Washington needs a unified vision for our housing future. ADUs are a start.
As featured in The Seattle Times
Within the next decade, Washington will grow by nearly one million people. We are already in the midst of a housing shortage with no end in sight. We need a unified vision for housing that ensures all Washingtonians have a home they can afford.
Yet special interests in cities across Washington are road-blocking construction of the homes we need now. Even when cities want to expand their housing stock, the pace of progress does not match the challenge before us.
As one example, for the last four years, a small, but affluent neighborhood group has forced the City of Seattle to pay for exhaustive studies and costly legal battles simply over easing restrictions on homeowners who want to build backyard cottages and mother-in-law suites on their own property.
Four years is far too long. We need solutions now.
Though we are from opposite sides of the aisle, we teamed up in Olympia this past legislative session to co-sponsor a bill supporting this common-sense part of the solution to our housing crisis. Sprinkling cottages, mother-in-law suites, and basement apartments – homes collectively termed accessory dwelling units (ADUs) – across existing neighborhoods will create below market-rate housing throughout our cities without changing the look and feel of those communities, or dipping into the public purse.
ADUs are ideal homes for our students living on tight budgets, young couples starting out, and seniors looking to age in the communities they love. In addition, the rental income ADUs generate can support homeowners struggling to keep up with their own housing costs.
Where ADUs are legal in most Washington cities, local codes often place onerous restrictions on construction. As a result, Washingtonians have pent up demand for ADUs, made obvious in the few cities that have been able to loosen these bureaucratic restrictions.
After Bellingham permitted backyard cottages and reduced parking requirements in 2018, ADU permit applications quadrupled. Since Renton halved its ADU fees in 2017, there has been steady growth in construction applications for these small apartments. In 2017, Vancouver removed the anti-renter requirement that a homeowner with an ADU live on site – a requirement not placed on any other housing type. Since then, applications have risen from one in 2016 to 45 in 2018.
Within any single city this housing growth may go nearly unnoticed, but taken together across the state, these cottages and basement apartments can make a big difference in reducing and preventing homelessness.
The demand for ADUs is no surprise. Today, many of the neighborhoods with best access to schools and parks come with a steep price of admission: purchasing an expensive detached house. It's a financial barrier to entry that serves to keep people out. ADUs offer an easy way to add housing to established neighborhoods, creating opportunities for families from across the income spectrum to access these public goods.
These small homes also make clear the connection between housing and our environment. As we stare down the reality of a rapidly changing climate, we need to take advantage of existing infrastructure via infill housing to prevent further sprawl and protect our farms and forests. Backyard cottages do this, fitting seamlessly into existing neighborhoods.
Despite the fact that a handful of cities have eased local codes, bureaucracy and small resident groups wielding outsized influence to block development shackle most. Meanwhile, our housing market becomes more exclusive by the minute.
We cannot wait for each city to fight its own multi-year battle for this simple affordable housing solution. It's time to recognize that land use decisions extend beyond any single city's limits and affect us all.
Even though our bill did not make it to Gov. Inslee's desk this session, it sparked a rich debate on both sides of the aisle about how our state will respond to growth. We plan to bring both the bill, and this vital conversation, back next session to ensure everyone has a safe place to call home.
Rep. Andrew Barkis, R- Olympia, represents the 2nd Legislative District. Barkis's experiences as a local business owner foster his priorities to have limited, but effective government focused on being fiscally responsible, creating more jobs, and enhancing small business growth. He is the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Transportation.
Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, represents the 33rd Legislative District. Gregerson has diligently worked towards protecting voter rights and increasing voter participation, reducing hunger and helping local food entrepreneurs. She is the chair of the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Relations.