Comment: Housing shouldn’t come at cost of city zoning control

HB 1110 could result in more gentrification than providing a greater supply of the housing we need.

By Jenna Nand / For The Herald

I recently went on a trip to Miami, Fla. While there, I heard from local taxi drivers that developers have come up with a brilliant idea to address the effects of climate change that are drowning parts of the city. They want to be allowed to anchor skyscrapers directly into the seafloor, essentially creating artificial islands to cater to the wealthy and the privileged.

If the City of Miami and the state of Florida let them do it, I wonder how long it would take for these ecological horrors to travel to the Puget Sound. When it comes to deregulation, I have noticed that special interests tend to “beta test” new proposals in red states, with politicians who typically are hostile to government regulation in the first place, before repackaging and migrating their ideas to blue states, which tend to be more cautious about deregulation.

I am the newest member of Edmonds City Council, but I am a longtime grass-roots Democratic activist who is very concerned about the impacts of gentrification and displacement on our working class and minority neighborhoods, especially the International Business District along Edmonds’ portion of the Highway 99 corridor. For this reason, I was one of six council members who voted on Dec. 7 in favor of Resolution 1510, an affirmation of our desire to retain local control of zoning laws within the existing framework of state legislation, such as the Growth Management Act. This resolution was passed in response to bills in the state Legislature that seek to preempt local control.

Let’s not dance around the issue. While it touts laudable aims about increasing “affordable housing,” House Bill 1110 and its companion bills represent massive deregulation of the real estate industry. And, if it is passed in its present form, multiple special interests stand to benefit to the tune of billions of dollars over the coming decades, including developers, builders and real estate agents.

At a dinner recently, one of my progressive colleagues on another city council excitedly proclaimed that if we could eliminate all zoning regulations and allow developers to build whatever they want wherever they want, we would end up with so much more housing. This is a point where, as a moderate Democrat, I must respectfully disagree with my progressive friends: We would end up with much more unaffordable, obnoxious luxury housing.

It is not the job of private developers to solve the affordable housing crisis or to alleviate homelessness. As with any other private sector business, the job of developers is to maximize profits for their shareholders. Period. It is the job of government, at all levels, to address housing affordability and homelessness. And, incidentally, climate resiliency for new developments. We cannot outsource those responsibilities to private businesses and expect anything positive for our communities to result. Naturally, each business is simply going to act in its own self-interest. As a business lawyer, I understand intimately how business works. That is why I believe that the market must be well-regulated to prevent a race to the bottom.

HB 1110, in its present form, is slanted very pro-developer and extremely anti-city. With mandatory density formulas crafted by state legislators in Olympia, the legislation will preempt local zoning control and open up millions of acres of land all over the state to developers with little say from local city councils and the communities that we represent.

Since many of the proponents of these bills themselves once served on city councils, I don’t understand why they think it is feasible for Seattle, Spokane, Edmonds, Okanogan, Whidbey Island and Vancouver to all have the exact same zoning laws. Or why they think that Olympia is best positioned to craft those zoning laws for all of us. The vastly different populations, ecosystems, terrains, economies, cultures, environments and histories of each corner of our state deserve to be treated as unique. A one-size-fits-all solution, i.e. duplexes and fourplexes almost anywhere in city limits — environmental consequences be damned — doesn’t respect Washington state or its people. We will lose what makes our state so special in the first place: its natural beauty and its trees.

The type of nuance that is required to increase density and massing of new multifamily developments in what have been previously single-family zoned neighborhoods for decades is best achievable through retaining local control at the city level. As a city council member, I invite our state legislators to work with us to solve the affordable housing crisis and the homelessness crisis. We are not NIMBYs; we are not racists. We see the trauma experienced by the unhoused population and the strain on working and middle class families when they have to spend hours daily commuting to work. We want to solve these problems, too. Don’t treat us as the enemy.

Since state Democrats are fairly confident that they will pass HB 1110 and its companion bills in some form this session, I am proposing an amendment to HB 1110 to try to at least retain public design review process options at the city level. Especially for communities with a history of disenfranchisement and marginalization, these are important tools to engage with our community members. In particular, people who come from historically underrepresented communities, who may speak English as a second language, and are engaging in the political process for the first time.

Please contact your state representatives and senators and ask them to retain public design review process options at the city level. Don’t let them take away your voice.

Jenna Nand is an at-large member of the Edmonds City Council. Her views are her own.

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