Packed In: New multi-family housing could take a while; here’s how it will work

SPOKANE, Wash. — On Monday night, the Spokane City Council approved an ordinance that allows for more multi-family homes in neighborhoods. However, it’s not a quick fix.

The city needs more than 30,000 homes to meet the demands it’s seeing right now, according to the Spokane Home Builders Association.

“I think that we’re excited, and so we’re wanting to celebrate,” said Jennifer Thomas, the government affairs and public relations director for  Spokane Home Builders Association. “And today we’re a little bit exuberant but really part of me does think, is it too little too late?”

While the city now allows duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes to be built in neighborhoods, builders and developers say more needs to be done.

“I feel like all of the right restrictions were put in order to give this the best opportunity for success as possible, but it’s going to still be an uphill battle,” Thomas said.

Both Thomas and Jim Frank, the founder of GreenStone Corporation, say it will take time to see the impacts of the one-year pilot program.

“You have to be patient. One year is not enough time to see dramatic change in the number of houses being built. But it’s starting a process of very important change that will eventually lead to really positive results,” Frank said.

Frank says he’s been waiting for this zoning change, knowing it will allow more flexible building options as he worked on developing Kendall Yards.

He says it takes weeks or even months for the permitting process, then months after that to build, if everything even goes according to plan. Some home builders are still seeing supply chain issues.

“This is just the beginning in finding the right solutions for this housing crisis,” Thomas said.

The city hopes it will see an influx of permits, which builders can submit for the next year for these types of homes, and even build after that if all the paperwork is approved.

The city says it’s a one-year program because of a Washington State law, however, city council can extend it if needed.

Gardner expects there to be a rise in permit levels, but not “cataclysmic change” in how the city will do business.

“Where we see new construction is likely to be vacant lots where we already have that infrastructure and where an owner has either been waiting for the right opportunity or the owner is looking to sell to somebody,” said Spencer Gardner, planning director for the city of Spokane.

Thomas says developers may not want to build these multi-family homes in neighborhoods. She says builders like to buy chunks of land and develop, rather than finding only a few spaces to build.

“It’s like lot-by-lot versus being able to buy a chunk of land and develop it with missing middle or mixed-use type homes,” Thomas said. “So, that complicates it a little because it’s almost like it’s just one-offs instead of a big project that would have 50 homes or something like that.”

Gardner says he’s heard from a wide range of people interested in building multi-family homes in neighborhoods.

“It’s not just large developers but also smaller outfits and nonprofits that have been looking at doing this kind of thing,” he added.

There will be updates throughout the year about how the process is going. Gardner says there will be multiple things they’re looking into as they work through the program.

“Are there neighborhoods where there’s a disproportionate impact? Are there neighborhoods where we’re seeing displacement pressure? For example, from existing residents? This pilot gives us an opportunity to evaluate that, and then as we make permanent changes in the code, we can be aware of some of those challenges,” Gardner said.

A hearing update is scheduled for September 12, to update how the program is going. Gardner believes there won’t be projects on the ground, but the city possibly will have initial permits to report on and learn from any problems that may come up.

RELATED: Spokane City Council approves ordinance to add more multi-family housing