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Would fixing Spokane’s housing crisis be at odds with cutting its carbon footprint?

UPDATED: Sun., July 4, 2021

Chancy Jackson, 63, stands with the Ford Taurus he is currently living in, which is also overheating, on Thursday in front of The Patsy Clark Mansion in Browne’s Addition. Jackson said he’s tried to find housing, but the waitlists are long. His Dodge pickup with a slide-in camper – his go-to shelter – recently was stolen.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Chancy Jackson, 63, stands with the Ford Taurus he is currently living in, which is also overheating, on Thursday in front of The Patsy Clark Mansion in Browne’s Addition. Jackson said he’s tried to find housing, but the waitlists are long. His Dodge pickup with a slide-in camper – his go-to shelter – recently was stolen. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

When Chancy Jackson got his federal stimulus check, he “went straight to the car lot,” he said.

He’d been homeless for eight months at the time after hurting his shoulder and losing his job, and he paid $1,500 for a 1998 Ford Taurus where he could sleep, he said.

“A car seat is more comfortable than the concrete,” Jackson quipped.

Then he saved up and bought a 1996 Dodge 4x4 pickup with a 55-year-old slide-in camper in the bed.

He was on what he described as a yearslong waiting list for affordable housing , but Jackson at least had somewhere more comfortable to sleep while he waited.

Then, about six weeks ago, someone took the truck and the camper.

“They stole my life, my house and my truck,” he said.

That meant moving back into his Taurus.

On Wednesday, he turned 63 while parked on the edge of Coeur d’Alene Park in Browne’s Addition. It was 104 degrees – too hot to sleep in a car that has been heating up like an oven during a historic heatwave – so he found a spot on the grass.

He’s still searching for his camper truck and still on the waitlist for housing, but on Thursday he was sitting in his Taurus on a blazing hot late afternoon, with his shirt off, the doors open and the hood up.

One empty water bottle was upturned into the radiator of his car and another was on standby.

He was trying to keep the last thing between him and the concrete from overheating.

“It’s hard to live down here,” he said.

The difficulty of living in Spokane’s warming climate became manifest last week when rolling blackouts meant people with homes were using so much energy to run air conditioners and fans that Avista and other utilities were shutting off power in some places to prevent their systems from failing.

And then there were those, like Jackson, with no homes and no power in the first place, who were parked all around the city and congregated around shady places like Coeur d’Alene Park as the heat reached lethal levels.

As the city faces twin challenges with housing and climate, some argue their causes are intertwined – and so should be their solutions.

Count among them Kara Odegard, City Council’s manager of sustainability initiatives.

“We don’t think it has to be one or the other,” she said. “We think we can do both at the same time.”

Odegard has led the effort to draft a new Sustainability Action Plan on behalf of the Spokane City Council that lays out a litany of proposals to drastically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the city from 2016 levels 95% by 2050.

Written by the volunteer members of the city’s Sustainability Action Subcommittee, who drew in part on public input, the plan’s focus is on a pair of interrelated factors that contribute most to the city’s emissions: housing and transportation.

For Spokane to eliminate its contribution to the global carbon load, the plan suggests, residents will have to move differently around a denser city, between more efficient buildings that rely on renewable energy.

While the plan offers some 200 proposals for making that vision a reality, some in the city’s housing industry have honed in on a handful of ideas they argue would increase already skyrocketing housing prices, driving development outside city limits and exacerbating the very climate problem the plan aims to solve.

Cost

Darin Watkins said he and the Spokane Association of Realtors, where he serves as government affairs director, are “terrified” about the sustainability plan taking shape.

It’s not that the group doesn’t “believe strongly in doing things to improve our environment,” Watkins said. His concern, instead, is about the draft plan’s approach to doing so.

“We’re very much opposed to the proposal that has been made,” he said. “There are some things that we have lost sight of with this report.”

Central to his group’s concerns are proposed action items that would mandate certain “green” elements of new construction.

As the draft stands, it would “require installed electric hookup options for all appliances in new construction” and “eliminate gas hookups from all new commercial and multifamily residential buildings by 2023.”

It would also require all new commercial buildings to be solar-ready and “require all new residential & commercial buildings to have on-site renewable energy generation by 2025,” though some “buildings may be exempt due to practicality.”

Watkins called the timeline “one of the most aggressive natural gas-reduction plans in the country.”

