bateman said. “But in reality […] there’s really limits to how many homes you can put on a lot. Once you do split it, we rectified that problem within the bill just to put people’s minds at ease saying this can only happen so many times. And it still didn’t pass. So we have some real barriers.”

Rent stabilization stopped dead in its tracks

High profile moderate Senators like Mark Mullet (pictured) and Kevin Van De Wege took the blame (or the credit) for halting 2024’s rent stabilization bill, but at least a few other senators had to be withholding their support to stop the bill. (WA Senate Democrats)

After focusing so much on housing supply in 2023, along with state subsidies by increasing investments in Washington’s housing trust fund, 2024 seemed to be the year legislators would focus on the third “leg” of the housing “stool”: stabilization. A bill setting a statewide ceiling on rent increases failed last year, but House Bill 2114, sponsored by Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle), with a Senate counterpart bill sponsored by Sen. Trudeau, seemed to have much more momentum. It would have barred landlords from raising a tenant’s rent in the first year of occupancy and capped annual rent increases after that to 5%.

The Senate version died first, with Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham) expressing concern publicly that a 5% cap could have a detrimental impact on housing supply, despite an exemption for new construction. An amendment was put forward that would have raised it to 15%, but Senator Annette Cleveland (D-49, Vancouver) raised her own objections to that, seeming to suggest that 15% was too high an amount even as she cited concerns about the idea of rent stabilization entirely.

By the time HB 2114 arrived over from the House, after the 5% cap had been raised to 7%, it was clear there was a lot of broad skepticism of the idea inside the Democratic caucus. As reported by The Stranger and other outlets, moderate Democrats Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) and Kevin Van De Wege (D-24, Port Angeles) publicly took the blame for killing HB 2114, but due to a secret caucus vote, there’s no way to know how many other Democrats were in line with them.

“I think we had a few people in the Senate that made it their mission to not let this move forward,” Trudeau said. “I think a few of those people are no longer going to be in the Senate next year. And I think that people that will be moving over have already taken a vote in favor of rent stabilization.”

That group includes Bateman, and Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-3, Spokane), who has announced he will seek the seat of departing Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-3), as well as Rep. Bill Ramos (D-5, Issaquah), running to replace Mark Mullet after Mullet decided to pursue a run for Governor. Prospects look much better in 2025, but almost nothing in the legislature is a slam dunk, and the claims surrounding rent stabilization are sure to resurface again.

Transit-oriented development bill fails, again

For the second year in a row, a bill that would have required cities like Mercer Island to legalize additional density directly around their forthcoming light rail stations, died. (Ryan Packer)

Another high-profile defeat this year was around transit-oriented development (TOD). For the second year in a row, one chamber of the legislature passed a bill requiring cities to open up areas directly around rail and bus rapid transit, only for it to die in the other chamber, with HB 2160 (sponsored by Rep. Julia Reed, D-36, Seattle) also failing to get a vote in the Senate’s Ways and Means committee like the rent stabilization bill did. Last year’s SB 5466 passed the Senate, but failed to make it onto the House floor.

The biggest difference between the two bills was that SB 5466, which passed the Senate last year with only eight votes opposed, didn’t include a baseline level of required affordability to go along with increased density in the areas immediately around transit that would be upzoned. But the House version this year would have required new zoning capacity to mandate 10% affordable housing in new development, a tough sell for many housing advocates, particularly given the fact that it included even less additional zoning capacity than the original Senate bill would have. Medium-sized apartment buildings were likely the densest uses that have been seen under the bill, with many cities like Shoreline and Redmond currently allowing more density around their coming light rail stations.

With no GOP support for affordability mandates in either chamber, a fair amount of leverage was given to a few Democrats in the Senate to be able to halt the bill in its tracks. But with Democrats holding a four-seat majority on the Ways and Means committee, the opposition to seeing the bill move forward clearly extended beyond members like Mullet or Van De Wege, and the bill would not even have impacted Van De Wege’s district.

“I think that the same core group of people that did not want to see any renter protections, is also the same group of people that did not want to see any affordability requirements,” Trudeau said. “But I think that you will find that there are more people that feel that in the opposite direction. And when you see bills fail in committees like Ways and Means, that’s not a reflection of where the broader caucus is.”

Governor Jay Inslee, whose office worked to develop both last year and this year’s TOD bills, downplayed the fact that the bill fell short yet again.

“This is one of these things that takes multiple years to get done, I believe ultimately it will get done,” Inslee said. “The two chambers could not reach an agreement about financing for low income,” Inslee said. “I think they both are on the same page about wanting to have potentially increased density, so they’re on the same page in that regard. They could not reach an agreement about requirements for how much to dedicate to low income folks. Hopefully, that’ll get worked out in future sessions.”

“I’m a pragmatic optimist, so my preference would be that there were not affordability requirements in the bill,” Bateman said. “Not all of my colleagues in the House feel that way: there’s a good chunk of lawmakers in the Democratic caucus that feel it’s essential for us to have inclusionary zoning within that. I don’t disagree that it’s important that we have that affordable housing, and ideally, that affordable housing would be happening commensurate with growth — proportionally to how we’re building.”

At the same time, Inslee warned that ‘not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) attitudes were corrupting the state’s response the housing and homelessness crisis. “NIMBYism is a virus in the state of Washington that exists in the human soul,” Inslee said at a post-session press conference (clip below). “You have to get communities to stand up to help solve this problem, and some have not.”

