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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shoreline directs growth on Aurora as WA eyes ‘middle housing’ changes

By Daniel Beekman Seattle Times

SHORELINE, Wash. – A Shoreline park-and-ride site could sprout apartments as the suburb north of Seattle welcomes growth along Aurora Avenue North, while a proposal to allow more housing on every residential street has been tabled for now.

The Shoreline City Council approved a site-specific zoning change last month to help King County Metro redevelop the parking lot with up to 700 apartments in addition to commuter parking. At the same time, the council postponed a decision on whether to permit duplexes and triplexes in all neighborhoods.

That’s the status quo in Shoreline and many other Washington communities at the moment, with large apartment buildings rising on arterials as local politicians consider smaller-scale density in quieter areas that are currently zoned for detached, single-family houses.

But Washington lawmakers might try to compel action on so-called “middle housing” types – like duplexes, triplexes and small apartment buildings – when they convene in Olympia next month. They’re expected to consider bills in their 2023 session that would require cities across the state to allow more units on more blocks, based on the idea that a housing shortage decades in the making is driving up prices and contributing to homelessness – and that adding housing only on busy, polluted streets isn’t adequate or equitable.

Gov. Jay Inslee is calling for zoning changes, as is a coalition of heavy-hitting corporations, environmental groups, labor unions and housing-industry groups, though what exactly those changes would do and how much leeway cities would get are open questions. Last session, the Legislature debated but didn’t pass a bill that would have required cities to permit up to six units per lot within a half mile of frequent bus or train service and four units per lot elsewhere. Versions that proposed less significant changes also didn’t pass.

Some city leaders argued they should be able to set their own rules and said they’d already taken steps to increase density, while some lawmakers said upzoning alone wouldn’t yield much housing for people with low incomes and warned such changes could spur displacement through the razing of older homes. Heading into 2023, proponents of state legislation are vowing to support more housing both at market rates and subsidized rates.

“We need to free up more places to actually build,” Inslee said at a news conference this month where he pitched a plan to invest $4 billion over a number of years for thousands of affordable housing units.

“This is a statewide problem. Every community has a housing crisis,” the governor added. “That’s why we need some changes in our zoning laws.”

Aurora housing

A housing boom is underway in Shoreline, which has been directing much of its development to Aurora and the vicinity of Sound Transit light rail stations that are scheduled to open in 2024 at 148th Street and 185th Street, next to Interstate 5.

Nearly 1,800 apartments are under construction in those areas, only counting large projects, and as many as 7,000 additional apartments are at least tentatively planned, according to the city. Shoreline also allows town homes on select streets near the stations and has added 500-plus lately, said Nate Daum, the city’s economic development manager.

Those are striking numbers for a suburb of 60,000. But Shoreline has spent years preparing for light rail, with upzones around the stations, and working to convert Aurora from a gritty stretch of Highway 99 into a “main street,” with a $140 million project completed in 2017 adding new sidewalks, bus lanes, lighting and a landscaped median, said Daum.

That vision helps explain the zoning change the City Council approved Nov. 28 for the park-and-ride on Aurora at 192nd Street. More than 1,400 apartments have recently opened or are under construction within blocks of the property, including directly next to the site and across the street.

Metro requested the tweak to maximize potential housing at the property, which previously was partly zoned for townhomes rather than apartments. The county agency hopes to strike a deal with a developer to revamp the 5-acre site because its 393 commuter parking spaces on the Rapid Ride E Line might see less use after light rail expands – and because its policies call for the construction of affordable housing on public land near transit service.

The site could accommodate about 550 to 700 apartments, according to a 2021 study, depending on how many commuter parking spaces are still provided. Shoreline residents want family-size affordable housing at the site, Metro’s outreach determined, along with features like a restaurant or cafe on the ground level, a community garden and a playground. Developers in Shoreline get tax breaks for pricing 20% of their units at affordable rates.

Duplexes, triplexes

Then there’s the matter of growth between arterials in Shoreline and other communities. At the same meeting where council members OK’d Metro’s request, they chose to delay a decision until 2024 on middle housing.

