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Housing costs are soaring. Would rethinking single-family zoning fix Spokane’s crisis?

UPDATED: Sat., May 22, 2021

Demonstrators take to the streets of downtown Spokane during a Humans for Housing march held by Humanizing Spokane on Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Spokane, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Demonstrators take to the streets of downtown Spokane during a Humans for Housing march held by Humanizing Spokane on Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

The housing crisis in Spokane is creating strange bedfellows.

Take longtime Spokane real estate broker Bob Cooke, who implored the City Council last month to ease market pressure by eliminating single-family zones, the sections of the city restricted to standalone homes.

“Allow higher density,” Cooke said.

The statement could easily have been ripped straight from the signs held by demonstrators at the Housing for Humans rally, which drew hundreds of people into the Lilac Bowl at Riverfront Park that same week.

Among other proposals to reduce homelessness, marchers called for the city to nix single-family zoning.

“The historical context of single-family zoning makes it an equity and race issue,” said Ben Stuckart, executive director of the Spokane Low-Income Housing Consortium. “You also have the free market developers on the other end of the spectrum who believe there should be more housing variety.”

At least three of the Spokane City Council’s seven members have called for a serious re-examination of single-family zoning.

But in a midsize city proud of its small-town vibe, ending single-family zoning might be a tough sell no matter how tight the real estate market.

“As I read NextDoor.com and listen to the neighborhood meetings, what I hear is ‘I moved into a neighborhood for a very specific reason … if I move into a single-family neighborhood with a bunch of ranchers on it, I don’t want a four story apartment (nearby),’” said John Schram, interim co-chair of the Comstock Neighborhood Council.

Huge swaths of Spokane’s neighborhoods are dedicated to detached single-family homes, which make up 68% of the city’s housing supply, according to a draft “Housing Action Plan” released by the city this month.

Spokane is not alone.

More than 75% of residential land in American cities is reserved solely for detached single-family homes, The New York Times found in a 2019 analysis.

Spokane is also not the only city contemplating “upzoning” by allowing developments such as duplexes and triplexes to be built on land previously reserved for detached single-family homes.

The entire state of Oregon did away with single-family zoning last year, as has the city of Minneapolis.

In the Journal of the American Planning Association, UCLA planning scholars Michael Manville, Paavo Monkkonen and Michael Lens wrote that single-family zoning pushes development from areas where it’s most needed into denser, lower-income neighborhoods. While many other countries value home ownership, “the United States is almost alone, however, in using regulation to promote and protect neighborhoods of detached single-family homes and to imply that life in these neighborhoods is synonymous with good citizenship and responsible family life,” the authors argued.

Allowing for a variety of housing in areas that currently prohibit it, advocates argue, could help stem the rise in housing prices that feel nearly exponential and provide more opportunities for homeownership. The average sale price of $356,500 for a home in Spokane County in April was a record high, and a 27.3% increase over April 2020.

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

“If my son moved home and wanted to be part of the Spokane workforce, he couldn’t buy a house here,” said Councilwoman Karen Stratton. “If we want people to come into our community and work and live, we’ve got to have opportunities that are not just single-family homes.”

The city’s draft Housing Action Plan, meant to address just these issues, is now up for a public debate and offers opportunity to residents to weigh in on the future of the city.

Zoning history

The city passed its first zoning ordinance in 1929, but it did not adopt a formal land use plan until 1968 to guide development.

The city’s comprehensive plan, the tome of land use and development policy in Spokane, was last substantively updated in 2017. Just a few years later, its values are hard to reconcile with today’s market, encouraging a “variety of densities that support a mix of land uses” while still “protecting the character of single-family neighborhoods” that “will remain largely unchanged.”

In a city with a growing population but constrained borders due to Washington’s Growth Management Act, those priorities result in a focus of development around a handful of commercial areas known as “centers,” like Shadle at the intersection of Alberta and Wellesley, and “corridors,” such as North Monroe Street.

Growing housing costs and dwindling supply have quickly reshaped the discussion about land use, city planning and single-family zoning.

“Before it was, like, not even discussed,” Cooke told The Spokesman-Review. “A big wall would just go up if you ever discussed it, but now that we’re in this terrible housing shortage, what’s the cure?”

Councilwoman Kate Burke and Cooke agree on the need for change, a confluence that surprises even her. Burke is regularly critical of landlords and developers; Cooke is her former landlord.

“Upzoning those areas I think is a win for affordability and also developers,” Burke said.