The failure of 2023’s TOD bill already had the impact of delaying the implementation deadlines in the state’s most transit-rich areas by a full five years, due to the schedule on which local governments update their comprehensive plans, and Bateman told The Urbanist she doesn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good when it comes to this policy: “The fact of the matter is, if we don’t have a TOD bill that passes and we don’t authorize the increased density near those areas, we’re losing out on supply, and every year that that happens, we fall further and further behind.”

Accountability bills halted

2024 also saw a number of bills introduced that were intended to sharpen up accountability measures when it comes to how local governments are implementing land use decisions, including many of last year’s bills setting minimum standards. With the goal of ensuring that every community is doing their part to move in the direction of creating more affordable housing options, there was fairly considerable pushback on these bills from local governments and their lobbyists as they advanced.

Rep. Jessica Bateman, the author of 2023’s middle housing bill, introduced the Housing Accountability Act this year to hold local governments more directly accountable to the state when it comes to allowing housing types and meeting their growth target obligations. (WA House Democrats)

The most high profile of these was House Bill 2113, the Housing Accountability Act, introduced by Rep. Bateman. That bill sought to empower the Washington Department of Commerce to directly enforce the housing elements of local cities’ comprehensive plans, as opposed to the current structure where disputes over complying with the long-established Growth Management Act (GMA) are carried out via the arduous Growth Management Hearings Board process. It included what’s known as a “builder’s remedy,” which would require cities to approve almost any building permit that included a baseline element of affordable housing if the state had found them out of compliance with the GMA.

“I think that it’s a dereliction of duty for our cities that have the most job growth and the most demand for housing, the most amenity rich areas, to not be allowing the types of housing that they need to have their fair share of housing,” Bateman said. “And when they do that, it puts direct pressure on cities surrounding those suburban cities, like Carnation, for example.”

Bateman has called out the recent draft release of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan as potentially not meeting the minimum requirements laid out in HB 1110 required density in residential areas, and has pointed to it as a reason why bills like the Housing Accountability Act are needed.

A similar but more targeted bill was House Bill 2474, introduced by Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds), chair of the House housing committee. It was intended to empower the Department of Commerce to hold cities accountable for siting emergency, transitional, and permanent supportive housing facilities. With the Kenmore City Council officially rejecting a proposed development agreement that would have brought 100 units of permanent supportive housing to that city in January, the bill took on the nickname of the “Kenmore bill” though Peterson noted the bill had been in development before that debacle even took place.

Neither bill ultimately made it across the finish line in the House, a fact that’s not entirely unsurprising given the fact that neither bill had been “socialized” in a previous session and lawmakers had a lot of questions about both bills. One thing that is very clear is that we should expect to see similar bills in future years, with tension between the legislature and local governments seeking autonomy not about to dissipate any time soon.

A few substantive wins

2024 did see a few bright spots. The most significant housing bill to pass in 2024 was House Bill 1998, which requires cities and counties to allow “co-living housing,” or single-room occupancy buildings, in all residential zones where at least six units are currently allowed on one lot. Passing the House unanimously and with only four votes in opposition in the Senate, the bill should allow more inexpensive units for people with incomes that have traditionally only been able to receive housing via public subsidy. The bill may end up being most impactful in Seattle, where a series of regulations effectively outlawed microhousing nearly a decade ago.

SB 6015 is set to reduce the cost of parking mandates, by allowing spaces that are used as parking in the real world to actually count toward parking minimums, like “tandem stalls” where one car blocks in another. It also includes a provision removing parking mandates if they conflict with tree retention, potentially a big win for making new housing economically feasible on small lots.

HB 2071 sets up some potential housing wins in the future, asking the state’s building code council to recommend a path forward for the state to include apartment buildings with up to six units in the residential, rather than commercial, building code, and also look at lowering the minimum size requirements for a studio apartment, making small efficiency studios more economical.

SB 6175 provides tax incentives for the conversion of underutilized commercial properties into residential units, exemptions which can be extended if some of the units are provided as affordable housing.

Looking ahead to 2025

Next year’s legislature isn’t likely to be substantially different in party makeup, but it is set to be substantially different in membership, with the coming shakeup most notable in the Senate. At least six Senators are departing the chamber either by retirement or to seek other offices, some of whom — including Mullet and Van De Wege — seemed to have a significant influence on whether substantive bills moved forward. With the ensuing game of musical chairs impacting everything from committee chairs to who will be Senate Majority Leader, it’s way too early to tell what the fallout could be. But it looks poised to push the body in a positive direction on the issue of housing.

Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck, perhaps the most vocal statewide elected official on housing and the co-convener of last November’s roundtable with housing advocates, expressed disappointment with the amount of progress that was made this year, with a note of optimism for the future.

“Unfortunately, progress on housing was modest,” Heck said in a statement on the last day of the session. “Significant additional investments for the Housing Trust Fund for affordable housing, relegalizing co-living options, and reducing parking mandates are bright spots. However, we continue to fall further and further behind each year in the number of new homes needed to meet current and future demand. NIMBY attitudes and some local governments unwilling to rise to the challenge continue to have outsized influence on this debate. Together we must find a way forward on building significantly more homes of all kinds for all our neighbors.” 

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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.