How should Spokane fix its housing crisis? A draft plan includes ideas, but the city also wants yours

·5 min read

May 15—The city has released a plan to address Spokane's housing needs that offers a variety of fast fixes but also outlines opportunities for deeper, systemic change.

The voluminous draft Housing Action Plan, published on Monday, comes as Spokane grapples with skyrocketing home prices, low rental vacancy rates, and calls for action from developers and social justice advocates alike.

Broken down into a set of strategies and proposed changes, the Housing Action Plan will be publicly vetted and, if all goes according to plan, adopted as a resolution by the Spokane City Council in June.

In order to incorporate community input, the city conducted two surveys — one for people who live in the city and another for people who work in Spokane but live elsewhere — that garnered more than 1,200 responses. It also solicited the opinions of a variety of community stakeholder groups.

To collect additional community input, the city will hold two online open houses on the housing action plan on Tuesday, the first at noon and the second at 6 p.m. A link to the plan is available on the plan's website, my.spokanecity.org/housing/spokane-housing-action-plan/. The full report is also available on that webpage.

A plan is not a prescriptive policy, but the discussion will force city leaders to define the scope of the housing crisis and come to agreement on, if not specific changes, a broad path forward.

Relatively minor and immediate adjustments include proposals like streamlining the city's permitting process, but some aim for deeper shifts in housing policy, such as reviewing the city's comprehensive plan and reconsidering what areas should be reserved exclusively for detached single-family homes.

Even if the draft plan is adopted as written, each of those actions would require separate review and approval by the council.

The plan was funded by a grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce, which laid out the template for the city to create its Housing Action Plan.

The product of the community input effort is the 59-page draft action plan released this week.

The need, the strategies

The rise in housing prices is outpacing the rise in incomes, the report notes, and nearly 2 of 5 households in Spokane are considered "cost burdened," meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

A growing portion of city residents is unable to buy a home, according to the report. Even though Spokane remains affordable relative to other cities, many people remain worried that they could be displaced as the market tightens.

As Spokane's population steadily grows, the report estimated that the city will require at least an additional 6,800 housing units by 2037 as demand increases for detached single-family homes, rentals and housing for seniors.

To meet that need, the draft action plan lays out four priorities:

* Increase housing supply, options and affordability for all incomes.

* Preserve existing housing affordability and quality to help people thrive where they live.

* Enhance equitable access to housing and homeownership.

* Leverage and grow partnerships to support housing initiatives across the region.

To enact them, the plan offers a smorgasbord of options.

To achieve greater density and offer the "missing middle" of housing, such as duplexes and triplexes, the city could allow duplexes to be built on a single lot in areas reserved for residential single-family homes. The city could also review the scope and requirements of its Multi-family Tax Exemption program, which offers tax incentives to developers that build multifamily housing within a defined border.

To encourage development of affordable housing, the city could waive the fees for development of income-restricted units.

As a trade for more housing, the city could reduce its minimum parking requirements and height restrictions for developers where alternative transportation options are readily available.

To discourage displacement of people who already live here, the city could find ways to encourage community-based nonprofits to provide housing.

It could also better track the compliance of short-term rentals, through sites like AirBnb, with city permitting requirements.

Feedback

A joint meeting of the Spokane City Council and Plan Commission on Wednesday offered an early glimpse into city leaders' perspective on the plan.

Housing developers are "begging for change," Councilman Michael Cathcart said.

But Councilwoman Candace Mumm cautioned that it's "always important to take a longer view of these things," and that the city is "starting to see things move."

While she's all for a long-haul look at city housing policies, Mumm said, "I don't think we want to burn our precious time on things that are ... 20 years out."

Council President Breean Beggs noted the city increased height restrictions on new buildings and allowed development on smaller lots in some areas.

Developers are only now beginning to take advantage of some of those changes several years later, Beggs said.

"Whatever we do, it's a two-, three- or four-year process," Beggs said.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear echoed those points, arguing that new developments are being permitted and "maybe they're not moving at the lightning speed that we'd like, but they are moving forward."

"It's not everything we want, but we're moving forward quickly," Kinnear said.

Amendments to the city's comprehensive plan, last substantively updated in 2017, would require deeper discussions, cautioned Louis Meuler, the city's interim planning director.

"We need to be able to have the avenue and venue set up so the plan commission and council can hear the public's voice," Meuler said.

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