A proposal championed by Councilmember Chris Roberts and advanced for analysis with a split vote in April would have allowed duplexes and triplexes on lots in the city’s low-density zones, which cover almost 70% of Shoreline. Currently, only single-family houses are allowed on most lots in those zones, due to units-per-acre limits (accessory units like basement apartments and backyard cottages are allowed only when the property owner lives on site).

In a survey of Shoreline residents conducted this year via mail, phone and web by a firm that specializes in local government research, 49% said they would support “changing the city’s zoning code to allow for denser housing options in single-family zones,” while 35% said no and 16% weren’t sure.

In April, Roberts urged quick action, saying duplexes and triplexes would help alleviate the housing shortage. He talked about growing up near a duplex and later living in a two-unit building, saying they can blend in with houses. He said his proposal is a natural evolution for Shoreline.

But Shoreline’s Planning Department recommended that the issue be considered as part of a major update to the city’s comprehensive plan, which is due in 2024. The 20-year growth update is required under state law and the process in Shoreline will include extensive community outreach in 2023, racial equity work and a middle housing evaluation funded by a state grant, the department noted in October, saying a “compressed timeline” for the Roberts proposal would overload staffers and limit public participation.

Shoreline’s Planning Commission seconded that view, and the council agreed Nov. 28, voting unanimously to address duplexes and triplexes later.

Legislative session

Building multiple-unit housing only on arterials and in special zones isn’t equitable because those areas might not have the “good schools, good sidewalks, good parks” and amenities everyone deserves access to, said state Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, who led last session’s density push.

Bateman said she is “incredibly optimistic about our chance to pass legislation this year.” House Democrats have created a committee dedicated to housing, and a broader coalition has coalesced, she said, behind a three-pronged strategy: more resources for programs that keep people housed, like rental assistance; more spending on subsidized housing for people with lower incomes; and more scope for the private sector to meet demand.

“We need to add 1 million homes” over 20 years just to maintain pace with population growth, which can’t be done with subsidized housing alone, Bateman said, citing a state Department of Commerce estimate.

Prior campaigns have met pushback from some low-income housing advocates. But the signers of a Dec. 20 “housing coalition” letter to state lawmakers are a diverse group, Bateman said. They include AARP Washington, the Tacoma Housing Authority, the Washington Build Back Black Alliance and the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, plus Amazon, Microsoft, the Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties, the Washington Realtors, the Sierra Club of Washington State, American Farmland Trust and the Washington State Labor Council.

The letter urges zoning changes to boost the production of “home choices in proximity to jobs, schools, transit and services,” such as middle housing, accessory units and transit-oriented development. It also requests homeownership programs to boost racial equity, permitting reforms to reduce construction costs and more spending on affordable housing.

“The tone about housing has changed,” with climate activists supporting density to combat sprawl and homeownership advocates seeking alternatives to expensive single houses, said Bateman, who intends to propose a new wrinkle as part of a 2023 bill – allowing six units on certain lots when two of them are priced for people with lower incomes. California and Oregon have in recent years passed statewide legislation to allow more housing.

Resistance could come from the Association of Washington Cities and member cities that want to retain local control over zoning details, as well as from residents who would like to keep their neighborhoods mostly as they are. The association was a critic during the 2022 session, says state incentives work better than mandates and is drafting its own density-related bill.

Though communities must add middle housing, partly because “we’re not going to be able to accommodate everybody” with single houses, “there needs to be a respect for the variations, city by city, in terms of how they implement it,” said state Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline.

“Maybe it’s corner lots that make more sense than in the middle of the block” for additional housing, said Salomon, who previously served on the Shoreline City Council and helped pass the upzones that extend up to a half mile from the light rail stations. “There’s a balanced approach that we need to take.”

Bateman said cities can’t be trusted to make the changes that are necessary to create enough housing using processes like the planning update Shoreline will adopt in 2024.

“We have decades of empirical evidence,” she said. “They’re not adapting.”