Stuckart was the City Council President in 2017 when it adopted the current comprehensive plan, which explicitly protects single-family zoning, describing Spokane’s neighborhoods as “valuable assets … worthy of protection from the intrusion of incompatible land use.”

Now, he’s one of many leading calls for the City Council to reverse course.

“There’s zero reason we shouldn’t start a formal process of eliminating single-family zoning now,” Stuckart said

The rules in Spokane

The city’s land use plan distinguishes between single-family zoning – a density of 4-10 per square acre – and other residential zones, which include two-family, multi-family and high density.

The comprehensive plan calls for dense housing development to be focused in centers and corridors, which offer easier access to existing public transit lines and other services, like a grocery store.

Meshing the residential zones all into a single, residential designation would make more land open to what is commonly referred to as “the missing middle,” according to advocates for the change. Duplexes, triplexes and townhouses currently make up only 9% of housing in the city but are seen as a key to fill the gap between apartment renting and single-family home ownership.

“There’s just not the multifamily land out there. People are having to go out of the city, go out toward Liberty Lake where there’s large swaths of land,” Cooke said.

Councilwoman Candace Mumm believes Spokane remains relatively affordable and is in more of a temporary conundrum than a crisis, partly prompted by disruptions to the market caused by COVID-19. Interest rates have remained low, and people have been stuck at home and unwilling or unable to sell their homes.

Mumm also believes developers hungry for profits are fueling the narrative that Spokane needs to abandon its single-family ways.

“I think there are other remedies to the housing shortage that would quickly improve the situation. That is a longer discussion for the community. I’m more interested in addressing the immediate need where we have land and capital infrastructure available,” Mumm said.

Equity

Perhaps a reflection of public discourse in 2020, both sides of the debate have framed their argument as equity-focused.

Single-family zoning is more than a century old, and it was one of several housing policies that perpetuated residential segregation in cities like Berkeley, Calif., which adopted it in 1916. (The Berkeley City Council voted earlier this year to remove single-family zoning from its general plan.)

A report drafted for the city of Spokane by the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance in 2019 found that people of color are more likely to be tenants than homeowners. Thus, single-family zoning inherently “limits opportunity” for people of color and people with disabilities “to move to neighborhoods with the highest percentages of white residents,” the report states.

Essentially, single-family zoning “really perpetuates existing historical patterns,” explained Marley Hochendoner, executive director of the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance.

It’s been decades since real estate agents openly steered clients into neighborhoods based on their racial makeup and redlining made obtaining a mortgage nearly impossible for many Black homebuyers. Still, Hochendoner noted, Spokane’s communities of color remain heavily concentrated in just a few zip codes.

Black residents account for 4.6% of the residents in the 99202 ZIP code, which includes East Central, but nine of Spokane’s 14 ZIP codes have a Black population below 1.4%.

“(Single-family zoning) is a racist policy and we could do so much more for our communities,” Burke said.

Tom Hormel, a Spokane real estate agent and president of Washington Realtors, described the city policy of limiting multifamily development in centers and corridors as “modern day redlining,” a now-prohibited practice created by the Federal Housing Authority in the 1930s to determine whether the government would insure mortgages based on the racial composition of a neighborhood.

“Anywhere where African Americans lived, anywhere where African Americans lived nearby were colored red to indicate to appraisers that these neighborhoods were too risky to insure mortgages,” Richard Rothstein, author of “The Color of Law,” explained to NPR in 2017.

Because people of color are more likely to live in multifamily housing, Hormel argued, limiting the development of those units essentially dictates where those people can – and cannot – live.

“They should have choice,” Hormel said.

There is historical irony in Hormel’s stance.

For 50 years starting in 1924, the Realtors’ code of ethics declared that a Realtor “should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood … members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.” The National Association of Realtors has since apologized and reversed its position.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear calls for equity, but from the opposite perspective.

An apartment building in the middle of a residential neighborhood, disconnected from public transit access, is “forcing people who are low-income to get a car, for example,” Kinnear said.

Meanwhile, the single-family home still has its champions among those who see it as a way to build generational wealth. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report published in 2019, homeowners in 2015 had a net worth 80 times greater than that of renters.

In a committee meeting last month, Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson called multifamily housing “great,” but argued that “too many of us still live there because there is not the pipeline for single-family home ownership.”

That comment mirrored those Wilkerson made during her vote against a request to change zoning from single-family to multifamily on a few parcels in the Southgate neighborhood in April. The property remains properly zoned and prime for development of single-family homes that are in short supply, keeping people stuck in apartments while they wait to buy a home, Wilkerson said.