And he argued its implementation would only exacerbate the city’s existing housing shortage, which has contributed to a 30% increase in the county’s median home price in one year and to an almost complete lack of rental properties.

In the first quarter of this year, he noted, the county’s rental vacancy rate was just 0.6% and average rent was $1,098, according to the Washington Center for Real Estate Research.

Isaiah Paine, government affairs director for the Spokane Home Builders Association, echoed Watkins’ concerns, arguing the plan would lead to further cost increases that would price out even more people from buying a home.

“We can’t make housing more affordable by making it more expensive,” Paine said. “When the things we are doing are heavy-handed and are going after diminishing returns and increase the costs, there’s a real human cost to that.”

Not everyone agrees, however, that environmentally friendly features actually increase costs, especially when you consider a longer timeline.

“If you’re thinking super short-term, then some of those technologies might cost a little bit more upfront,” said Dale Silha, vice president for energy and technical services in the Pacific Northwest for McKinstry, a design and construction firm that specializes in high-efficiency projects like the Catalyst Building in Spokane.

“But if you look in terms of the total cost over the life of the project,” he said, the savings begin to add up as a result of increased efficiencies.

But the true savings of “green” technology can only be realized if people “rethink how we build,” said Silha, whose team at McKinstry has helped review the sustainability plan.

“You have to do things differently to get cost-effective,” he said. “If you use the same old model and plug in clean energy, it’s not quite meant to work that way.”

Silha said combining affordability with sustainability means reconsidering basic premises that have long guided the building industry, such as the idea that houses have to be connected to an expensive and inefficient nationwide energy grid that takes power long distances.

Smaller local systems that generate and share energy produced from renewable resources, for example, would allow people a more resilient, cost-effective and flexible way to heat, cool and otherwise power their homes, he said.

With construction costs already high, housing hard to come by and a warming climate, Silha said creativity and innovation will be required, but the benefits will be substantial.

“A different roadmap is required to get to that different outcome,” Silha said.

Watkins and Paine, however, argue the region’s housing needs are immediate, and that rapid change to rules could price people out while also producing unintended environmental harm.

Already, Paine says, builders are being pushed outside the city limits and to the other side of the Idaho state line in search of fewer constraints.

The elimination of gas hookups, Paine said, would only encourage more sprawling development, which would mean more commuters and more, not less, emissions.

To stop the city from adopting the proposal, the Spokane Home Builders Association and the Spokane Association of Realtors are backing an initiative that would forbid the city from ever eliminating natural gas hookups.

Instead of adding new rules, Watkins and Paine said, the city should reduce regulations and loosen land-use rules to boost opportunities for builders.

“We need to go up. We need to fill in. And we need to go out,” Paine said. “All of the above.”

Density

The authors of the sustainability plan agree with the first two of Paine’s imperatives.

While critics have honed in on the proposal to eliminate gas hookups, the vast bulk of the plan focuses on creating more opportunities for development within the city, which the homebuilders and Realtors generally support.

Among many other proposals, the Sustainability Action Plan calls for the city to:

  • Develop and implement a plan to build a variety of housing types in every neighborhood.
  • Revise standards for Residential Single Family (RSF) and Residential Two Family (RTF) zoning to encourage affordable housing and increase density.
  • Revise development code to allow greater flexibility for mixed-use development.
  • Adopt accessory dwelling unit (ADU) reform to encourage more of this housing type.
  • Audit City development code to identify and eliminate constraints.
  • Decrease minimum parcel sizes in new developments to increase density in new construction.

Odegard said these proposed actions amount to asking the city to “offer greater flexibility for development and infill.”

The environmental effect of such reforms could be “significant,” the plan says, because it would combat the greenhouse emissions that come with sprawl. For that reason, the plan’s authors are opposed to the idea of going “out” further to build, as Paine supports, but they agree with his call for more density.

Such changes could also improve the insufficient housing supply, which some have estimated is already 32,000 units short of demand.

Odegard said ADU reform is a “great example” of how the benefits could spread, by both adding new housing units and offering homeowners an opportunity for a new income stream.

“ADU reform is not going to solve our housing crisis,” Odegard said. “Nobody thinks that. But it’s one of the tools we have.”

It’s a tool that’s not unique to the sustainability plan.

