If you're a resident of King County, chances are you've experienced the housing crisis in deeply personal ways. Perhaps you've felt the strain of rising rents, the frustration of searching for an affordable home to purchase in a market with dwindling inventory, or even the despair of facing homelessness. In the day-to-day struggle to secure stable housing, it can be easy to overlook the broader forces of public policy shaping our experiences.

Yet, when we examine the numbers and the policy decisions, the reasons behind our housing woes become clearer.

Washington State currently holds the unenviable title of having the fewest number of housing units per capita in the entire nation. This is, in large part, because the zoning and land use codes of cities, towns, and counties across the state restrict the number and types of homes that can be built. Apartments and more modest multi-family homes are banned in many residential areas throughout the state. These bans create a housing scarcity that drives up competition for available units, leading to skyrocketing prices. As our state's population and job market continue to grow, the gap between housing supply and demand widens, exacerbating the affordability crisis for countless individuals and families.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. Across the state, there is a growing movement among advocates and policymakers pushing for a solution: building more housing of all types in more places. House Bill 1220, recently passed by the State Legislature, requires cities and counties to update their comprehensive plans to ensure they "plan for and accommodate housing affordable to all economic segments of the population." The previous iteration of the Growth Management Act required that localities only “encourage the availability of affordable housing” rather than actively planning for and accommodating it. This is a crucial step in the right direction, forcing local governments to actively address our housing shortage.

But the State Legislature isn’t the only government taking action. Look to Spokane. In 2022, their city council made a bold move, eliminating single-family zoning and allowing the construction of modest multi-family homes throughout the city. The results have been remarkable. In the short period since the ordinance took effect, Spokane has seen a surge in housing permits. In 2023, the city allowed 225% more homes than it did in 2022, 218% more than in 2021, and 241% more than 2020. This is a powerful testament to the power of removing bureaucratic hurdles and letting the market respond to the clear demand for housing options.

This movement to build more homes inspired me to propose the King County Missing Middle Housing Motion in February of 2023. My legislation directed the King County Executive to complete a comprehensive study on ways to expand “missing middle” housing in unincorporated King County. “Missing middle” is a term used to describe modest multi-family homes that more than one household can live in, like duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, and townhouses.These types of homes bridge the gap between single-family homes and large apartment buildings, offering a wider range of options and greater affordability.

The code study that resulted from my legislation, delivered in June of 2023, outlined effective ways to significantly reduce barriers to building missing middle housing. Executive staff’s recommendations don't just deal in numbers; they address the human need for diverse housing options. They represent a chance for families to put down roots, for young professionals to live near their jobs, and for seniors to age comfortably in place with access to essential services. Many of these great recommendations have been incorporated into the Executive's proposed 2024 Comprehensive Plan Update, a document that sets the course for King County's development for the next decade.

The Comprehensive Plan Update presents a unique opportunity for King County to lead the way on housing. The plan, currently under review by the County Council, has the potential to substantially increase housing supply by reducing zoning and regulatory barriers. Through the Local Services and Land Use Committee, the Council has taken the Executive’s recommended changes a step further, proposing to allow for more density and a wider variety of housing types in urban areas, all while streamlining or eliminating the often lengthy and expensive permitting processes.

It should be noted that King County’s land use and zoning jurisdiction extends primarily to rural areas and small urban unincorporated pockets like Skyway and White Center. Since the capacity for development in these urban pockets tends to be smaller than that of larger cities, and the Growth Management Act directs us to reduce development in rural areas, the County will not be able to close the housing gap on its own. But the inability to do it alone is true of every single jurisdiction in our state. It is only together that we can solve these problems and provide everyone an affordable place to live.

The urgency of this situation cannot be overstated. Up for Growth, a housing advocacy group, estimates a statewide shortage of 225,000 housing units. Washington State’s Department of Commerce estimates we will need more than one million homes in the next 20 years. In King County alone, we need thousands of new homes just to keep pace with population growth. This lack of supply isn't just an economic burden–it's a major factor contributing to our growing homelessness crisis. As a community, we cannot stand by while our neighbors face the devastating consequences of a broken housing market.

We need bold, coordinated action across every level of government, and our respective comprehensive plans offer us a roadmap to get there. Let's learn from the success stories from the State Legislature to Spokane, embrace innovative solutions, work together across governments, and finally tackle the housing crisis head-on. Every jurisdiction in Washington State must take a hard look at their comprehensive plan and recognize its potential to address housing shortages.