‘Home In Tacoma’ Advances with Recommendation to Eliminate Single-Family Zoning

Tacoma is seeking to add more low-rise housing options across the city. (Photo by Stephen Fesler)

Tacoma has taken another step in its land use reform process to equitably house people and undo a legacy of exclusionary zoning. Home In Tacoma — an equitable affordable housing strategy — advanced beyond the Tacoma Planning Commission last week on a 6-3 vote in favor of recommendation. A chief piece of the recommendation is a deep revision to the future land use map — an element of the city’s comprehensive plan — affecting single-family and multifamily zoned areas of the city.

The commission also recommended that the Home In Tacoma project be phased in two parts, slowing down the timeline a bit and making the reforms more digestible. Under the phased approach, comprehensive plan changes and some near-term land use code and programmatic changes would be adopted in the first phase. Deeper land use code policies and zoning changes would follow in the second phase.

The planning commission’s recommended map revisions are essentially a hybrid of two map alternatives shared with the public in March and April. The recommended map would still direct land use and zoning changes for all areas zoned single-family and multifamily in Tacoma (all other zoned and designated areas are excluded from changes). If adopted, this would essentially end the concept of single-family zones in the city in both name and regulation. Single-family areas would be redesignated and rezoned to Low-Scale Residential or Mid-Scale Residential zoning types, which would permit a mix of housing types like duplexes, rowhouses, and apartments. Low-Density Multifamily areas would also get a boost to Mid-Scale Residential, a more intensive land use designation than the current one.

The recommended future land use map changes to Low-Scale Residential and Mid-Scale Residential. (City of Tacoma)

The planning commission received extensive feedback on the initial map alternatives released in March with about 900 comment submissions. Responding to this, the planning commission wanted to refocus the most intensive map changes within one to two blocks around neighborhood centers, transit corridors, and other main corridors. The commission toyed with several hybrid alternatives before settling on the recommended map last week. As a result, the recommended map generally connects Mid-Scale Residential areas by way of main corridors in a grid-like fashion. In between, Low-Scale Residential predominates as the primary land use designation. Overall, this shakes out as something like 65% Low-Scale Residential and 35% Mid-Scale Residential.

Functionally, the difference between Low-Scale Residential and Mid-Scale Residential is density level, building height, and allowed uses. The following is how that could shake out based upon draft comprehensive plan language:

  • Low-Scale Residential areas would generally allow up to three stories in height, 10 to 25 dwelling per acre, lots as small as 2,500 square feet, and a mix of housing types ranging from detached houses with accessory dwelling units and duplexes to fourplexes and small-scale apartments.
  • Mid-Scale Residential areas would generally allow up to three to four stories in height, 15 to 45 dwelling units per acre, and a mix of housing types ranging from small-lot houses and triplexes to cohousing, fourplexes, and apartments.

This is contrasted with Single Family Residential and Low-Density Multifamily areas in the comprehensive plan that are much more restricted in what is possible for corresponding zones.

Additionally, draft language for the comprehensive plan offers a bit more clarity on corresponding zoning designations that could be applied to Low-Scale Residential and Mid-Scale Residential. Low-Scale Residential would come in two basic flavors (R-1 and R-2) plus a special review district (R-2SRD) and historic mixed district (HMR-SRD) while Mid-Scale Residential would come in just two varieties (R-3 and R-4L).

As a two-phase process, the planning commission recommendation calls for the first phase to focus on the future land use map changes, near-term land use code changes, and some other updates to the comprehensive plan. Here’s how those shake out:

  • On the land use code front, the recommendation directs an update to accessory dwelling unit regulations to remove barriers to development and parking requirement reductions for senior housing. It also outlines a new affordable housing development bonus for religious institutions and nonprofit housing developers, an expanded development agreement pathway for projects that would deliver affordable housing, and a streamlined approval process for subdivisions.
  • In the comprehensive plan, the recommendation seeks to redirect housing policies and the city’s vision for housing growth. It does this by revising language toward inclusive and diverse neighborhoods, increased housing options, replacing the Single-Family Residential and Low-Density Multifamily land use designations with Low-Scale Residential and Mid-Scale Residential, and removing the narrow definition of “family”. Coupled with this is additional language that promotes general design strategies (e.g., accessibility, pedestrian orientation, transitions, and landscaping) and preservation strategies of historic structures.
  • Also in the comprehensive plan, the recommendation touches on affordable housing and anti-displacement strategies. An inclusionary mandatory affordable housing policy, affordable housing requirements in federally-designated Opportunity Zones, and policy to incentivize more family-sized units are outlined in the revised language. In tandem with this, the recommendation also seeks to expand use of the city’s Multifamily Tax Exemption Program for the 12-year affordable housing option outlined in state law.

