Demand for affordable homes near transit hubs faces hurdles, critics say


Last updated 1/22/2024 at 12:32pm

Mary Murphy

Pedestrians wait to board an Intercity transit bus in downtown Olympia. Affordable homes near transit hubs are needed, state officials say, but regulations might cause developers to back away, critics say.

Washington cities could soon be required to block off zones near public transit for multifamily housing, if new regulations are approved by the state Legislature.

Some regulation is necessary, backers say, if cities want to provide affordable housing and make it easy for people to get to work.

"I ran for office because of the enormous challenges that people of my generation, people in their 30s and 40s, face in finding a home in this state," Rep. Julia Reed, D-Seattle, said.

As Reed spoke, city planners and real estate representatives in the audience grimaced and whispered to their counterparts. When they testified, they made their objections clear.

"Our concerns with the bill include the fact that the zone density levels are lower than what a number of cities already have, and the affordability requirements are much higher," Bill Clark of the Washington Realtors, said.

Through complex formulas that consider incomes and housing density, the proposed law requires builders to make room for more people and keep rents on 10% of the housing units for the next 50 years affordable for lower income wage earners.

Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, co-sponsor of HB 2160, said many people who use public transit are low to middle-income demographic earners. By clustering affordable housing near transit centers, it gives people a chance to build a life instead of being priced out of the market or forced to make long commutes.

The measure also reduces greenhouse gasses by making public transit convenient and cars unnecessary to get to work. The bill was requested by the governor's office and is a high priority this session.

"This bill ensures that newly upzoned areas are truly building mixed-income communities so that transit and walkable communities are not limited to the preserves of the rich," Reed added.

"It's hard to hear 10% is too hard a number when we know how much farther we need to go," said Noha Mahgoub, senior policy advisor for Housing and Homelessness from the Governor's office.

City administrators and planners agree there is a need for affordable housing and easy options for transit, but many said builders will balk at the long-term affordability requirements and not all cities have the same level of public transportation.

"We support the contention that there needs to be an affordability requirement," said Carl Schroeder, of the Washington Association of Cities. "We would like to see a goal of 50% of the units and we know we need 500,000 units, but we don't think that is realistic for the private market to fulfill all of that."

Redmond Mayor, Angela Birney, said her key issue was the need for flexibility from city to city. Development Director for City of Sumner, Ryan Windish, added that he feels this bill "does not take into consideration smaller cities" that have limited public transportation.

"Some of us live in a rural area where we don't have a robust transit system, so it's really hard to gauge, and for us, it's not a one size fits all," Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, said.

Other development experts said the requirement of 10% affordability would stop construction altogether.

"The 10% requirement in my experience in working with developers, they won't build, is what you're going to find," Dan Bertolet, from Sightline Institute, said.


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