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In a bid to heal Washington’s housing crisis, lawmakers consider allowing more duplexes and other types of ‘middle housing’

By Laurel Demkovich and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

Single-family homes are as synonymous with Spokane as a summer stroll through Riverfront Park or the thundering cadence of Bloomsday runners in May.

But is Spokane’s affection for white-picket fences about to be tested?

Two bills in the state Legislature would increase where “middle” housing – a category of residences between homes for single families and large apartment buildings – could be built in cities across the state. The proposals would require cities to allow housing, such as duplexes, triplexes and courtyard apartments, to be built on land currently zoned for single family homes.

The proposals, backed by Gov. Jay Inslee, are based on ones that passed in recent years in Oregon and California. Inslee announced the proposals in December as part of what he called the “biggest, boldest” legislative package to combat the housing crisis in Washington.

Advocates say allowing middle housing closer to transit stops will eventually create more affordable housing, curb the homelessness crisis and help reduce carbon emissions, and most say it’s the first needed step of many.

In Spokane, home prices have increased so substantially in recent years that proponents of “missing middle” housing argue that many potential buyers are priced out of the market. They instead continue to rent apartments, resulting in higher rents and low vacancy rates.

While the legislation is drawing significant attention for its implications – a majority of the city of Spokane’s land is reserved for single-family homes – the actual consequences of the proposed changes are difficult to predict, even for those steeped in the issues of urban planning and development.

Will allowing duplexes in a neighborhood lead to a growth in housing development significant enough to ease runaway price increases? And would the trade-off fundamentally change the feel of neighborhoods that have been largely untouched for decades?

The proposals

The Senate version, a more far-reaching proposal, would require all cities with populations of 20,000 people or more to allow all middle housing types – including duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and courtyard dwellings – on single-family zoned land within a half-mile of a major transit stop.

A major transit stop includes those where a bus or other transit mode provides service every 15 minutes for at least five hours on weekdays. An example in Spokane would be Spokane Transit Authority’s Route 4, which stretches from Five Mile south to the Moran Park and Ride station near the city’s southern border.

On all lots further from transit, the proposal would require cities to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.

Alternatively, cities could change their minimum density requirements instead of changing their zoning requirements. For cities between 100,000 to 500,000 people, those requirements would be at least 30 units per acre.

In the city of Spokane, a residential single-family zone can accommodate a minimum of four and maximum of 10 units of housing per acre. It can include attached housing, such as a townhome, but the majority of the housing stock is detached single family homes.

In introducing her bill to a Senate committee, Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, said she is one of five renters in the Legislature. Despite saving for years, she said she still cannot afford to buy a home in her community. Currently, no townhouses or other middle housing options exist.

“It’s time for us to take action, really truly take action, this year,” she said.

The House version is similar but less broad. For cities with more than 20,000 people, it would require cities to allow all middle housing on lots within a half-mile of a major transit stop.

On lots further from transit, it would require cities to allow duplexes and accessory dwelling units – commonly called in-law apartments – on all single-family lots over 4,500 square feet and triplexes on all corner lots over 5,000 square feet.

Alternatively, cities could change their minimum density requirements to allow 33 dwelling units per acre within a half-mile of a major transit stop.

For smaller cities, both bills would require duplexes on single-family zoned lots.

House bill sponsor Rep. Jessica Bateman, D-Olympia, told The Spokesman-Review the public is communicating to legislators that they want access to more affordable housing. Many are now spending half their income on their housing, she said.

“It’s a kitchen table issue,” she said. “It’s a quality-of-life issue.”

Both proposals passed out of their respective policy committees but must pass out of a fiscal committee by Monday, or they will likely die this session. The House version had a public hearing Saturday but didn’t go to a vote. The Senate version is not scheduled yet for a vote.

At a Thursday press conference, Inslee said he was pleased with the progress the Legislature was making on the middle housing proposals.

“A lot of what I’ve proposed is to build more housing,” he said. “We’re focused on doing that and doing it as fast as possible.”

Republican leaders in the House are less supportive of the proposal. The top Republican on the House budget committee, Rep. Drew Stokesbary, of Auburn, said the vast majority of Republicans want more housing, but many more would support incentivizing cities to build more housing as opposed to “a statewide mandate that punishes cities.”

