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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane mayor declares housing emergency; City Council adopts Housing Action Plan

UPDATED: Mon., July 26, 2021

A development by Greenstone Homes, which builds housing in the Spokane, Liberty Lake and Coeur d’Alene areas.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A development by Greenstone Homes, which builds housing in the Spokane, Liberty Lake and Coeur d’Alene areas. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward declared a housing emergency on Monday, while the Spokane City Council endorsed a series of policy changes meant to quickly spur housing development.

Woodward’s declaration was intended as a means of kick-starting several proposed actions in response to the housing crisis.

“(The declaration) sends a strong statement to the community that we do understand that this is an emergency and that we need to act quickly,” Woodward told The Spokesman-Review on Monday.

The city’s Housing Action Plan, approved unanimously by the council Monday evening, lays out several priorities and potential policy changes to address the city’s housing needs.

Monday’s flurry of activity on housing came as elected leaders heard continued pleas for help amid record-high home prices and low apartment vacancy rates in Spokane.

Both Woodward and the council’s moves on Monday amount to symbolic gestures. Both branches of government, however, pledged to move swiftly to enact new policies and programs to reduce barriers to housing, and their visions largely aligned.

“It is just a plan, it is a roadmap, but it is quite specific and clear,” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs.

Woodward’s emergency declaration came with a list of actions. Some of them overlap with, or come close to matching, proposals listed by the City Council in an “implementation plan” tacked on as an appendix to the Housing Action Plan.

Both the mayor and council have an eye on simplifying and speeding up the permitting process, as well as increasing development of “missing middle” housing, such as duplexes and triplexes, in city neighborhoods.

For potential policies on which there is not an immediate agreement, Woodward expects to continue conversations with council members.

“We’re close on a lot of things,” Woodward said.

Woodward pledged to reduce permit review times from six weeks to two weeks by the end of September, fill current vacancies and add staffing at City Hall, and create a “development toolkit” to assist those interested in building or renovating housing.

The mayor also wants to incentivize the conversion of existing commercial space into residences.

The council’s appendix is built on a handful of basic strategies, including increasing housing density in certain areas, spurring development of accessory dwelling units, and offering incentives to rapidly spur housing development.

It calls for the city to create, with the council’s approval, numerous programs. They include using American Rescue Plan money to create a housing fund that will offer financial incentives to housing developments within a half-mile of the city’s designated centers and corridors; a universal background check system for tenants seeking housing; and a potential excise tax on short-term rental properties, such as those rented on Airbnb.

The appendix also calls on the mayor to take more than a dozen direct actions, including expanding programs to improve access to home ownership.

The council also expressed a desire to consider policies, in collaboration with the Plan Commission, such as removing off-street parking requirements for developments within a half-mile of a designated center or corridor; adjusting residential single-family zones to allow construction of duplexes; and launching a three-year pilot to allow triplexes and fourplexes in residential single-family zones, as long as they fit the architectural style of the neighborhood.

Councilman Michael Cathcart successfully proposed a late amendment Monday to include in the resolution a proposal to enact an emergency zoning control ordinance that would allow fourplexes in any residential zone.

“It is an important step that’s going to allow for more housing choice,” Cathcart said.

He was backed by Council members Karen Stratton, Kate Burke and Betsy Wilkerson, who noted that the details could be worked out in the future ordinance.

“I think we need a catalyst to unblock us from this logjam,” Wilkerson said.

But several council members expressed concern that such an ordinance would circumvent the city Plan Commission. Councilwoman Candace Mumm also strongly pushed back.

“This is an enormous change, and we have not had a chance to take this to our neighborhoods. There is no way we need to do this tonight,” Mumm said.

The Housing Action Plan lays out four priorities: increasing the housing supply and its affordability for people of all incomes, preserving housing affordability for those who already live here, increasing access to housing and homeownership and supporting housing initiatives across the Spokane region.

The housing plan has been in development since 2020 when the city won a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Commerce to fund the effort. By completing the plan, the city is now eligible for certain state funding in support of housing development.

The plan makes a number of policy recommendations, but does not actually implement them. Each proposed action within the plan would require a separate review and vote by the full City Council.

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