Spokane Opens the Door for Middle Housing Expansion

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In Spokane, Washington, one of the West Coast’s many red hot housing markets, more than 40% of residents are challenged by housing prices fast outpacing income growth, according to a report commissioned by the city council.

And renters are seeing massive rent increases , in some cases doubling their monthly payment. The Urbanist pointed out recently that in May 2022, the median home price in Spokane hit a record $450,000, a 20% year-over-year increase, and a stunning 55% increase over the past two years, in an article written by Anthony Gill

Gill, an economic development professional and urbanist writer, is one of many advocates who pushed recently to open the door to create new middle housing on a broad scale in a one-year pilot program. 

Last week, the city council approved the program in a unanimous vote. It allows duplexes citywide, triplexes and fourplexes within a quarter mile of frequent transit lines. The changes also limits on townhouse construction to allow more units per lot. The changes also allow single-family homes to be built on smaller lots, further increasing flexibility for builders and homeowners working on infill options, part of the Strong Towns approach to incremental development.

“It’s a bold, transformational package that forms the biggest change to our city’s Comprehensive Plan framework since it was first adopted in the late 1990s,” Gill wrote in his blog, Spokane Rising. “While growth will still be concentrated in certain areas, it will be allowed across the whole city, which will increase housing diversity in existing neighborhoods, like Garland, West Central, and Lincoln Heights. In the long run, this will improve housing affordability and choice.”

And now it’s up to Spokane Planning Director Spencer Gardner, a longtime Strong Towns member and writer who shepherded these updates through, to make it happen. Gardner will be actively hiring planning staff in his town to keep up with applications he expects to flow in from the city’s Building Opportunity and Choices for All zoning rewrite. 

As passed last week, the program will also allow existing “non-conforming,” often low-quality middle-housing units to be made legal and grandfathered in with improvements, in an effort to improve housing quality.

“We’ve added some further simplifications of the development code relating to townhouses,” Gardner wrote me in an email. “We’ve also added height limit increases and major reductions in parking requirements in our ‘Centers and Corridors’ zoning, which is our version of urban villages.” These changes will further widen the options for infill development in Spokane. 

Gardner’s presentation to council, and supportive public comments, can be viewed starting at minute marker 48:00 in this video

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