by Shirley Leung
My family and friends have been directly impacted by failed land use and housing policy in Washington State for decades. Though I didn’t realize it until recently, it’s no exaggeration to say that these land use policies have shaped almost every aspect of my life since my family immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong in the early ’90s.
Like many immigrant families, we came to the Greater Seattle area in part to seek out better job opportunities. Most of these job opportunities were in downtown Seattle, however, far from any affordable housing for a family of four. So we put down roots in Renton and after a few years, moved into a modest detached single-family home in a sprawling suburban neighborhood. For 30 years, my mom commuted over three hours per day from that suburb to downtown Seattle and Belltown for work (without a single complaint, mind you). That’s over 2.5 years of her life spent trapped in a tiny box, breathing exhaust fumes in stop-and-go traffic. This took an enormous toll on her mental and physical health. It also cost us a lot of quality family time that we can never get back.
These days, both she and my dad are finally retired. Their kids, nephews, and siblings have since moved out, and three of the four rooms in the house I grew up in have remained empty and devoid of the lively chatter, cozy warmth, and sometimes animated arguing that once filled them. Having surveyed my childhood friends, I’ve found that it is indeed common to have lonely suburban parents aging in place with multiple empty bedrooms, while neighbors in adjacent areas are pushed out onto the streets due to a lack of affordable bedrooms.
I live in Lake City now, so visiting my parents requires a two-hour round trip by car. Because of this, I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like (and therefore don’t get to eat nearly as many delicious home-cooked Cantonese meals as I’d like). They aren’t just far from me though; their sprawling suburban neighborhood also forces them to drive long distances to get to any shops, restaurants, services, or social activities. As they get older, more isolated, and progressively worse at driving (by their own admission), they want more and more to be part of a thriving, close-knit community with the ability to easily walk to all of their desired destinations. Their friends are also beginning to prefer more well-connected and walkable communities over lonely suburbs that hide all potential friends and connections down long-winding cul de sacs and behind soundproof windshields zooming by at 25 mph.
Even though my parents want to move to a smaller, easier-to-maintain home in a more accessible community closer to me, they cannot. These types of “missing middle” homes are simply not available. This is largely because it is illegal to build anything but detached single-family homes in most of the Greater Seattle area, including on more than 75% of Seattle’s residential land. My parents are not the only ones who are forced to live in the suburbs by this lack of housing, however. Many of my friends, who are just now starting families of their own, are experiencing the same thing that my family did when we first immigrated to Washington 30 years ago: a distinct lack of affordable, medium-sized housing in walkable neighborhoods that are great for families and located close to work. These friends of mine are instead being pushed into homes larger than they need in Renton, Kent, and other Seattle suburbs, while also being forced to commute for hours to Seattle each day.
Since our family first immigrated to Renton over 30 years ago, it’s like nothing has changed … except that many things have. Global temperatures have increased significantly due to climate change. Regular wildfires, heat waves, extreme floods, and deadly snow storms and cold snaps have become part of our daily lives, all while wealth and homeownership gaps between Black and white families have widened appreciably. And even though my friends are experiencing similar problems to what my family faced when we sought housing 30 years ago, they are now needing to pay much more and being forced to look even further away from Seattle.
Though the situation may seem bleak, there is a lot to be hopeful about. In Washington’s current legislative session, there are many exciting opportunities to begin solving some of these problems. There are three bills in particular that would be absolute game-changers: HB 1099, SB 5042, and HB 1782.
HB 1099 and SB 5042 would both update the Growth Management Act (GMA), which was first passed 30 years ago and requires cities and counties in Washington to develop comprehensive plans for managing population growth. Though the GMA has been instrumental in creating more housing in urban areas, preventing suburban sprawl, and protecting our forests and farmlands, it is not perfect. For example, there is currently no requirement in the GMA to plan for climate change. HB 1099 would change this and require cities and counties to come up with comprehensive climate solutions and greenhouse gas reduction plans that would result in more resilient, equitable, and sustainable communities. Because transportation is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in our state, passage of this bill into law would result in significant improvements to public transit and create many more walkable, transit-oriented, and car-independent communities — something that all of my family and friends would greatly benefit from.
Another issue with the GMA as it stands is the presence of a loophole that allows cities to expand into farmland and suburbs before proper review. SB 5042 would close this loophole and prevent cities and counties from issuing permits to developers until after proper review, thus protecting our natural resources and keeping neighborhoods from spreading out too far from one another.
Finally, HB 1782 would legalize the building of precious “missing middle” housing that so many of my friends and family members sorely need. In cities with more than 25,000 residents, HB 1782 would allow four adjoining homes (“quadplexes”) on all lots and six-unit apartment buildings (“six-plexes”) on lots within half-a-mile of a major transit stop. In cities with more than 10,000 residents, HB1782 would legalize duplexes on all lots. This would allow for the number of homes to finally catch up to the number of people seeking a better job and life for their families in Washington State, which would in turn lower housing prices and increase housing availability for everyone.
Join me in calling on your State elected officials to support and champion these three important bills. You can access the legislative hotline at 1-800-562-600 (TTY for Hearing Impaired: 800-833-6388) or send a comment to your electeds. In particular, please contact your Senators and Representatives in the 34th, 37th, 33rd, and 11th districts. Let’s make sure that everyone has access to affordable housing that they want, need, and deserve, while also leaving the next generation with a safe and livable planet.
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Shirley Leung grew up in Renton and currently lives in the Lake City neighborhood of Seattle. She is a water and climate scientist with a Ph.D. in oceanography and an M.S. in environmental engineering from the University of Washington. She is always on the hunt for new dim sum spots and dreams everyday of an equitable end to the fossil fuel era.
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