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Small housing in Spokane, WA

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Small housing in Spokane, WA

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Overview

Many cities are increasingly interested in diversifying their housing stock, and some have looked to small homes as a way to provide relatively inexpensive housing. However, local zoning and development regulations often are not designed to accommodate or incentivize this housing type. This case study highlights changes the City of Spokane, WA made to its building and zoning codes to enable the development of small housing in the city, including cottage housing, pocket residential developments, and tiny homes. The case study will discuss the process Spokane used to change building and zoning codes, including the Infill Development Project, as well as the policy significance of these changes, key players, the timeline for implementation, and outcomes and challenges the city experienced.

Key takeaways

Localities considering initiatives and policy changes similar to those undertaken in Spokane may want to consider the following takeaways from this case study:

  • Localities may want to consider involving stakeholders and the public directly in the decision-making process, allowing them to give recommendations and feedback. When looking to make changes to the building and zoning code to facilitate the construction of tiny homes—or any other innovative housing initiative—localities should aim to be clear about what changes are being made and how they will work in practice for developers, residents, and other relevant groups. This can include the publication of online resources, town halls, and other forms of communication with the community.
  • There are several potential benefits to enabling the construction of small homes through infill development and code changes: doing so may increase the city’s tax base by adding density, create more diverse and mixed-income levels in established neighborhoods, and improve access to inexpensive and diverse housing. Localities considering similar initiatives to Spokane’s should recognize these benefits, but also keep in mind that it takes time—likely years—for these changes to result in significant, tangible development outcomes.
  • To promote housing affordability and accessibility, localities should consider how to encourage developers to construct diverse housing types, rather than just traditional single-family homes and large apartment buildings. This can include changes to existing development code to make it easier for developers to construct small infill housing on suitable land and allowing cottage houses on one lot to be sold to different homeowners.
  • Efforts to pursue infill development and construct small housing may be confronted with some opposition from community members who are concerned about increased density. Civic leaders may need to balance the benefits of increasing density by adding small housing through infill and the issues that can arise from increased density, such as traffic, parking demand, and higher utilization of city services. Localities may want to consider methods like medium-density transition zones between areas with higher and lower density.

Description

Several types of small housing may provide more diverse and affordable housing options in Spokane and elsewhere. Spokane defines cottage housing as a small planned development of single-family homes up to 1,200 square feet located around shared outdoor space and with a common plan for the whole site. Similarly, pocket residential developments are a type of infill housing that allows for housing units on individual lots to be built facing onto a private driveway or walkway rather than a public street, which allows for smaller units and efficient use of land. Finally, tiny homes, usually built on wheels, are small homes no larger than 400 square feet that include a kitchen, bathroom, sleeping, and living area. Sometimes tiny homes are built on foundations and, when located on a property with a larger dwelling unit, fall into the category of accessory dwelling units.

Prior to the zoning changes, several barriers existed in Spokane that made the development of small housing in the city unlikely. For example, before 2018, cottage housing and units in pocket residential developments on a single lot in Spokane had to have a single owner. As a result, developers were not able to build multiple tiny homes on a plot of land and sell them to different individuals, which disincentivized developers from constructing this type of housing. Additionally, any homes built had to have direct access to a public road, which made some pieces of land with unusual shapes or limited access to the street hard or impossible to develop.

Process and timeline

Spokane’s 2001 Comprehensive Plan began conversations around code changes that could allow for a wider variety of housing densities in the city. In 2008 and 2011, an infill housing task force convened to work on this issue, leading to some changes to the city’s development code in 2012 aimed to facilitate infill development. These initial changes resulted in relatively little impact on housing developers’ practices in Spokane. One reason for this was confusion and lack of knowledge among developers, investors, and the public about how these new tools should be applied in practice.

In 2016, Spokane officially began the Infill Development Project to further remove some of the barriers to the development of small housing in the city’s existing neighborhoods. A 2016 report by the Spokane City Plan Commission and the Infill Development Steering Committee outlined the problem: Spokane’s population was growing, and while the city’s Comprehensive Plan aimed to locate new residents close to city centers by building on vacant and underutilized land, progress was hindered by the current city code.