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward called eliminating single-family zoning “aggressive and broad.”

“I don’t know if there are very many cities that are ready for something quite like that,” Woodward said. “Sometimes you need to take small bites.”

During public hearings, some local leaders, including Spokane Valley City Council member Arne Woodard, spoke out against the bills.

Most claimed it violated local control.

Woodard said the Valley has spent the last two years creating a housing action plan that addresses some of the issues but hasn’t had more than six months to go into effect.

“Please don’t pass this bill,” he said.

Other local leaders, as well as representatives from climate groups and Habitat for Humanity, spoke in support of the bill. They argued putting more housing near transit would not only allow more people to move into these areas, but lessen the number of people driving to work every morning.

Nearly 70% of Spokane’s housing stock consists of single-family homes, according to a 2020 housing analysis commissioned as part of the city’s Housing Action Plan. Only about 9% of the city’s housing stock is considered “missing middle” housing like duplexes and triplexes.

More multifamily housing is being built to catch up with demand, even under the current zoning regulations, but the vast majority is in the form of apartment buildings – not middle housing.

According to city of Spokane data, there were 13 permits filed for a duplex, triplex or fourplex in 2021, compared to five in 2020 and 15 in 2019.

There has been a surge in larger multifamily housing of five units or more. In 2021, permits were filed for 476 multifamily units, compared to 175 in 2020 and 132 in 2019.

Where it’s been done before

A growing number of states and cities across the country are considering similar ideas aimed at addressing the shortage of affordable housing by reexamining their decades-old zoning laws.

Oregon effectively eliminated single-family zoning in 2019.

Minneapolis amended its comprehensive plan in 2018 to eliminate single-family zoning restrictions and allow duplexes and triplexes citywide, and the changes quickly received substantial local and national media attention.

Daniel Kuhlmann, assistant professor of Community and Regional Planning at Iowa State University, tracked the early impact of those changes in a research paper published in the Journal of the American Planning Association last year.

Kuhlmann’s research examined the price effect during a specific period in Minneapolis – the months after the city had adopted the new comprehensive plan, but before it adopted new zoning codes that implemented changes to single-family zoning that included requirements like minimum setbacks and parking.

“I am thus examining the impact of an ostensibly radical land use change before the city implemented it in a more tempered form,” Kuhlmann writes.

In that period, Kuhlmann tracked an increase in the prices of homes subject to the zoning changes of about 3% to 5% compared to similar properties in other cities. The increase was particularly notable in smaller properties and inexpensive neighborhoods.

That finding indicates there was demand to develop dense housing.

But how quickly will that demand transform a property, or a whole neighborhood?

Change is likely to be incremental, Kuhlmann said.

Spencer Gardner, the city of Spokane’s new planning director, argued that “zoning, in and of itself, may not be the limiting factor” to adequate housing development. There are constraints on the way smaller buildings are financed, for example, that don’t exist for major developers building 30-unit apartment buildings or a single family homebuyer.

The cost of construction is also a factor, even when the zoning is a match for multifamily housing.

Gardner predicts that the zoning changes “would not have the transformative change that I think some people want it to have, and I think other people fear that it might have because there’s all these parts of the system that aren’t being addressed by this one change.”

Given the time it will take zoning laws to change and the time construction takes, Bateman said she estimates it will still take years from when the bill goes into effect for this type of housing to be built.

Bateman pointed to other proposals, such as changing permit timelines and impact fees or providing incentives to build middle housing, that are needed.

“This is a long-term strategy,” Bateman said. “No bill that we pass today is going to be a silver bullet solution.”

The Spokane City Council endorsed the senate version of the bill, but in its “second-tier” of legislative priorities.

“Nothing will be perfect or make everybody happy, but in general more units – I don’t know if it will drive prices down, nobody is going to promise that, but maybe they won’t go up as fast,” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs.

Beggs wants legislators to ensure cities can require that a certain percentage of that increased density be affordable housing. City leaders also want to maintain some level of local control.

“My view is, as long as you give local authorities control over what the buildings look like, how big they are, and things like that, with a design review process … that whole argument that ‘my neighborhood isn’t going to look like it does now’ goes away,” Beggs said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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