Auburn, Federal Way mayors speak out against multifamily housing bill

Leaders say they don’t need state intervention.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus and Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell spoke out this week against a bill intended to address the state’s housing crisis.

During the local government house committee meeting on Jan. 18, Ferrell and Backus were among the first to provide testimony against House Bill 1782, which would require that cities change their zoning codes to allow for more “middle housing.”

Middle housing is multifamily housing that is similar in size and aesthetics to single-family housing, such as duplexes and sixplexes, according to Missing Middle Housing. These housing options are referred to as “middle” because they are in between single-family homes and high-rise apartment complexes.

Backus and Ferrell were far outnumbered by the vast majority of people who testified. Of the 577 people who testified, 522 were in support of the bill, 21 were opposed and eight were neither in support nor opposed.

Backus and Ferrell both argued that because Auburn and Federal Way are already attempting to create more middle housing, the state shouldn’t intervene. They also both said this bill would strip cities of local control.

“Auburn created a housing action plan with state funding about a year ago, engaging with community members and stakeholders,” Backus said. “We have a great plan moving forward with affordable housing both in ownership and rental opportunities.”

Allowing duplexes and other multi-family housing in more places in Auburn would put a strain on utilities and other services like schools, Backus said.

Currently, the vast majority of residential land in Auburn and Federal Way is zoned for single-family housing only, according to the respective cities’ zoning maps. Single-family housing is the least energy efficient method of housing and takes up the most space, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We believe this bill punishes our city’s proud history and our future of proactive housing diversity,” Ferrell said of Federal Way. “This is a one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach that would undercut local control of our well-planned missing middle development.”

Mason Thompson, the mayor of Bothell, argued in support of the bill and said if local governments were capable of addressing this issue, there wouldn’t be an affordable housing crisis.

“Local control does not mean that every city has done something slightly different because they are unique and special,” Thompson said. “What it has actually done is led to a status quo where the zoning code for almost every city looks almost exactly the same, where the zoning for the vast majority of residential land is zoned exclusively for the wealthiest people and has the highest fossil fuel emissions per capita.”

The original sin of exclusionary zoning was keeping Black and brown people out of white neighborhoods, but its negative impacts have only grown, Thompson said.

The bill requires that cities with populations of 20,000 or more “must provide by ordinance and incorporate into its development regulations, zoning regulations, and other official controls, authorization for the development of all middle housing types on all lots zoned for detached single-family residential use and within one-half mile of a major transit stop.”

The bill defines middle housing as duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, fiveplexes, sixplexes, stacked flats, townhouses and courtyard apartments.

Those cities must also change the zoning laws to allow for duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes on all other lots zoned for single-family residential use.

Studies have consistently shown that restrictive zoning laws such as the ones in place in Federal Way and Auburn are a major cause of increased housing costs, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Restrictive zoning laws caused housing costs to increase by 30% in some cases, according HUD.