OPINION: Washington Can’t Wait for Affordable Housing

by Ben Mitchell

In 1990 Washington State passed the Growth Management Act to help our cities and counties accommodate rapid growth while protecting what makes our state a great place to live: vibrant and diverse cities, beautiful wilderness and coastal areas, and working farmland.

The Growth Management Act does this by requiring cities and counties to develop comprehensive plans to manage their population growth and by setting the terms for what must be included in these plans. As it stands right now, the Act provides a high-level guiding framework, but it is unspecific and lacks “teeth” for enforcement when it comes to planning for affordable housing, reducing car emissions, ensuring transit equity, and mitigating community-level climate change impacts like heat islands. The shortcomings of the Growth Management Act are most glaring in three areas:

  1. It doesn’t require city and county comprehensive plans to adequately plan for affordable housing needs.
  2. It doesn’t address climate change at all.
  3. It doesn’t address issues of social and racial equity in land-use development.  

Despite the potentially significant implications that the Growth Management Act could have for these issues, it’s a piece of public policy that flies under the radar and doesn’t generate the level of engagement that it should from our State Legislators. This has to change. The Act is too central to issues of equity, environmental justice, housing development, transit, and clean water and air to be left untouched or unamended during the 2021 legislative session. 

Washington Can’t Wait is a grassroots campaign and legislative initiative that is focused on pushing our State Legislators to make substantial updates to the Act during the upcoming legislative session. This effort comes at a critical time as our state’s largest urban areas in King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap Counties will be working on their own comprehensive plans in the next few years. The 2021 Legislative Session is the window of opportunity at the State level to make changes to the Growth Management Act that will filter down to encourage more equitable and just policies at the local level. Our campaign will be working hard this winter and spring to advocate for these important amendments and legislation.  

Housing affordability and environmental justice are the issues that motivate me. I love my South Beacon Hill neighborhood and I’m lucky to live in a community that has access to great parks like Jefferson, Seward, and Pritchard Beach. I love the vibrancy of the Othello business district; I love how our neighborhood public schools are hubs of activity; and I love that I have access to great public transit. I also want to share all these wonderful things with more and more people. The future I want for our community is one where folks from all walks of life share the same community and have a shared stake in each other’s health and well-being.

This future vision requires an abundance of choices of types of homes and places for people to live, as well as equitable outreach and policies that identify health and pollution impacts on communities. Housing is a big, complicated issue and changes to the Growth Management Act can’t address all angles of the housing issue. What the Act can address is the acute, overall shortage of housing that we face in Seattle and King County. 

There is simply not enough housing being built to meet the demand to live in our region. This creates problems that no amount of public or subsidized housing, cash assistance, or rent control can really solve. There have, of course, been some building booms in pockets of our region, including gentrifying neighborhoods in South End communities, but the vast majority of the land in Seattle and King County is basically frozen and sees almost no building of new homes. 

This must change if we’re going to avoid the fate of the California Bay Area. Amending the Growth Management Act to encourage more new housing in our region’s most expensive and affluent neighborhoods is a potentially powerful lever for two reasons: First, more homes of various types in more affluent neighborhoods will open up these areas and the opportunities they offer to more and more people. Second, this will act as a release valve on the development pressure that communities like mine in South Beacon Hill face and allow these less affluent communities to grow at a measured pace while reducing gentrification and displacement.

To make this happen, our state government must be bolder in setting the terms of what local governments must plan for and be held accountable to. We have a brief window to make positive changes to the Growth Management Act before Washington’s cities and counties embark on their next comprehensive plan updates, which will lock in policy for the next decade. As a South Seattle resident, I urge our South End State legislators — Senators Bob Hasegawa and Rebecca Saldana, Representatives Steve Bergquist and Sharon Tomiko-Santos, and newly elected Representatives David Hackney and Kirsten Harris-Talley — to support and champion these important updates to the Growth Management Act to improve the livability of our community for all residents.

Ben Mitchell lives in South Beacon Hill and works at an education non-profit organization in Tacoma. He is passionate about housing and environmental justice, and these days you can often find him on walks with his wife and dog on Beacon Ave.

Featured image is attributed to fumigene under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.