Washington’s 21st District legislators — Sen. Marko Liias and Reps. Lillian Ortiz-Self and Strom Peterson — took the podium for two hours at a Saturday morning town hall meeting at the Edmonds Waterfront Center. The event attracted an estimated 250 attendees. While many came with questions on a range of topics, housing and zoning took center stage with multiple questions focused on the current efforts in Olympia to end single-family zoning statewide and allow multifamily housing across the board.
House Bill 1110, which passed the State House of Representatives with bipartisan support March 6. is aimed at increasing the pool of housing statewide by legalizing duplexes in every neighborhood of every city in Washington regardless of local zoning rules. It would also legalize fourplexes and sixplexes near public transit in cities with populations between 25,000 and 75,000 (Edmonds’ population is 42,000 and Lynnwood’s is 39,000). The bill now goes to the Senate, where initial opposition has been stronger.
Questions from attendees on this issue included asking for clarification on whether Sen. Liias’s alleged connection to the housing industry did not constitute a conflict of interest, since the bill would clearly benefit developers that would profit from financing, constructing, managing and operating multifamily buildings. Other questions touched on how to provide the infrastructure needed to serve the growing pool of new residents, including providing adequate parking. Also addressed was the perception that the most attractive targets for knocking down and redeveloping as multifamily are the older, smaller, mid-century homes that are today’s most affordable housing in our communities. Those opposing the housing legislation noted that these existing homes would be replaced by condos and townhouses, which would demand higher rents than the demolished units and thus displace those who could no longer afford to live here.
One Lynnwood resident drew raucous applause when he asked, “Have you been to Ballard lately? We used to like going there, but we don’t anymore – there’s no place to park. Seattle has simply allowed too much multifamily housing. Why do you want to screw around with our zoning?”
In response to these questions, Sen. Liias first clarified that while his family started a green building company years ago, the business failed during the recession, and he is not today an investor in and does not have financial connections to any mult-family development interests.
“We all file annual financial statements,” he said. “I invite you to look at these and you will see that I have no connection to multifamily developers.” He then added with a smile that “you will see, however, that this year I did finally pay off all my student loans.”
He went on to explain that the state does face a crisis in both housing access and affordability, with lots of folks unhoused or one paycheck or car repair bill away from losing their homes.
“We’re expecting more growth,” he continued. “We need to plan for a million new housing units over the next decade. Our aim is to focus on affordability and offering a variety of housing types. We’re also looking at increasing density near light rail, which means fewer cars on the roads contributing greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. And accomplishing this must be done in cooperation with local government. All of us know we need more housing to meet the needs of the future and bring people in from the cold.”
Peterson then jumped in to address the issue of local control of zoning, pointing out that “local building codes will always trump zoning.” He then added that “we’ve never claimed that HB 1110 will make housing more affordable, and it won’t stop anyone from building a single-family home. What it will do is help folks struggling to afford a home; it will help a nurse find a home closer to work.”
He then referenced another bill – HB1337 – aimed at creating incentives for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in their backyards. This bill has passed the House and is now in the Senate.
“We’ve worked with AARP as this came together as a way to create opportunities for folks to age in place, or perhaps give a caretaker a place to live,” he explained. “It helps democratize development. Developers won’t swoop in. It gives the homeowner options and builds intergenerational wealth that will pass down through families.”
Ortiz-Self stressed that the region really need middle housing.
“We have apartments and we have million-dollar homes,” she said. “If we want to recruit teachers, police, firefighters we need to think about offering them housing options closer to work. Also our young people are being increasingly priced out – they are depending on us to let them live in the community. There’s lots to learn from the Ballards – we need to learn how to do it better.”
Other questions touched on the issues of missing and murdered Native American women, on SB 5560 that would require mandatory retesting of drivers once they reach 70 years old and whether this constitutes age discrimination, the recently passed ban on assault weapons. and imposition of a 10-day waiting period on gun purchases (HB 1143),
In response to the issue of missing and murdered Native American women, Peterson pointed out that these efforts have been completely bipartisan. Ortiz-Self added that while there is no House companion bill at this point, the one in the Senate is looking at a treaty deal between state, local and tribal police for mutual assistance on these cases. “The statistics on murder and missing Indigenous women are horrifying,” she added.
Responding to the question about requiring drivers license retesting for people over 70 years old, Liias clarified that “this bill has been pulled, but its intent was not to ask every 70-year-old to take an additional driving test. We do know that there are groups of drivers with higher crash rates — in order of severity these are young drivers, drivers in their 80s and drivers in their 70s. As responsible adults we need to ensure that as we age, we keep checking on and compensate, if necessary, for failing vision, attention, etc. and therefore we’re looking to develop an assessment at license renewal time for all these, not just vision. We’ll continue to refine these ideas.”
The recent ban on assault weapons passed by the House this session drew significant interest from attendees and was in second place — behind housing — in questions posed to the legislative team.
Peterson pointed out that HB 1143 creates a 10-day waiting period for the purchase of firearms.
“One big reason for this is that the number-one cause of death by firearms is suicide,” he explained. “By providing a cooling-off period, this will avoid countless deaths.”
Added Liias, “The federal ban on assault weapons was in effect for 10 years, and when it lapsed shootings immediately went up.”
“I do not want to take guns away,” said Ortiz-Self. “This is not about taking guns away, it’s about promoting safety. Let’s be practical — is it too much to ask legitimate gun owners to wait 10 days to help keep guns out of the hands of someone making a rash decision out of emotions of the moment?”
Other questions touched on widening broadband access to all, efforts to protect and provide services targeted to LGBTQ youth, improving traffic safety on Interstate 5, improving the mental health system, and allowing people who lost state jobs for refusing COVID vaccinations to return to work.
In closing, Liias thanked attendees for their time, and reminded them of the importance of events such as this.
“We are blessed to live in a country where these kinds of conversations are possible,” he said. “What you have said this morning resonated with me. At the end of the day, we may not agree 100%, but we all have the same goal — to build a better community. We have free and fair elections, and I urge you to register and vote. Our democratic process makes this country the best place to live. I pledge to listen to what I’ve heard here today, think about it, and bring it back to Olympia. Thank you for participating.”
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel
Thank you for the overview – much a appreciated as I have Covid and could not attend. Friends, stay safe and mindful that Covid is still with us!
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