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Legislators are looking at new—and sometimes controversial—ways to spur denser development and more affordable homes.
A push by Washington state lawmakers to promote denser housing in areas with single-family homes came to an end this week. Although the legislation fizzled, it serves as a good example of how state officials, looking to solve affordable housing shortfalls, are increasingly wading into housing and land use issues once left to local governments.
The failed bill also demonstrates some of the reasons why it can be difficult to get measures like it enacted into law.
The Washington plan was meant to foster so-called “missing middle” housing, the types of residential properties that can house more than one family but aren’t as big as many apartment buildings. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, floated the plan last year. It called for cities above a certain size to permit buildings like duplexes or fourplexes in areas previously zoned for single-family homes.
Two Democratic state lawmakers, Rep. Jessica Bateman and Sen. Mona Das (who has sponsored similar legislation in the past) took the lead trying to shepherd the measure through the legislature. But the proposal ran into immediate headwinds, including from local leaders wary of giving up their planning authority.
Over the weekend, Bateman (who declined an interview request) suggested on Twitter that the plan was in peril and said she would pare it back. Then, on Tuesday, she acknowledged that it had failed to accrue enough support before a critical deadline for bills to be considered by the full House, leaving it effectively dead for now.
Bateman suggested it wasn’t the end though. “I believe the coalition we’ve started is the foundation for an even stronger policy proposal next year,” she tweeted. “Our housing crisis requires that we take action to lift bans on modest home choices.”
No Longer Just ‘The Purview of Local Control’
Washington is not the only place where state officials are looking for new ways to address the growing housing crisis and influence local housing policy. In 2019, Oregon became the first state to chip away at single-family zoning statewide, with a law that requires cities with upwards of 10,000 people to permit at least duplexes in residential zones—similar to the Washington bill.
California adopted a related measure last year. Another upzoning bill is currently languishing in Arizona's legislature. Massachusetts is requiring cities in the Boston area to build more housing near transit.
As the problems of housing in the U.S. become more widely acknowledged—unaffordability, inaccessibility, age, condition, vulnerability to climate disasters and more—jurisdictions at every level are looking for ways to help create solutions.
“For a really long time, when it came to tenants’ rights issues, when it came to housing funding from the state level, it was like, ‘Nope, that is the purview of local control and we are not interested,’” said Julie Gonzales, a Colorado state senator whose district is in the Denver area, where housing prices are up and the inventory of homes is low.
This year, an affordable housing task force led by Gonzales and other members of the Colorado General Assembly issued a report with recommendations for how to spend $400 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The ARPA funding is “a chance to make one-time transformational investments that improve access to affordable housing across the state for those experiencing homelessness and for our essential workers with low to middle incomes,” the report says.
It recommends spending the bulk of the money—at least $300 million—to create a revolving loan fund for affordable-housing development and preservation and to make grants to nonprofits and local governments for development, preservation, rental assistance and other programs. In allocating $400 million to housing, Colorado named the issue as one of its top priorities, alongside behavioral health and economic recovery after the pandemic.
“We’re all trying to grapple with the rising importance of housing as a statewide concern, and also for the first time we actually have some money to do something about it,” Gonzales said.
The report also recommends directing millions to community ownership models for housing like community land trusts, creating incentives for innovative construction methods like modular and 3-D printing, and investing more in housing for middle-income people through the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority.
Earlier this month, Gonzales, who is a Democrat, signed on to a bill introduced by two Republicans that would prevent cities from imposing various policies that could limit the number of new housing units that can be built.
Gonzales lives in a house that was constructed through an inclusionary zoning policy in Denver, and has seen firsthand the impact of policy aimed at generating more low-cost housing. Widespread housing insecurity during the pandemic only made the issue more urgent, she said.
“The pandemic really made clear that the state should have a role,” Gonzales said. “The state should use our ability to kind of see the breadth of the issues and how they play out in local jurisdictions.
"In places where we can support, whether that’s loan funds or whether that’s grants to incentivize localities to begin to abandon their anti-growth policies of the past," she added, "we should encourage and incentivize that work to happen.”
‘The States Have Not Kept Pace’
Researchers are assessing state roles in housing policy in new ways, too.
Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, wrote in a recent report that states should supplement local policy by analyzing statewide housing markets, promoting more housing in high-demand areas, giving direct assistance to low-income households, and protecting against climate risks, among other recommendations.
Meanwhile, Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, recently authored a report on creating “Smarter State Policies for Stronger Cities” with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Mallach says states can and should invest in building healthy housing markets in all types of cities, from high-cost areas to places that are in need of reinvestment.
“A lot of cities in the last couple years have really started to step up and spend their own resources on housing issues,” Mallach said. “But generally speaking, the states have not kept pace, even though they have more fiscal capability than cities.”
He also noted that some states have tried to intervene in local policy in ways that aren’t helpful, like a Texas law that prevents cities from adopting inclusionary zoning. There’s an important balance for states to meet, letting cities experiment with policies to promote affordable housing without letting them close themselves off to growth, he said.
“To the extent that the cities have legit ways to address housing needs that don’t interfere with individual rights or state interests, states should get out of the way and let them do it,” he added.
In Washington, the considerable local opposition to the proposal that would require cities to permit duplexes and similar multifamily structures has come up in previous years, explained Das, the state senator who backed the bill. Still, Das says she believes the state will eventually approve the policy, as Oregon and California already have.
But policies like what’s proposed in the legislation take time to have an effect and, in her view, the sooner the state can approve it, the better. “The best time to do the bill was yesterday,” Das said on Wednesday. “The next best time to do the bill will be next year.”
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