New housing action plan touted by Spokane real estate professionals
Heeding recommendations said key to adding diverse homeownership optionsJanuary 13th, 2022
A new housing action plan commissioned by the Spokane Association of Realtors details how local governments could increase housing density, implement zoning action and changes, and provide incentives to builders and developers in order to increase the housing supply.
Darin Watkins, government affairs director for Spokane Association of Realtors, says he’s ready to begin tackling the advice addressing the housing crisis right away.
“One of the recommendations we’d like to jump on is to start a regional conversation about housing. Our takeaway from this report is to start that conversation in January,” Watkins says.
Watkins adds that a regional conversation would entail working with cities in Spokane County to consider prioritizing housing near employment centers to help address the negative effects of sprawl, including traffic congestion, pollution, and climbing commute times.
“The challenges that that creates is that we have more commuters today than ever before,” Watkins says.
The housing action plan was compiled by the Counselors of Real Estate, an international organization of real estate consultants, to outline challenges facing the real estate market and provide recommendations to avoid a prolonged housing crisis in the Spokane region.
Ben McGerty, Spokane-based regional director for homebuilder Hayden Homes LLC, says he’d like to see a housing task force comprised of city officials and developers included in the conversation.
“We have an opportunity to control growth in the way we want to see it, but we have to move forward,” McGerty says. “Having all those different brains in the room hopefully would provide some action.”
McGerty and Watkins both agree another place to begin addressing the advice in the housing action plan is for the city of Spokane to hire a planning director and fill vacant positions in the planning department.
Joel White, executive officer for Spokane Home Builders Association, agrees and says a planning director will take the lead to push a project forward and would be a big help to builders and developers to have a person in charge.
White says builders and developers must work with a number of entities and departments to get a project permitted. A planning director would help coordinate and implement residential project plans between the various departments.
Steve MacDonald, community and economic development director for the city of Spokane, says the planning director position is still vacant as of Jan. 6, although a final candidate has been identified. MacDonald declines to disclose any more information until negotiations are complete. He says the city began interviewing to fill the three vacant planning department positions just before the end of the year. So far, the city has filled about two of those positions and has identified one more candidate for the remaining vacancy.
Both White and McGerty say that the approval process for building permits can be confusing at times, so the city also needs to revise it with accountable timelines and deadlines to help builders, as suggested in the housing plan.
Another recommendation both White and McGerty say they support is updating or changing zoning laws in the city.
Regarding zoning, the CRE’s housing action plan recommends Spokane take steps to decrease the minimum lot size for attached houses to 25-foot lots from 40-foot lots; allow diverse housing types; encourage the conversion of commercial properties to residential properties; and plan high-density housing projects near transportation corridors.
MacDonald says the city supports updating zoning laws and is actively working on items to bring forward to the Spokane Plan Commission and City Council.
The CRE report states that Spokane has a “missing middle” which describes smaller, lower-cost homes that allow renters, young people, and first-time buyers to enter the housing market. The lack of affordable alternatives is impacting these individuals from building equity.
Watkins says, “That has a tremendous impact from health, to how well your kids do in school, to how well your marriage survives. Those things have powerful social impacts.”
Missing middle housing includes fourplexes, duplexes, cottages, and multiplexes on single-family home lots, which allows for more homes to be built per lot.
MacDonald says he recognizes the need to increase the housing supply with diverse types of housing and at different price points to meet demand.
“We want people who go to school here to be able to afford housing. We don’t want to drive people out further and further to suburbs, or out of state in the case of Spokane, with Idaho being so close,” MacDonald says.
In Spokane, only 2.1% of owned housing stock is attached, compared with 5.5% for Washington state, and 7.3% in the U.S., according to the housing plan.
“Washington state is absolutely the worst in the entire country when it comes to providing housing, and, I hate to say this, but Spokane is even worse than the state of Washington,” Watkins claims. “We see a bottleneck through the entire system of people waiting for their opportunity to change and there not being any opportunity available.”
The housing plan also recommends providing incentives to developers to create multifamily projects in all jurisdictions, which both White and Watkins say they support.
Watkins says incentives to build alternative developments, such as those that were offered to the developers of the Kendall Yards urban village northwest of downtown, would help encourage builders to take advantage of such opportunities in other neighborhoods.
MacDonald says the city provides a multifamily tax exemption program that has been used as an incentive for developers to build multifamily properties.
“Some of the incentives actually are not monetary in the sense that maybe some other jurisdictions in other parts of the country provide. They’re not monetary in the sense that the city’s giving money to a developer to do a certain project, but there are certain ways that could help a developer get a project done, save money, save time,” MacDonald contends.
Watkins says, “One of those phrases you’ll hear is: You can’t build your way out of a crisis. While that is typically true, Spokane gets an exception because we really do need to build right away. Just to catch up and meet the demand of the existing population, the city needs to build about 3,000 homes per year.”
For context, 5,978 building permits for housing units of all types have been issued by the city of Spokane between 2010 and 2019, according to the city’s own housing plan, which was released in May.
McGerty says the CRE team and real estate leaders here agree there have been numerous studies about housing in Spokane, yet the advice and recommendations in previous plans haven’t been followed.
“There’s been so many recommendations from so many developers, builders, City Council, and the community, but nothing seems to be implemented, and I just hope this one doesn’t fall on deaf ears,” McGerty says.
The CRE report recommends that city staff and City Council identify barriers to implementing recommendations in previous housing studies.
MacDonald says it’s important to understand why the city wants to create a bigger housing stock.
“If we don’t have that housing, and we drive people out of the city, that has a lot of social and economic impacts to Spokane,” he says.
The Counselors of Real Estate CRE Consulting Corp team is made up of volunteers who are experts in their real estate professions. The team conducted in-person and virtual interviews of public officials, private citizens, businesses, and community groups to analyze and study local housing demand, inventory, diversity of products, and affordability gaps in recent years.
McGerty says, “It’s going to take a multitude of these (recommendations) to make a difference and the longer we wait, the worse it’s going to be.”
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