WA lawmakers plan to cut red tape on building tiny homes

Planning for Rosie’s Village began in early spring 2021. According to the Low Income Housing Institute, the organization that runs Rosie’s Village, the tiny house villages are expected to take about 10 weeks to plan and build. But Rosie’s didn’t open until November because of a month-long environmental review called the State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, that the small villages of origin must undergo. State Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat from West Seattle, hopes to change that this year.

“If the legislature had passed Senator Nguyen’s bill last year, we could have cleaned up Ballard Commons in July or August instead of November,” said Seattle City Councilman Andrew Lewis. “Everything is slowed down by the tedious and unnecessary environmental review process. We are really talking about four to six months late for no legitimate reason.

Nguyen’s bill would exempt Tiny Home Villages from SEPA review when located in communities that have declared states of homelessness emergency, including Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, County of King and Thurston County. The bill passed the Senate 41-8 on Feb. 8 and must now make its way through the House.

To benefit from the exemption, small reception villages must be used for homeless people, have no more than 200 beds, have been in existence for no more than five years and must not include permanent structures – small houses are, after everything, meant to be temporary measures, not permanent accommodation. Villages must also comply with local water quality and erosion regulations, have a solid waste and medical waste mitigation plan, and form a community advisory committee to provide information on village operations. village and deal with any complaints from neighbours.

“The homelessness crisis is getting worse,” Nguyen said. “Instead of having supportive housing and affordable housing, we need some sort of palliative. Tiny houses are not the answer to homelessness. But we need something to keep people stable in safe places and off our streets and our little homes. »

SEPA requires governments and private companies to assess the impact of new construction projects – from apartment buildings and grocery stores to highway expansions and new sewage treatment plants. The project proponent must go through a long checklist of potential environmental impacts on the natural world, including air, water, plants, noise and light. SEPA also assesses the impact on the built environment such as utilities, transport, parking and aesthetics.

“The end goal is how to get people out of dangerous spaces that are currently harming our environment,” Nguyen said, referring to unauthorized encampments. “It helps to have them in small, regulated houses. … It’s an emergency and in those cases I think it’s acceptable to bypass reviews like SEPA.

The Low Income Housing Institute, which fully supports Nguyen’s bill, points out that small housing villages are typically built on underused or vacant parking lots or fields and have no permanent impact.

Because villages are built as temporary settlements, LIHI said, it is easy to remove them and return the land to its original use. “It is not a permanent multi-family building that has a multi-generational impact that must be analyzed [through SEPA]”, said Brad Gerber, LIHI’s Tiny House Project Manager. “For Rosie’s Village, we barely penetrated the ground. It was an existing parking lot that we had just put houses on.

The months-long review process isn’t the only problem SEPA can cause for Tiny Home Villages. SEPA allows citizens to lodge an appeal arguing that the initial environmental analysis was insufficient. Even if a hearing reviewer ultimately rejects the appeal, it can add months or even years to the delay. SEPA calls are commonly used to delay new affordable housing projects, cycle lanes and many other types of development.

According to LIHI, a SEPA call delayed the expansion of a small village of houses in Interbay. As a result, Gerber said, “everyone living in the village had to use buckets of honey and a sink of gray water instead of having running water, hot showers and bathrooms as planned. ” during the delay.

In Bellingham, SEPA call delays nearly killed the small community of Gardenview Village that LIHI was trying to open. “We didn’t know if there was an end in sight to the appeals process.” In addition to Rosie’s Village, LIHI operates 15 small home communities in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Bellingham.

Nguyen submitted his SEPA invoice several years in a row without success. Last year, the bill passed the Senate, but did not pass the House. This year’s Senate version was opposed by only seven Republicans and one Democrat.

At a press conference in early February, State Senator Mike Braun, a Republican representing Southwest Washington, said that while he had reservations about SEPA in general, he was skeptical about it. small house exemption. Braun was one of eight negative votes on the bill.

“Why would we exempt one type of development from all the others? Braun asked during the press conference. He argued that SEPA is a “simple process” that helps all parties involved in development to better understand the environmental impact and is therefore worth keeping in place.

Nguyen hopes that because the homelessness crisis continues to worsen, his bill may not face the same obstacles this session as in previous years.

“The need is clearer now than it was before,” Nguyen said. “The nuances of how to approach homelessness have always been debated. But homelessness is so prevalent even people on the fence and dare I say NIMBYish [not in my backyard] see the impacts in their communities now.

Councilman Lewis sees the bill as an effort to treat homeless state of emergency declarations as a real emergency.

“Homelessness is a huge and overwhelming humanitarian emergency,” Lewis said. “I don’t think it’s really taken into account by people that we’re dealing with the same thing as if we had been hit by an earthquake or a tornado. We have an urban refugee crisis. … We need to pass the bill so that we have the tools to react quickly and sufficiently.