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In hopes of addressing housing crisis, Spokane considers legalizing denser development

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Rebecca White | Spokane Public Radio
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Apartments in Spokane's Cliff Cannon neighborhood. More dense housing types could soon be legal in many of Spokane's neighborhoods.

Long time Cannon Hill resident Rosemary Small’s street looks like a collection of typical single-family homes.

Grass yards with vegetables are growing next to century-old houses. She shares a garden with her next-door neighbors, who live in a stucco building that at first glance looks like a large home. It's actually an apartment complex with seven units.

Small said apartments like this outnumber single family homes in the area.

“That’s why we like this neighborhood,” she said. “I counted, from this block, from that alley, to their alley, there are 42 units."

She said density doesn’t have to be large apartment complexes. It can be indistinguishable from the houses around it. A large home, remodeled to house several people that couldn’t afford a yard, or garden otherwise. She said she has mixed feelings about large apartment complexes, but says duplexes, fourplexes, or homes turned into apartment complexes can be a positive addition to the community. She said the best complexes have thoughtful landlords, and the buildings blend into the neighborhood.

“The best places look like they’ve always belonged here,” she said.

The diversity of housing in Small’s neighborhood could soon be allowed in other parts of Spokane.

A one-year pilot the city council will consider Monday would allow duplexes everywhere, shrink lot size requirements and allow fourplexes along transit corridors or potentially in other areas.

Currently, around two-thirds of Spokane’s residential areas are exclusively zoned for detached, single family homes, the most expensive type of housing. That type of zoning in Spokane, and other cities has been around for about a century.

Dan Bertolet, is the director of Sightlines’ housing and urbanism program, a group that researches sustainability and Democracy reform.

He said the pilot city leaders are considering will allow building practices that were once common in communities like Spokane and Seattle

“Relegalizing them is really just going back to our historic roots of how these residential neighborhoods were built,” he said. “These neighborhoods tend to be some of the most desirable, popular neighborhoods in most cities.”

He said in the 1920s, many cities passed restrictive zoning laws, explicitly designed to keep people of color out of some neighborhoods.

“The legacy of that still exists,” he said, “and we think to right those historic wrongs, we ought to undo what we call exclusionary zoning and allow more diversity of races and incomes to live in all neighborhoods.”

Legislators have attempted to address zoning statewide for years. Oregon succeeded in legalizing duplexes in 2019. Portland also has legalized more diverse housing types. Several bills have been introduced in the Washington legislature to require cities to allow density. None have made it to the floor for a vote.

Bertolet said Oregon has just started implementing its zoning law, so there’s little data yet to prove it’s a success. He said Portland’s rule changes however has led to some promising projects.

A 2021 report commissioned by the Spokane Association of Realtors found that just 15% of employed Spokane residents can afford to buy a home in the city. Jennifer Thomas, the government affairs director for the Spokane Homebuilders Association, estimate that in 2022, the percentage of current residents who can afford homes is even lower.

“They work in Spokane at restaurants, teach in schools, at the hospitals, as nurses, or they're in medical programs at all of the new University of Washington, Washington State University campuses that are here, but they can't afford to live in this area."

She said the city should streamline the legal hoops developers have to go through to get a project started. She said it should also make the pilot permanent.

“We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them because we’re not the same city we were 10 years ago,” she said.

Several city council members, as well as the mayor, have been outspoken in their support of the changes including Councilman Michael Cathcart and City Council President Breean Beggs.

Beggs said rolling out these changes as a pilot is the fastest option for the city. He said the normal process takes years.

“We're calling it a one-year-pilot,” he said, “but really that's a way of framing within our existing land use code which said if you're going to do something like this, immediately, it has to be on an interim basis, and you have to have public hearings along the way before you make it permanent.”

Cathcart, who is one of the pilot’s co-sponsors, said other cities, and the state also need to act. He said a city council and a mayor can only do so much.

“If anybody is frustrated, I hear you, and please take it up with your state legislators,” he said. “There are some reforms we could do at the state level that would make us smarter about how we address a lot of these issues. But until then, this really is the best choice that we have.”

The Spokane City Council will vote on the housing pilot on Monday, July 18 during their 6 p.m. meeting.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.