To address the challenge, the Spokane City Plan Commission created a steering committee of developers, design contractors, community representatives, and leaders to develop recommendations related to infill development, with each member representing a group or organization with an interest in infill development. The Steering Committee and Planning Services Department staff met with focus groups comprised of stakeholder representatives to discuss common housing-related issues that the stakeholders faced. The focus groups involved representatives from the finance, real estate, and architecture sectors, for-profit developers, non-profit developers, tiny housing advocates, community organizations, and neighborhoods. A major topic that arose in these focus groups was the need for more diverse housing types in Spokane, such as small single-family homes, clustered housing, and tiny housing. The ability for residents to separately own small units in more areas of the city was discussed as a potential solution.

When these focus groups concluded, the Committee participated in a series of workshops to create preliminary recommendations for the Infill Development Project. The Committee presented these to the public at an open house, and the city collected comments from the public and conducted an online survey to ask for feedback on the recommendations.

Following this process, the Committee recommended 24 actions to the Plan Commission and City Council that aimed to reduce barriers to infill in the city. Their recommendations included allowing pocket residential developments by right in single-family zones rather than through a zoning change as previously required, incentivizing infill within a quarter-mile of core urban areas and key corridors by reducing or waiving transportation impact fees and allowing cottage housing to be larger in size and mixed with different housing types.

Some residents of Spokane pushed back on the recommended changes, arguing that the increased density in the city would result in too many parked cars and increased traffic. Some of these disagreements also extended to Spokane’s City Council. Some councilors strongly supported changes that would increase density and facilitate small housing construction, while others argued that an increase in the number of homes allowed per acre should only occur in neighborhood centers with higher investment in city services. Those in support of the policy change pointed out that middle-density transition zones would be created to bridge the highest-density areas and single-family homes. The Infill Development Project’s recommendations—which are discussed below—were ultimately passed unanimously by City Council.

The City Council adopted a resolution in November 2016 that recognized the Steering Committee’s report and recommendations as a guide for future development and potential regulatory changes. In 2018, the City Council passed an ordinance to adopt many of the committee’s recommendations into law through changes to the city’s building and zoning codes. This included code amendments to allow the following:

  • Pocket residential developments were fully allowed in residential single-family zones. This meant that a piece of land intended for a single-family home could be subdivided to allow for multiple smaller homes.
  • Pocket residential developments could be built with frontage on a private drive, alley, or walkway, rather than a public road. This allowed for flexibility in how a lot is split up internally, as long as the development meets the requirements to which the entire lot is subject.
  • Cottage housing units could now have a larger floor area and slightly larger height and density. Cottage housing was also now allowed in residential two-family zones, which is a low-density area in the city.
  • density bonus was added for cottage housing with the aim to make infill more feasible for developers. Developers were given a 20 percent density bonus for all cottage housing and a 40 percent density bonus for homes smaller than 500 square feet, which would increase the number of homes allowed per acre from 10 to 12 or 14.
  • These changes eliminated the rule that housing units on one property must have a single owner, allowing developers to sell tiny homes on one property to different owners and thus encouraging them to invest in building these types of housing.

Outcomes

As of early 2021, these changes to Spokane’s building and zoning codes have not resulted in a significant increase in infill development in the city. According to city staff, at least four developments so far have applied the new provisions on pocket residential developments, building an additional unit where they would not have been allowed based on previous standards. City staff perceives the relatively slow uptake of the new regulations as the result of multiple factors at play among developers:

  1. Land available for infill development in Spokane is typically harder to develop on, as the land is small and often oddly shaped, which can make projects riskier and less profitable for developers. Additionally, providing utility access for new infill development has proven challenging, further hindering developers’ pursuit of infill projects despite the code changes.
  2. There may be reluctance on the part of some developers to switch from familiar single-family housing construction to newer types of housing. These developers may become more open to building less traditional housing over time as they learn more about it and identify suitable land.
  3. For developers with experience building diverse housing types in higher-density areas of Spokane, city staff believes the new regulations, while allowing for increased density in areas formerly zoned only for single-family residential, are not perceived by some developers as being sufficient to make infill development in these areas profitable. To be profitable, such development would require larger parcels of land than are currently available.

