Federal Way faces housing challenge amid population growth | Livingston

Federal Way is growing in its diversity, population, and like the rest of the state will be changing its zoning ordinances to increase housing density. Growth is generally considered positive but embracing the challenges being imposed by House Bill 1110, which took effect July 23, 2023, will be a significant change for Federal Way residents who appreciate the characteristics of our single-family subdivisions as they currently are.

Change is a constant in the life cycle of any city, but our city prefers avoiding change and disliking Growth Management Act directives imposed by the state. Of course, the state sees the challenge differently. The state identified in HB1110 that 1 million new homes are needed by 2044 to meet the state’s population growth needs. This will be a challenging journey for cities and counties in our state with significant population growth potential.

We live in a county that has grown in its population by just over 18 percent since 2010, and Federal Way experienced a 10 percent population growth in the same timeframe. According to South King County’s sub-regional housing plan framework, Federal Way added 1,813 housing units since 2011, or about a 5 percent increase, which is insufficient to keep pace with current as well as future needs.

Housing is one of the biggest challenges facing our state and city. Federal Way’s historic development was centered on single-family subdivisions interspersed with multifamily complexes all with the feel of self-contained enclaves and minimal neighborhood connectivity. The city, in its Housing Action Plan, acknowledges this development style and knows that to achieve the higher density required by HB1110, the city’s future development focus becomes addressing the lack of “middle housing” while at the same time assuring that housing affordability needs are met as well.

Middle housing is described as duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, simplexes, cottage clusters, apartments, stacked flats, condos, townhomes, and a few more. The characteristics of some of our neighborhoods are likely to change. The change will be slow and may have more impact on older neighborhoods with larger lots. These houses, when they get purchased by developers, often become rentals until the developer acquires several lots and financing becomes favorable to removing existing structures and building the suggested variety of middle housing that the city will choose as its mix within state law.

HB1110 requires cities to alter their existing zoning requirements to include middle housing on existing lots within currently zoned single-family neighborhoods. The state is allowing the development of at least four units per lot on all lots zoned predominately for residential use, for at least six units per lot on all lots within a one-quarter mile of walking distance of a major transit stop. The bill allows an increase of up to six units per lot if two units are designated as affordable in areas that do not meet the targeted walking criteria to a transit stop.

The state, county, and our city are all in need of additional housing to meet population growth. If you live in a subdivision that has restrictive covenants limiting the number of dwellings per lot, the covenants will continue as long as the Home Owners Association remains active. Once an HOA disbands or if there never was an HOA with restrictive covenants in place, the new middle housing rules for development can be used to density those subdivisions.

This is not a rising housing tide that the city can prevent from altering the landscape of our city. The city will have to modify its zoning ordinances within the next two years to comply with HB1110.

Fortunately, the city has developed a Housing Action Plan in anticipation of population growth and projects that Federal Way needs to add approximately 6,800 units before 2040 to accommodate expected population growth. The city in its 22 square miles has about 37,500 residential units with a population density of 4,500 per square mile. Vacant land in our city is a prized commodity, hence the potential appeal for redeveloping existing lots.

Altering the course of a suburban community that defined itself in its early development as a bedroom community will be challenging for our city’s leadership. Our protectionist attitude slowed down the course of densifying our city for several years with a moratorium that prevented market rate developers from building multifamily complexes until city leadership understood the changing housing market. Unfortunately, the moratorium unintentionally altered the desirability of developers specializing in mixed-use market-rate developments seeing Federal Way as a prime target for investment. Investors specializing in affordable senior housing developments filled the void.

The city is repositioning itself as an opportunity for development. The city has identified multiple strategies to support its philosophy and middle housing implementation, such as the need to promote a dense, walkable, and mixed-use city center, figuring out ways to increase walkability and mixed-use in sub-areas and neighborhoods, and assuring that affordability options are included in numbers sufficient to meet needs.

Meeting the state’s expectations and keeping an eye on the desirability characteristics that made Federal Way what it is will be a challenge for all of us. The city needs to find a way to work with the landowners in the 400-plus acre retail core to make it walkable, safe, and facilitate its transition into a mixed-use residential village supported by essential retail and public event activities.

Federal Way may be going through the correct motions to position itself for growth. But until the landowners in our retail core take it seriously and developers see our city as worthy of their dollars, we will find our housing growth process to be slow, which in turn will make our economic growth equally slow. If we are not proactive, the only investors we will attract will be those specializing in affordable housing developments, which will forever preclude Federal Way from being seen as a city of progress.

Keith Livingston is a retired municipal managament professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at keithlivingstondesign@gmail.com