The Urbanist: State Sen. Palumbo plans to introduce a minimum housing density bill

The Urbanist, October 5: State Sen. Palumbo plans to introduce a minimum housing density bill

State Senator Guy Palumbo (D-Maltby) provided The Urbanist with an early draft of “minimum density” legislation and has been distributing it around to local planning departments and other stakeholders in the Puget Sound Region. Areas of Washington state meeting the bill’s requirements would no longer be allowed to have big-lot single family zoning. Instead the bill would set up a tiered minimum zoning around rapid transit station and explicitly allow duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, townhomes, and courtyard apartments (5 to 12 units), single-room occupancies, and accessory dwelling units (with no ownership requirement.)

The bill would push municipalities and counties to follow the spirit of the Growth Management Act (GMA) and encourage the region to build up rather that out. The difficulty in adding urban-style housing in a region that is aiming to curb suburban sprawl has led to a situation where it’s hard for young people to get off the hamster wheel of every increasing rent checks and little prospect of saving enough to buy a home–even a modest backyard cottage or a small condominium.

Senator Palumbo said he started the conversation last year when he brought a bill (SB 6077) setting a minimum density of six dwelling units per acre across municipalities to his colleagues, but they deemed it too broad. He went back to the drawing board and tried to find a mechanism that would more specifically tailor the minimum density requirements. After looking at using a threshold based on the median home price, he determined it was hard to get good data at the municipal level, he said. Instead Senator Palumbo settled upon a trigger similar to the California’s SB 827 using proximity to transit.

First, the draft bill would use rent burden–defined as a household with monthly housing costs, including utilities, exceeding thirty percent of its
household income–to trigger the minimum density mechanism. If more than 20% of households in a municipality are rent burdened, then the minimum density requirement would apply–at least if the city has any qualifying transit corridors.

Some may fear that a rent burden threshold would upzone low- and middle-income areas and let some high-income enclaves off the hook, but Senator Palumbo said that’s not the intent. Moreover, virtually all Puget Sound Region cities would presently meet the rent burden threshold, given our sky-high housing prices.

The draft bill does not define what high capacity transit is, but Senator Palumbo expects the final bill will.

Seattle is adding tons of apartments, but the bulk of that growth is highrise and midrise development. Missing middle housing types are a small fraction of Seattle’s growth, and Senator Palumbo sees that as a problem, because he believes the region has pent up demand for single-family homes and condominiums and consumers prefer the smaller scale that missing middle offers.

Senator Palumbo frames his bill as a fix for a failing GMA law: “If we’re not going to do this, the GMA is not going to work.”

Whether that’s true or not, the minimum density bill certainly seems like an improvement.

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