The city’s Plan Commission is already considering ADU reform, and the city’s draft Housing Action Plan also recommends city officials “revise Accessory Dwelling Unit standards to allow for additional flexibility.”

City Council President Breann Beggs proposed a resolution being considered for adoption now that would strengthen that language, amending the Housing Action Plan to provide “support for rapid development of accessory dwelling units.” That provision is just one of a number of Beggs’ proposed revisions to the document that would create greater overlap with the goals of the Sustainability Action Plan being drafted.

Beggs’ amendments, which were the subject of a City Council study session on Thursday, would also push for “land use changes to support increased density,” fast-track projects with residential components that are close to city-designated centers and corridors, tie allowed density to frequency of bus service, and waive off-street parking requirements “on blocks not currently congested,” among other actions and incentives generally aligned with the housing proposals in the draft sustainability plan.

Beggs suggested those commonalities could prove useful as the city seeks to overcome reluctance to changing its housing rules.

“What happens now is people who are homeowners, which is about half the city, their home is their biggest investment, and when you start talking about changes to land use or zoning, they go to a place of fear,” he said.

They worry about property values declining, crime increasing and other problems they perceive as resulting from increased density, Beggs said.

But connecting the city’s limits on density to its contribution to climate change could prove a useful tool for overcoming those concerns by highlighting the benefits of allowing people to live closer together.

By “creating more space for more people in more neighborhoods,” he said, diversity, economic development and quality of life would increase. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions would go down in more walkable neighborhoods with better transit service.

“You can get all these wins without any additional cost,” he said.

As for the gas hookup ban that some point to as an example of the additional cost that would be incurred, Beggs cast serious doubt about whether it will ever be enacted.

Beggs said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the natural gas proposal gets cut from the final version of the Sustainability Action Plan, which will remain open for public comment this summer and which City Council is expected to consider adopting in September.

Even if it does make it into the final draft, it’s highly unlikely council would ever implement it.

“I am on the record saying I have heard no City Council members say we’re going to do that,” Beggs said.

Together or separate

Those assurances, as well as the plan’s calls for more building within city limits, haven’t eased the opposition of Paine and Watkins.

Watkins said the local Reators association supports “parts” of the plan and its intention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but that the emphasis on eliminating gas hookups undermines its good intentions.

He also criticized the makeup of the subcommittee that drafted the plan, arguing it wasn’t representative of those with expertise in the city’s housing market and construction industry.

Watkins also believes the plan emphasized housing issues at the expense of focusing on pollution from cars, though the plan does include an extensive transportation section with proposals designed to reduce motor vehicle miles, increase adoption of zero-emission vehicles and promote active transportation, including public transit.

“I think their hearts are in the right place,” Watkins said. “I just wish the scope of their vision was a little broader.”

Paine, from the homebuilders association, also acknowledged he’s open to some of the ideas contained in the sustainability plan, but said their presence doesn’t redeem the draft as it exists now.

“I’m not saying that there’s not any agreement at all,” Paine said. “I think it’s a very broad document that I think needs to be focused in its intent.

“If we want to talk about how we provide housing opportunities, that’s a very different policy to me than the purpose, the mission statement of this report.”

While combating housing shortages and climate change “are not mutually exclusive,” Paine said, “they don’t need to be tied to each other.”

Some argue there’s a compelling reason to do so.

Ben Stuckart helped push sustainability initiatives during his time as Spokane City Council president, but he has also found common cause with the Realtors and homebuilders since leaving office and becoming executive director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium.

Last month, Stuckart joined the officials from the Spokane Home Builders Association and the Spokane Association of Realtors in signing a letter that criticized the city’s draft Housing Action Plan and calling for immediate action to: “Allow more housing types to be built on our dwindling spaces. Expand growth opportunities. Make home ownership a top priority, reduce and rescind regulatory restrictions and fees on entry level new home construction.”

Stuckart said he’s sympathetic to concerns about increased cost and said he would be “much more comfortable” for some of the building standards to be implemented at the state level to avoid discouraging construction in the city.

But he also said he believes the benefits from the plan’s emphasis on density would “swamp any of the costs” incurred by new regulations.

Ultimately, Stuckart said, the efforts to reduce Spokane’s contribution to climate change and increase housing affordability can be mutually beneficial.

“We have the ability, I think, with density to increase our housing supply,” he said. “And it’s good for the environment.”

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