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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane city planners to detail ideas for keeping housing affordable

Ron Wendle, project architect for the Ridpath project checks out the view from one the hotel rooms being converted into an apartment. The renovation project is moving along, with the first units becoming available mid-December. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Ron Wendle, project architect for the Ridpath project checks out the view from one the hotel rooms being converted into an apartment. The renovation project is moving along, with the first units becoming available mid-December. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Apartment vacancy rates are plummeting, home prices are skyrocketing and 20,000 people are expected to move to Spokane in the next 20 years.

If that sounds like a recipe to push Spokane into the league of unaffordable West Coast cities like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, local city planners have an idea to keep Spokane a place where regular working people can live comfortably.

Instead of encouraging sprawl on the city’s margins, a slate of revisions to city regulations will enable development on vacant lots within already built-up areas. Dubbed “infill” by urban planners, it amounts to putting new structures on old land, property that’s been used for other purposes and is already tied into the city’s existing water, sewer, street and utility infrastructure.

The proposed revisions are also the first of three phases the city’s planning department is considering that could reshape how development looks in the city in coming years.

The first phase deals with taking down barriers to development of smaller homes on smaller lots and is called the cottage housing and pocket residential code amendments. They will effectively allow the division of a piece of property into smaller parcels without requiring the land to be rezoned, as well as allow the construction of a wider variety of houses on those lots.

The second and third phases will deal with transit-oriented development and construction on steep slopes.

Lisa Key, the city’s planning services director, said the city wants to address housing issues before they become a problem, like they have in Seattle, where the median home price hit $700,000 this year, double what it was five years ago.

“The low-hanging fruit has been addressed,” Key said.

The new pocket residential rules would allow lots as small as a fifth of an acre to be subdivided into smaller lots for development. Currently, that requires the property owner to go through a lengthy rezoning process involving approval from the city’s plan commission and City Council. The new rule would require compatibility in scale and design with the surrounding residential neighborhood. The amendment also would allow developers to build different housing options, such as attaching two homes on a single family lot, for instance.

The cottage housing amendments will loosen rules already in place to allow for more ownership options. Currently, city regulations don’t allow subdivision of internal units, and a cottage housing complex requires the units to be owned in common or through a condominium ownership model. If passed, the new rules will allow the cottages to be rented, sold as condos or owned outright.

Nathan Gwinn, a planner with the city, said the amendments won’t change much in the code, but should be seen more as the removal of some barriers to help achieve the vision outlined in the Comprehensive Plan, the city’s long-term document guiding growth and development.

Gwinn also said the proposal was designed to help keep homes affordable. Not only will the public save by having new development connect to existing infrastructure, Gwinn said, but individuals could save money by living closer to the city’s core.

“Every income level can benefit from housing that’s closer to existing services and jobs,” he said. “There is a legitimate affordability factor, both for the public and for the individual household.”

The city’s plan commission will vote on the proposed amendments on Dec. 13, leading to a City Council vote some time in early 2018.

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