Should Washington allow more homes per lot? Debate swirls in 3 West Side cities
March 26, 2023 Updated Sun., March 26, 2023 at 9:47 a.m.
Not long ago, South Rose Hill in Kirkland was a stereotypical suburban neighborhood, indistinguishable from other Puget Sound communities where sleepy streets, evergreen trees and detached houses are the norm.
But now it’s a place to see small-scale zoning changes in action, with some lots being redeveloped at double or triple the density they once had, based on revised regulations Kirkland adopted in 2020.
South Rose Hill is also a place to ponder where the rest of Washington state may be headed, given that similar changes are likely to occur in other cities if lawmakers move ahead with proposals like House Bill 1110.
Passed by the House earlier this month and under consideration by the Senate right now, the bill would legalize up to two, three or four housing units per lot in most neighborhoods, and up to six units in some, overriding local zoning laws that currently limit large swaths of cities to single-family homes. Other bills would ease restrictions on accessory dwelling units, authorize more lot splitting and allow denser housing near transit stations.
This isn’t a strictly partisan issue: HB 1110’s 75 “yea” votes in the House included 21 Republicans, and its 21 “nay” votes included three Democrats.
Proponents say Washington needs more duplexes, triplexes, four-, five- and six-plexes, accessory dwelling units, cottages and town houses to meet the demand for housing and to diversify neighborhoods where people of color have historically been excluded, describing such options as “middle housing” because they’re neither single-family homes nor apartment buildings. Foes say zoning decisions are best handled by cities, warn about unbridled development ruining the character of neighborhoods and say density won’t immediately yield much affordability.
The state Department of Commerce estimates Washington needs to build an additional 1 million homes by 2044 to keep pace with population growth, with more than half of the new homes affordable to low-income residents.
HB 1110 and other proposals meant to increase housing choices are sparking conversations not only in the Legislature but across the Seattle area, from quiet cul-de-sacs in Kirkland to upscale avenues in Edmonds and unpretentious blocks in Burien. Each community tells part of the story.
Down the block from Lake Washington High School, a new home with accessory dwelling units is under construction. Around the corner, four cottages were recently built where two houses once stood.
In Kirkland, accessory units are capped at 1,200 square feet and are located on the same lot as a main house. They can look like a basement apartment, a backyard cabin, a town house or a detached house. Cottages are capped at 1,700 square feet and can be built in sets of two per lot.
Kirkland is an Eastside city with a lot of highly paid tech workers, so the denser homes sprouting in neighborhoods like South Rose Hill aren’t cheap, despite being developed slightly closer together. Some accessory units and cottages built since 2020 are selling for more than $1 million.
Yet officials say the city’s policy changes are working, because they’re producing more housing choices at somewhat lower prices. That’s why Kirkland supports proposals to allow more density across the state, said Adam Weinstein, director of the city’s Planning and Building Department.
“We’ll take three $1 million houses over one $3 million house,” Weinstein said, pointing at a three-unit project down the block from a new 4,000-square-foot house that sold for $3.2 million.
“Instead of one family, three families can live here,” and the units should become more affordable as they age, undergoing wear and tear, added Scott Guter, a senior planner in Weinstein’s department.
The median sale price for houses and town homes (new and old) in Kirkland and Bridle Trails this February was $1.6 million, down from $2.5 million in February 2022, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
Kirkland mostly eliminated single-family zoning in 2004 — allowing accessory units and cottages almost everywhere an entire generation before the concept gained traction in the Legislature. But almost no middle housing got built right away, Weinstein said, because the city retained other rules that constrained development, such as accessory-unit restrictions, parking requirements, lengthy permit processes and a rule that cottages could be built only in clusters of four or more.
Not until 2020, when Kirkland removed many of those barriers, did construction accelerate. The city granted permits to 102 cottages and accessory units from March 2022 to February 2023, compared with 36 from March 2018 to February 2019. Though duplexes and triplexes are also allowed, developers seem to prefer accessory units, which they’re selling separately as condominiums. HB 1110 would make little distinction among various types of middle housing; it would simply require cities to allow more units per lot.
Such proposals have stirred opposition from some Eastside cities. But Kirkland has made its own zoning changes without much drama, partly by reassuring residents the results wouldn’t be disruptive, and partly because gentle density is relatively popular, Weinstein said. Multiunit projects in Kirkland are subject to the same size limits as single-family houses, which can still be built, and are still getting built on some lots, he noted.
“The housing crisis is really personal in Kirkland,” he said. “Everybody knows somebody who can’t afford a house here who wants to live here.”
Some residents of middle housing in Kirkland are like empty nester Bruce Klouzal, who downsized into a cottage cluster in the Juanita neighborhood with his wife in 2017, after their kids grew up. They paid $940,000. “It’s a super nice house, and small,” compared to their previous home, Klouzal said.
Others are like Priya Saklani and Priyank Bahuguna, who rented a Bellevue apartment before buying in South Rose Hill for $1.45 million. The city considers their 1,700-square-foot detached home a cottage because it and three similar units replaced two old houses. The couple understand why some of their new neighbors might have objected to the city allowing more density because “you want to preserve the local culture,” Bahuguna said.
“But cutting the parcel in half definitely helps folks like us,” he said.
North of Seattle in Edmonds, blue and white signs are popping up: In yards of waterfront houses with panoramic views of Puget Sound. And in the Perrinville Creek watershed, where homes on winding ravine roads feel remote from the city’s quaint downtown, just a few minutes away.
“VOTE NO” on HB 1110, the signs command, instructing residents to contact Washington lawmakers. “NO UPZONING!”