It’s a “bottleneck all the way through for everybody,” Wilkerson said, and “to uncap that bottle, the folks who want and can afford to purchase homes” need to be able to do so. And lost in the debate are working-class people, Wilkerson said.

“We talk a lot about the low-income and we talk about the affluent, but that working population – the one that drives Spokane and keeps us moving along – we don’t talk about that type of housing,” Wilkerson said.

Option A or B … or C or D …

The spectrum of proposals is wide.

Burke would eliminate all zoning requirements, period, as long as the builder is creating affordable housing.

Kinnear sits on the opposite side. Instead of eliminating single-family zoning, Kinnear says the city should first ask if it’s taking full advantage of its existing plans to steer development in centers and corridors, and truly working to implement the comprehensive plan.

“First, we’ve decided on a path forward, let’s implement it, and then if that doesn’t work, then we go to plan B,” Kinnear said.

What was missing from the comprehensive plan’s emphasis on centers and corridors, Council President Breean Beggs said, were the incentives to get developers to actually build in them, like cash or bonuses for increasing density.

“We need to pour some resources into that – it’s already zoned, transit already there,” Beggs said.

It doesn’t have to be an either-or approach when it comes to developing in residential neighborhoods or centers and corridors, Marley said.

“It comes to housing choice, and people should be able to live wherever they want to,” Hochendoner said.

Many point to other options aside from fully gutting the single-family zone. The city could allow duplexes in single-family zones, but draw the line there and prohibit three or four-unit buildings. It could also adjust minimum lot sizes or height restrictions to allow for denser developments on smaller parcels of land.

Kinnear wants to re-examine the scope and conditions of the city’s multifamily tax exemption program, which incentivizes the development of apartment buildings.

There is property in centers like Lincoln Heights and Garland that is already suitable for development, Mumm said. Spokane remains a low population-density city compared to others, she argued, and more can be done to increase it with infill development in places like downtown.

She’s heard the same complaints from developers for 35 years, she said.

“They just happen to have a hot market right now. This is nothing new – people who are trying to increase the value of their investment through a zone change,” Mumm said.

Chances of change

Both sides of the debate agree that eliminating single-family zoning would have a tangible impact over time, but acknowledge it wouldn’t necessarily change the landscape of Spokane overnight.

Schram wouldn’t sell his Comstock neighborhood home if zoning laws changed tomorrow, nor does he expect his neighbors would.

Still, he argued “it’s the concept of, once you allow one thing inappropriate in a neighborhood – a judgment call by whoever cares to judge it – you get a multiplier effect,” Schram said.

The market already is responding to the need, Mumm said, and more housing is in the pipeline.

“We can adapt to changes and adapt to growth, but I’m conservative about it,” Mumm said. “I’m not interested in a knee-jerk reaction.”

To those leading the charge for change, it’s past time for a knee-jerk reaction. The situation “requires crisis thinking, not slow, methodical 10-year solutions,” Stuckart said.

Councilman Michael Cathcart supports upzoning, but has criticized the city’s “woefully inadequate” planning agenda for failing to include zoning and density change considerations.

“There are so many things we have to look at. The pushback by some in City Hall has been kind of a surprise,” Cathcart said, “Let’s review these things, let the Plan Commission bring us back some solid recommendations so we can move forward.”

But while calls from housing advocates and developers grow louder, some City Council members believe they don’t represent the bulk of Spokane residents.

“The majority are not saying to me ‘yes, get rid of single-family zoning. They’re not,” Kinnear said. “In order to do that, we have to have a very thorough conversation and options for not just cutting it off and saying, ‘OK, now anything goes.’ ”

Mayor Nadine Woodward has yet to play a major role in the discussion and told The Spokesman-Review she hasn’t heard many calls for eliminating single-family zoning and is unsure how realistic it is.

“I don’t think it’s something you force on a neighborhood; it’s a conversation to have with neighborhoods,” Woodward said.

The situation could soon improve. Like Mumm, Woodward pointed to the increasing number of permit applications for new housing projects this year. Still, she said, “I don’t think we’ll be able to do it fast enough to satisfy everybody.”

Wilkerson has been fairly noncommittal, as well, expressing skepticism about developers’ motivation but sympathy to those cut out of the market. She’s eyeing compromise.

“We could have houses and people living in them if we would stop bickering and do at least some low-hanging fruit … when I hear both sides – they’re so vested in their outcomes that I have not witnessed a give-and-take of compromise of where we can meet in the middle.”

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