2021 Washington Legislative Session

Posted By: Jim Wiard Advocacy News , COVID-19 Resource Center ,

The 2021 state legislature is now in session. Over the next several months policymakers will be deciding some of the most important pieces of legislation in years.

The challenges are great for our state. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession of unprecedented depths has shaken our lives and health.

This session will not look like sessions in the past. COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings and social distancing requirements will mean our elected officials must debate policies and enact legislation in this new virtual and remote, online world.

The rental housing industry and our many coalition partners and stakeholders stand ready to work hand in hand with lawmakers to support housing affordability and availability for all Washington residents who choose rental housing as a home.

Olympia Needs to Put Housing Creation First

The financial turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating everywhere. Here in Washington state, a surge in the virus and spikes in unemployment have taken a toll on thousands of Washingtonians.

Vaccines create optimism for the future. Bringing the economy back and getting people back to work must be the highest priority for legislators.

This upcoming legislative session, lawmakers also have the opportunity to help keep residents in their homes and out of debt while we await vaccine distribution. They can also make progress on long-term goals to help reduce housing costs and increase housing creation to support our economic recovery.

Here are some proven tools the legislature should consider:
  • Rental assistance: allocating significant resources to financial assistance programs for renters impacted financially by COVID-19. These programs have a proven track record of success in reducing poverty and supporting housing stability in the long run.
  • Multifamily tax aid: investing and expanding the state’s Multifamily Tax Exemption program, which incentivizes the creation of affordable housing by offering tax incentives for housing developers that keep rents below market rate. Since 2007, the program has created an estimated 7,325 affordable units and 27,560 market-rate units across Washington state.
  • Public private partnerships: supporting public investment and partnerships with the private sector that create a range of housing that fits the needs of more people. This can include coordinating the construction of transit-oriented affordable housing near future light rail stations, like in King County
  • Housing levies: supporting jurisdictional programs that develop and preserve affordable housing and provide direct assistance to families at immediate risk of eviction or homelessness. In Seattle, housing levies have enabled the construction of 12,500 apartments with below market rents.
Additionally, Olympia must avoid policies that would take us backwards in our goal in strengthening housing creation and reducing housing costs, including:
  • Enacting rent control: according to research released last year, a statewide cap on rents could slash housing creation by up to 15,000 homes over the next decade if enacted – equivalent to a year’s worth of all the multifamily units produced statewide between 2010 and 2019. For reference, Washington state needs to create about 10,000 new apartments every year by 2030 just to keep up with the demand for rental housing.
  • Extending emergency orders without a plan: The Governor’s orders on rental housing are short-term band aids that fail to address the underlying challenges with housing stability and accessibility – and put rental housing providers unable to pay their mortgage and expenses in a position to file for bankruptcy or foreclosure. Instead, the legislature should focus on covering housing costs for those needing it the most, and not imperil our housing system by shifting the burden of this unfortunate pandemic onto the shoulders of housing providers. 
  • Increasing barriers to housing creation: creating burdensome regulations like zoning rules and permitting restrictions, such as in New York City and San Francisco, is proven to drive up the costs of housing – and prevent people from living near their jobs, saving money, and being able to one day buy a home.

We need clear policies that will help reduce our housing gap and oppose those that will make housing affordability worse.

There are undoubtedly some difficult decisions ahead to address our challenges. Whatever the path forward, lawmakers should take note that there are alternatives to policies like rent control, that have a proven track record of success, support from voters, and can help Washingtonians keep a roof over their head during a pandemic that will hopefully have a clear end in sight soon.

Unfortunately, we can expect the conversation of rent control as a housing policy to heat up among legislators as Washington’s housing crisis and the economic fallout from COVID-19 continues.

Partnership for Affordable Housing

WMFHA supports Partnership for Affordable Housing, a 501(c)4 nonprofit, formed out of a strong and shared interest to provide fresh ideas and solutions to providing a wide range of housing options for all Washingtonians.

Like many other parts of the country, Washington state’s rapid growth presents significant challenges. The coalition takes a proactive approach to address housing affordability in the state and is focused on the following principles: 

  • Support the creation of all types of housing that meets the needs of every Washington resident.
  • Enact new policies that help residents to stay in quality, affordable housing for the near and the long term.
  • Give local communities more tools to keep housing affordable.

Partnership for Affordable Housing urges lawmakers to support policies this session that increase housing access and affordability and avoid those that will reduce housing creation.

Washingtonians Overwhelmingly Support Solutions

According to a poll of Washington voters, by a margin of more than 2 to 1, residents prefer rental rates be set by an agreement between landlords and their tenants (62%) rather than be regulated by the government (23%); a margin of 39 percentage points.

Washingtonians overwhelmingly believe that increasing the Washington Housing Trust Fund, creating tax incentives for affordable housing, expanding public private partnerships, and providing rental assistance to low-income households are far better solutions to addressing housing affordability than forms of rent control.

In 2018, federal rental assistance programs lifted 3 million people above the poverty line. In Seattle, 99% of households who entered into the city’s rental assistance program successfully maintained their housing when they exited the program in 2008.

COVID-19 has added new challenges on top of the severe housing shortage Washington was facing before the pandemic. We need to address the short-term need to support residents while planning better for our future. Any form of rent control is clearly not the right path forward.

Let’s challenge our legislators to work together with the rental housing industry to develop policies that help, not harm, renters in our state and housing providers who serve our neighbors who rent their homes.