by Ben Adlin
In an effort to reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions, King County Executive Dow Constantine is proposing rules that would sharply limit the use of natural gas in new multifamily homes and commercial developments as well as encourage wider adoption of solar power.
“These updates will save money, they’ll create jobs, and they’ll have an impact on climate change,” Constantine said at a media event Wednesday, Sept. 22, at Yesler Terrace Park.
Constantine declined to provide a timeline for the proposal other than to call it “wildly urgent.” The changes would need approval from the King County Council to take effect.
Under the proposed ordinance, which the executive’s office submitted to the council earlier this month, all new commercial developments and multifamily buildings that are four stories or taller would be prohibited from using fossil fuels for heating or hot water, instead having to use electric appliances. Methane, a major component of natural gas, contributes far more to climate problems when compared to power from Washington’s hydroelectric system.
Large construction projects would also be required to install solar power, Constantine said, or be “solar-ready” — in other words, prepared to convert to solar power later on. Standards around insulation and other energy efficiency measures would also become more stringent.
Constantine’s proposed changes to the county building and fire code would apply only to new construction in unincorporated parts of King County. Projects located within a city’s limits are subject to that city’s local rules. Seattle, for one, has already adopted a similar ban on fossil fuels in new buildings.
While some of the changes to the county’s building codes might mean higher costs for new construction, Constantine insisted it’s worth the added expense. He called for public subsidies to help offset cost increases, particularly around housing for low-income people.
“Rather than simply shrugging our shoulders and saying, ‘Well, we’ll just have to settle for building in more carbon emissions for the next half-century,’” he told the Emerald, “we need to make sure that we’re bringing public subsidy and innovation to create green buildings that are also affordable.”
His proposal, for example, would seek to ensure that added costs due to the higher efficiency standards aren’t the responsibility of operators or developers of affordable housing projects.
Constantine’s office said it worked with community groups and organizations such as the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle–King County to ensure the proposal is applied equitably and “will also improve the quality of life for residents, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who are disproportionately impacted by climate change.”
At Wednesday’s event, Constantine added that he will also form a “Just Transition” roundtable aimed at bringing community members into the discussion. He said the group will “focus on building solutions to address the disruptive but necessary shift away from fossil fuels and toward a low-carbon economy.”
“We need to make sure that in these transitions — which we have to do to help save our planet — we are focusing on the needs of people’s lives that are being disrupted by these changes,” he added, “and we will invite to this table all of those who can contribute to that conversation.”
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, whose District 2 includes much of South Seattle and South King County, said he and several of his colleagues on the council “stand willing and able to collaborate on these critical building code changes.”
“I grew up in public housing. Many of my family members have asthma because of the pollution caused by dirty fossil fuels,” he said. Like many obstacles the region struggles with, pollution and climate change hit vulnerable residents hardest.
“We always have to remember, like many of the issues that our region faces, the brunt of the burden is gonna fall on the shoulders of people living in low-income apartment complexes, our unhoused neighbors who are exposed to the elements, our community members who are senior citizens, our community members living with disabilities, our community members who are most vulnerable to these disproportionate impacts,” he said. “That’s what we’re most fighting for.”
Zahilay told the Emerald that while in the past he’s been skeptical of building requirements that could increase the cost of housing, he believes it’s possible for public voucher programs or other subsidies to keep the costs of Constantine’s plan manageable.
“My big concern was that in a place that already has trouble getting affordable housing, like Skyway, adding additional construction costs … would just reduce the supply of affordable housing,” he said.
Patience Malaba, the director of government relations and policy at the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle–King County, which represents nonprofit housing developers, called the new proposal an “incremental step” toward King County reaching its Strategic Climate Action Plan (SCAP), which calls to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, prioritize equity, and prepare for the impacts of climate change.
“While this step does come with some sacrifice,” she said at Wednesday’s event, “it is attainable with determination and commitment and can provide inspiration for our collective focus on equity and housing.”
Seattle’s housing obstacles have grown over the years, and it’s now “legitimately impossible” to deny that it’s a crisis, Malaba added. “It becomes even harder for us to ensure that affordable homes are real if we don’t have healthy, sustainable communities.”
Other affordable housing advocates told the Emerald they back the new proposal.
“We support Executive Constantine’s building code changes to improve indoor air quality, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and increase energy efficiency for affordable housing,” Sharon Lee, executive director for the Low-Income Housing Institute, said in an email. “We believe in building with renewable energy, and creating high performance apartment buildings that improve the environment for our seniors and families living on limited incomes.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
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