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Interim zoning changes aimed at increasing affordable housing, home ownership in Spokane

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, flanked by City Council President Breann Beggs (left) and Councilman Michael Cathcart, announces a plan to tweak zoning rules to expand available housing types in the city's residential neighborhoods.
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, flanked by City Council President Breann Beggs (left) and Councilman Michael Cathcart, announces a plan to tweak zoning rules to expand available housing types in the city's residential neighborhoods.

An interim change to Spokane’s zoning codes now under consideration would broaden where townhomes, tiny homes, duplexes and other multi-unit housing can be built. The goal is to ease the city’s housing shortage and encourage home ownership, according to city leaders.

In a midday Thursday press conference on a residential street in South Hill, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and other city officials announced the plan, called the “Building Opportunity and Choices for All Initiative.” Described as a modest adjustment to the zoning code, the initiative sponsored by city council members Betsy Wilkerson and Michael Cathcart will allow duplexes and townhouses in all residential neighborhoods, and allow multi-unit dwellings known as “triplexes” and “fourplexes” in specific areas near commercial areas and transit lines.

Noting that the city is looking at multiple avenues to help address a paucity of housing, Woodward said, “The pace of change under business as usual just isn’t fast enough to address the housing needs that we have right now.”

The zoning change would last one year, during which data will be gathered about how the multi-unit approach affects housing availability, neighborhood reaction and other elements. At the end of that year, the city will consider what parts of the initiative to keep or adjust as part of Spokane’s permanent zoning.

“We’re going to use this pilot project to continue conversations that we’ve been having over the last two years about housing and how to accommodate people in many different ways than we are right now,” Woodward said.

Spencer Gardner, Spokane’s city planning director, said the initiative is aimed at housing that will match the look and feel of a neighborhood, and that will comply with existing regulations for housing, such as height restrictions and how close to the street a dwelling can be. Provided those rules are followed, developers will be allowed to build site-built, subdivided housing or prefabricated tiny homes.

The smaller, more affordable housing units can be open to renters or people who want to buy a home, something that appeals to Cathcart.

“This is not a new situation, but it is a worsening situation,” Cathcart said. “Working families deserve the opportunity to attain a home in a neighborhood of their choice at a price they can afford. And that’s a really important thing that we have be thinking about: How do we create options and choices for the people in our community who want to live in the 29 neighborhoods that we have to offer in the city of Spokane?”

Asked about potential opposition from neighbors, Gardner said the city has already been in conversation with neighborhood groups and has encountered less backlash than expected.

“We’ve actually been out in the community talking about housing issues…one of the things that really surprised us when we were talking about duplexes and townhouses specifically is, people already assumed they were allowed, in a lot of cases,” Gardner said.

Spokane City Council President Breann Beggs said city knows its responsibility to inform the community about the proposed zoning change.

“Whatever we do or don’t do, there’s backlash,” Beggs said. “We made a decision that we’re delaying this for several weeks, even though it’s just an interim ordinance…so that we can go out to the neighborhoods and talk with them and share with them that perhaps it’s not as fearful as they [think].”

Opening the door to multi-unit dwellings won’t substantially change the character of neighborhoods, Beggs said.

“I think that’s what people don’t really understand,” he said. “They’re imaging there’s going to be a three-story apartment building next to them. That’s not going to happen.”

The interim ordinance will be presented to the Spokane City Council’s public infrastructure committee next Monday, June 27. First and final readings will happen in July, Woodward said. Public comment and neighborhood opinions will be sought over the summer, followed by a public hearing in September.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.