As part of an effort to address the housing shortage in Washington, a proposed bill being debated would allow missing-middle housing—up to a fourplex—on all residential lots in cities with populations of 6,000 or greater. The bill, HB1110, would also require cities with populations greater than 6,000 to allow sixplexes on all lots, if at least two of the units are affordable or if the lot is within a half-mile of a major transit stop.
The text of the bill highlights how the state of Washington will be unable to meet its goal of creating 1 million homes by 2044 “without significant action.” In addition to helping alleviate the housing shortage, supporters of the bill suggest allowing more housing options in areas with developed infrastructure will reduce pressure for further development and support the state’s climate change goals.
“There is continued need for the development of housing at all income levels, including middle housing that will provide a wider variety of housing options and configurations to allow Washingtonians to live near where they work,” the bill states.
The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) has expressed support of the state Legislature’s efforts to address the need for middle housing and focus on transit-oriented development. The association has also endorsed bills increasing housing options through lot splitting, consolidating local permit review processes, and improving permit timelines.
The Spokane Home Builders Association estimates the city of Spokane needs 2,900 more housing units per year to keep pace with demand, but current zoning policies restrict the type of housing development possible. Housing types such as duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes account for only 9% of Spokane’s housing stock, while single-family detached homes account for over 68% of the housing stock.
The Puget Sound Regional Council estimates a current backlog of nearly 50,000 units across King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties. Additionally, the council estimates the four counties need to create over 800,000 new units to accommodate a projected population growth of 1.8 million by the year 2050.
“Our Master Builders Association [of King and Snohomish Counties] has been advocating for middle housing at the local level for years,” says Allison Butcher, senior policy analyst for the Master Builders Association. “Our view is [with] the absence of more progress at the local level, our members are feeling that state action is appropriate.”
While a similar bill was proposed during the previous legislative cycle, the current bill is receiving more bipartisan support and endorsements from state housing organizations. Butcher says the proposed missing middle housing bill last legislative session received opposition from local governments concerned about having zoning regulations determined by a state directive. Butcher says the current bill would allow builders the opportunity to help the state alleviate its housing shortage without the need to develop additional infrastructure.
“There are large areas zoned for single-family, and that’s all they allow right now. It may be more than half of a typical Washington city [where] the residential area allows only single-family dwellings,” Butcher says. “We’re not able to build out to add subdivisions to meet housing needs that we have, so I think [we] look at some of these large areas zoned for single-family as an opportunity to add more housing choices.”
Troy Schmeil of Bellevue-based Sapphire Homes has advocated for code changes in the state for decades and believes HB1110, if passed and given time, “will go a long way toward solving” Washington’s housing shortage.
“We have a housing shortage, nobody can deny that. The only way you’re going to work your way out of [the shortage] is to supply more housing. One of the best ways to do that is to be able to put more housing on a piece of property,” Schmeil says.
Schmeil says while there may be a learning curve for some builders accustomed to building single-family detached homes, Sapphire Homes has embraced duplex and townhome projects where permitted by local jurisdictions and found success. Building attached housing projects requires learning how to correctly install fire walls, however Schmeil says “the sticks and bricks” of building attached housing is largely similar to single-family detached construction.
“There’s some economies [of scale] building a fourplex versus four individual units because of the foundation and shared walls. Doing missing-middle [housing], it actually brings down my cost-per-unit compared to building individual units,” Schmeil says. “You’ve got one bigger foundation instead of four small ones. You’ve got the shared walls [and] you’ve got one bigger roof, but it covers all the units.”
Schmeil says the fundamental job of builders is to produce a place to live for individuals, and he believes most builders in the state of Washington would embrace HB1110. In addition to economies of scale in the building process, Schmeil says the passing of HB1110 would provide “consistency” in allowances across jurisdictions for builders.
“[Consistency] is one of the biggest problems we have right now. No two jurisdictions are alike in what they allow, how they allow it, and what we have to do,” Schmeil says. “This bill, if passed and cities embraced it, would give us that consistency so we know that in any two or three jurisdictions by each other, we could do virtually the same thing. There’s economies of scale with that.”
Should the legislation pass, it will not go into effect fully until summer 2024, with cities given a grace period to adopt the new zoning requirements.
“[HB1110] is something that we view could add gradual and gentle density to residential neighborhoods,” Butcher says. “There is no silver bullet solution to our housing crisis, [but] we really do believe this bill has the potential to add much-needed housing supply and create opportunities for homeownership.”
In addition to HB1110, Butcher says builders associations across the state support bills that would streamline the permit process, adding accountability and transparency to timelines while removing some of the duplication of environmental reviews.
“One of the biggest things is they can change all the laws they want about zoning, but if we can’t get the permits, it doesn’t matter,” Schmeil says.
Butcher says another proposed lot-splitting bill (HB 1245) would increase housing options in the state.
“If you are fortunate enough to own a single-family home on a lot of a certain size, under this legislation, you could split the lot into two and build a cottage on the second lot and sell it off separately,” Butcher says. “We just see that as another tool in the tool kit to get more of an entry-level type of home.”