Edmonds City Council members have testified in Olympia against state-mandated zoning reforms and filled a local news site with op-eds.
For Councilmember Vivian Olson, the concerns are multiple. Olson worries about neighborhood flooding being exacerbated by more development. She worries about the character and aesthetics of communities that have only ever had one home per lot. And she thinks the state is painting with too broad a brush, grabbing control of zoning and land-use decisions traditionally made by cities and imposing a “one-size-fits-all” solution.
Sunset Avenue North, just beyond the Edmonds ferry terminal, features a walking path that might be the most popular spot for a stroll in the city. To the west: nothing but driftwood, open water, Kitsap Peninsula, the Olympic Mountains. To the east: single-family houses as far as the eye can see.
“It’s that intersection of architecture and nature” that would be lost if multifamily housing were allowed to come in, Olson said. “There’s a lot of charm in those areas that conceivably would be erased by one of these top-down mandates that don’t look at the nuance of a particular street.”
While the details of HB 1110 are in flux, the current version would require smaller cities to authorize at least two units per lot generally and at least four per lot within a half-mile of a major transit stop. It would require larger cities to authorize at least four units generally and at least six within a quarter-mile of a major stop, or three generally and six within a half-mile.
Under HB 1110, every lot on Sunset Avenue could add at least duplexes, and perhaps fourplexes. Supporters say increasing the state’s housing supply would cause prices to drop, or at least stop climbing so quickly, and open up more land to projects that could be subsidized for low-income residents.
Foes like Olson raise doubts. If left to the market, a street like Sunset Avenue, with its priceless views, will almost certainly never sprout low-income housing, no matter how many units are allowed on each lot. In opposing HB 1110, Olson sounds a lot like the Kirkland planners who support it.
“We’ve seen house sales at $3 million, so if you end up putting a two or three or four [unit project] right there in that same spot … each of them is going to be a million and a half, right?” she said. “That’s not affordable housing.”
Middle housing proponents often cite broad environmental goals. They say dense development can prevent sprawl, thereby preserving forests, lessening the need for long commutes and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Opponents cite much more granular environmental issues. In Edmonds, little Perrinville Creek has flooded recently, washing out roads and damaging houses. Development upstream has led to too much paving, and impermeable concrete surfaces don’t absorb water, but instead direct it into the swollen creek, said Joe Scordino, a retired fisheries biologist in Edmonds who frequently lobbies the council against new housing.
“On any development, look at the capacity of your infrastructure, your watershed,” Scordino said. “We’re trying to get those measures in right now with our cities saying, ‘treat sensitive watersheds differently,’ and here we’ve got a bill in Olympia that says one size fits all, put houses everywhere.”
Edmonds isn’t the only wellspring of objections. Leaders from cities including Mercer Island, Woodinville and Maple Valley have testified against HB 1110. Cities including Bellevue and Kent have expressed concerns.
South of Seattle, City Councilmember Hugo Garcia offers a different perspective. Garcia supports middle housing because he couldn’t have stayed in Burien without it, he said, thinking back to 2006, when he bought a duplex with his brother in their blue-collar hometown.
Neither could afford a single-family home at the time, and they didn’t want to move away from their parents, Garcia said, greeting neighbors in Spanish as he strolled down his street, a sidewalk-less stretch with well-used pickups and minivans parked by unassuming abodes. Their salvation was the duplex, which could accommodate Garcia on one side and his brother’s family on the other. Single-family homes remain out of reach for them today.
“Even though that was 17 years ago, we now all still live here,” Garcia said.
Density skeptics say proposals like HB 1110 could spur displacement in lower-income neighborhoods, like some in Burien, by encouraging developers to replace modest, old houses with more units.
Alternatively, zoning reforms could help combat displacement by providing moderate-income homeowners, homebuyers and renters with more options, Garcia said, thinking about his own experience living in an apartment as a child and now the 1940s-era duplex, which was built before Burien incorporated and enacted single-family zoning. Garcia works for King County, his brother is a teacher and his brother’s wife is a dental assistant.
“I have literally seen how having access to this duplex kept us in our community where we grew up and allowed us to give back,” he said.
The council member, who emigrated from Mexico when he was 8, also thinks about his aging parents. They joined relatives in the restaurant business and managed to buy a house in Burien in the 1990s, but don’t have robust retirement savings and could benefit from the ability to expand their home and convert it into multiple units, Garcia said.
Burien has backed HB 1110, and the council recently eased restrictions on accessory units. Garcia has also spoken up on his own.
Developers are buying and demolishing houses already, including in areas with single-family zoning, and those houses are often owned by people of color, he said. Ultimately, the policy question is whether to allow the old houses to be replaced by one or possibly multiple new homes, Garcia said, linking the current housing squeeze to decades of anemic construction.
The current version of HB 1110 would give extra density to middle housing projects with one or more units rented or sold at below-market rates, and would allow cities to impose their own affordability requirements, including developer fees that could be used to fund low-income housing elsewhere.
“We as a region didn’t prepare” adequately for a job and population boom, “and now we’re having to play catch-up” by adding apartment buildings in some places and allowing middle housing in other places, Garcia said.
“This won’t mean that all of a sudden every old home is going to be torn down to build a duplex or a quadplex,” he added. “It’s going to be gradual. But without having those options on the table, it’s going to take us that much longer to get out of this housing crisis.”
Will state lawmakers concur? That debate is still raging, with less than a month left in the current session. HB 1110 passed the Senate’s housing committee Wednesday, with more votes to come.
Staff reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this report.
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