Despite the slow uptake so far among developers, Spokane has taken important steps to facilitate infill development including small housing like cottage housing and pocket residential developments. The code amendments have successfully removed many of the barriers that existed prior to the initiative. As demand for affordable and diverse housing continues to increase and remaining logistical obstacles are worked through, officials in Spokane expect that developers will begin to build more of these small types of housing.

Policy significance

Leaders in Spokane, particularly elected officials and city staff, were motivated to promote the development of small housing types to address the city’s growing population and housing affordability issues by more efficiently using the remaining land available within city limits. In addition to the development of smaller housing types, the City noted several housing-related challenges it sought to address through increased infill development:

  • Limited housing diversity – Four out of five housing units permitted between 2006 and 2015 in Spokane were either single-family units or large apartments, limiting choices available to residents.
  • High housing cost burdens for residents – 55,000 households in the Spokane area paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing in 2015.
  • Low-income levels – One in three households in Spokane County have incomes below the cost of living.
  • A tight rental market – 2017 saw a 13-year record low rental vacancy rate in Spokane.

Furthermore, unlike many other U.S. cities, Spokane has thousands of vacant lots within its city limits. For this reason, it makes financial and logistical sense for Spokane to build additional housing within the city’s existing infrastructure, rather than building new infrastructure on the fringes of the city or outside its current limits, which would strain the city’s resources. Spokane’s Infill Development Project is an effective way to utilize existing land to increase the city’s density without incurring costs to develop new infrastructure from scratch.

Leaders in Spokane considered infill pocket residential development in the city to be beneficial for a number of reasons. They expected it to:

  • “Expand opportunities for affordable homeownership.
  • [Allow] housing units on individual lots to be built with their frontage on to a private drive or walkway rather than on a street.
  • Stimulate new compact infill housing that is compatible in scale and character to established surrounding residential areas.
  • Create a broader range of building forms for residential development.”

Furthermore, policy changes that made the construction of small homes in Spokane more feasible have provided an innovative way to increase access to affordable housing options in the city for residents, incentivize developers to construct more diverse types of housing, and raise additional tax revenue in the city through a larger tax base.

Related resources

  • Infill Development Project Summary Report and Recommendation: A 2016 report written by Spokane’s City Plan Commission and Infill Development Steering Committee outlining the city’s Infill Development Project, recommendations, and actions.
  • Summary of Code Revisions and Updated Guidesheets: Document explaining why infill is important to Spokane and outlining the changes made to the building and zoning code regarding infill, attached housing, pocket residential development, and residential zoning.
  • Infill Housing Strategies/Infill Development: Spokane city website page on the Infill Development Project background and timeline. It also includes related documents on code revisions.
  • Ordinance C35575: This document contains the ordinance passed by Spokane City Council in 2018 regarding code amendments related to infill development, including cottage housing and pocket residential development.
  • Filling In: Room for Revival in Spokane (Strong Towns): This article is written by a Spokane resident and transportation planner, and discusses the use of infill and pocket residential development in the city.
  • Spokane Hopes Tiny Homes and Cottages Will Spur Infill Density (Next City): This article discusses regulations around pocket residential developments and cottage housing in Spokane and outlines the opinions of stakeholders in the city as the initiative took place.
  • Expansion of Tiny, Cottage Homes Gets Spokane City Council’s OK (The Spokesman-Review): This article presents the debate within Spokane’s City Council related to infill prior to the adoption of the 2018 ordinance as well as the regulations eventually passed by the Council.
  • Ordinance C35730: This document outlines the complete, final code changes made through Spokane’s 2018 ordinance.
  • Personal communication with Nathan Gwinn, Assistant Planner with the City of Spokane (2021, January 28).
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