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Does Washington Expect Homeowners to Solve the Housing Crisis?

Housing market up and down with money
Is it up to homeowners to build more housing?

Over the last decade, “upzoning” has become part of the lexicon of the housing crisis, touted as a solution to create more affordable housing in cities across America. In practice, upzoning is a catch-all term referring to a change in a city’s zoning code that allows for increased future development. For the purposes of housing, upzoning deals in density― getting more people in less space.

With single-family zoning officially banned in Washington State, permits are underway to create more density on lots that were previously zoned for single-family homes. Coupled with two significant pieces of legislation that deal directly with density-based zoning regulations, it seems the State is all-in on upzoning.

But will upzoning result in more widely available, affordable housing in Bellingham? And who is responsible for developing this housing? In this article we’ll be looking at House Bills 1110 and 1337. In addition to providing an explanation of how these bills impact zoning, we’ll consider what they might mean for our community.

Missing Middle Housing, Accessory Dwelling Units & Upzoning

2023 has been dubbed “the Year of Housing” by state officials, with 10 new laws and one billion dollars allocated to Washington’s housing crisis. E2SHB 1110 and EHB 1337 are among the most impactful bills passed; with House Bill 1110 focusing on the “Missing Middle Housing” issue and House Bill 1337 dealing with accessory dwelling units or “ADUs.”

HB 1110

For our purposes, Middle Housing refers to dwellings that fall anywhere between a traditional single-family home and an apartment building. This includes duplexes, townhouses, cottage clusters, courtyard apartments and the like. This style of housing has fallen decidedly out of favor in American development, with the vast majority of suburbia zoned for single-family homes and apartment buildings dominating urban centers.

The bill states “there is continued need for the development of housing at all income levels, including middle housing that will provide a wider variety of housing options and configurations to allow Washingtonians to live near where they work.” To address these needs, city zoning codes must allow six out of the nine types of middle housing such as those listed above.

HB 1337

House Bill 1337 is “an act relating to expanding housing options by easing barriers to the construction and use of accessory dwelling units.” Accessory dwelling units, otherwise known as “ADUs,” “mother-in-law units,” “granny flats,” and “secondary suites” are self-contained homes or apartments on the same lot as a primary single-family residence.

The bill states that “Localities can start to correct for historic economic and racial exclusion in single-family zones by opening up these neighborhoods to more diverse housing types, including accessory dwelling units, that provide lower cost homes.” It also mentions that accessory dwelling units can be an additional income stream for homeowners who add one.

Passing the Bill?

Both of these bills are forms of upzoning, now allowing the development of missing middle housing and ADUs in previously zoned single-family neighborhoods. Upzoning, and changes to zoning regulations in general, are essential tools in the toolbox of communities that need to address a housing crisis.

However, simply updating a policy does not immediately result in new housing development. Now that it has been addressed at the state level, it is in the hands of localities to permit the development of missing middle housing and ADUs. But will these laws result in the generation of more affordable housing in traditionally zoned single-family neighborhoods?

Who Is Going to Build the Additional Housing?

An article from states: “It’s true that zoning reform helps create more housing units, but there’s no evidence it makes housing cheaper.” Even the housing supply associated with fewer development restrictions experienced only a small increase in available units (.8%), and that increase did not come with “a reduction in housing costs or with greater availability of lower-cost units.” We’ve seen this at play in Walla Walla.

It is a significant expense for those who are building an ADU or redeveloping their lot to include forms of Middle Housing. The costs of fees and permitting, designers, materials, and labor are expensive and these projects can take a minimum of one year to build. When they are finally ready for rent, the builder is carrying a significant amount of debt which makes it highly probable that these units will not be rented at below-market rate.

As UCLA’s Associate Professor of Urban Planning, Michael Manville, says, “It’s never been the case that you would expect new construction to be affordable to very low income people.” Though zoning reform is a critical legislative step, it is not the silver bullet to solve our housing crisis.

An excellent piece by shines a light on one of the big reasons that upzoning isn’t a solve-all.

“Today, the kind of infill builder who builds small apartment buildings on single residential lots is almost an extinct species in many cities. Large development companies buy up whole city blocks to build 5-over-1 apartment buildings, or they create new subdivisions in the suburbs. They are largely not interested in one-off, small-scale infill projects. You can change your zoning code to legalize such projects, but who is going to build them?

Re-creating that ecosystem of small developers and the support systems they need is the real, long-term task required to get us to the goal of cities where neighborhoods can grow and adapt to local demand—where housing production isn’t so artificially constrained. But that is complex work requiring patient cultivation. Zoning reform, while a prerequisite, is not in itself going to get any city there.”

This might be the most applicable point in the matter of whether House Bills 1110 and 1337 will help Washington out of its housing crisis. Permission to re-develop single-family homes into duplexes or to build ADUs is not a mandate to re-develop or build new housing. And if the numbers for generating new housing do not pencil out, who will build it?

It is not realistic to put the onus on Bellingham homeowners to generate new homes in the hope that by re-developing their properties or adding ADUs, they will become landlords. What seems more likely is that when a house in a single-family neighborhood goes up for sale, it will be purchased by real estate investors who have the capital to outbid local families so they can tear down the home, maximize the lot density, and turn it into a rental property. This scenario has the potential to further widen Bellingham’s wealth gap by pricing out locals who can’t afford to own. It begs the question in twenty years will homeownership belong to the elite while the majority of Bellingham residents rent?

It’s a lot to think about, and while zoning changes can ultimately be a good thing, we need to make sure we’re creating comprehensive housing policies that will support the future our community wants to see.


Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing-related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.



Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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