The second phase of the process will be much more focused around the nuts and bolts of zoning and development standards, which could set up high stakes disputes about which properties get what zoning, how transitions between zones should work, and what the right design approach should be. That process will involve deep public engagement to suss those issues out, but is also slated to look into other topics like actions to encourage retention of existing structures, green building, accessibility, and permitting processes.

Two planning commissioners who voted against the recommendations disagreed with map changes in the North End and Northeast Tacoma, arguing that the changes went too far. This is not exactly surprising given the over-the-top reactions some North Enders had at the maps. Another commissioner who voted against the recommendations apparently felt that the maps didn’t accurately reflect transit corridors as they exist today even though Tacoma has future transit corridor plans.

With the recommendations in hand, the process moves over to the city council where roadblocks could begin to appear, depending on public feedback. The city council will initially hold a study session on June 8th with planning staff presenting the planning commission’s recommendations. City councilmembers will have an opportunity to provide guidance at the meeting and could call for additional study sessions and setting of a public hearing date to adopt legislation memorializing the phased planning process and adoption of the first phase’s recommendations. Once the first phase of the Home In Tacoma process is completed, planning staff will be able to advance work on the second phase, which is expected to run into 2022.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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This is an exciting proposal, and could be used as a template in many suburban cities in Puget Sound (which I guess is all of them, hahaha) that aspire to grow denser. What are the chances that it actually passes in a form close to the proposal? I imagine the 900 public comments aren’t universally positive, and that some neighbors will organize to resist change?

This looks like a big improvement. Does the “mid-scale residential” allow any retail? If not that, would be a change I would make. Otherwise there is no point in having the taller housing close to the arterial.

The other change I would make is getting rid of the density rules. Whether “mid-rise” or “low-rise”, the places should be able to be as dense as the market decides. You would have minimum apartment sizes (nothing smaller than a motel room) but that would be it.

Seattle should do something like this (with the changes I mentioned).

Over-regulation prevents optimal land use, but I’m not a fan of just letting the market decide. If you want to see outcomes that reflect particular values, then you must set the rules of the game in a way that motivates players to support those values in exchange for the profit they all seek. If instead you tear up the rules, there’s no reason why the profit motivation should cumulatively lead to your desired outcomes over any given timeframe. For example, when a city is already carved up into 5,000 sq ft lots each with a different owner. then this is the resolution profitable development will be planned at. Absent infinite demand, this results in relatively uniform development across the city: everywhere gets a bit denser, nowhere gets truly dense. If over 5 years every street of 20 SFH lots in the city gets 1 6-plex, that adds housing stock but doesn’t move the urbanization needle. If instead you add the same number of units over the same timeframe by zoning just one neighborhood for 6-plexes and leaving everywhere else untouched for now, then the land turns over faster, other development options emerge, and you build an entire urban neighborhood. As it fills up, you plan the same arc for the next neighborhood. Rinse and repeat.

Ah, your “entire urban neighborhood” just wiped out any free market affordable housing left in Tacoma. Developers and politicians can’t be allowed to force all the growth and development into a couple of working class neighborhoods.

Going back to Norm Rice’s “Urban Village Plan”, Seattle has tried to force most of it’s growth into just a few neighborhoods… and it’s been a failure. Tacoma is showing political courage not seen in the Emerald City in decades.

There is value is planning on where growth will occur first, so that public and private investment can be coordinated. Even if the long-term goal is to create uniform midrise density, I think there is value in channeling growth to certain nodes at first and steadily growing ‘out’ and ‘up’.

Nodes or corridors. Tacoma’s approach appears to be high density around nodes and midrise along corridors.

If you tour Seattle neighborhoods, the more money a ‘hood has, the more White it is, the less growth it’s had to shoulder in the last 30 years. (If any. Seattle is still full of single family homes worth millions that look stuck in time machine from 1982)

Try taking an old redlining map of Seattle and overlaying with where the City has planned high density growth. The less money a neighborhood has, the less political clout, the less White people, the likely it’s going to be targeted for density.

One City, one set of zoning laws. Tacoma has no interest in letting growth because a political food fight like in Seattle.

Don’t you see the contradiction in arguing for a free-market approach while simultaneously lamenting the loss of low-cost housing? Absent rules, developers will tear down whatever they want, and build for whatever customer budget they want. That leads to less low-cost housing.

To repeat myself, because it’s important: you will not reach a meaningful urban density for many many years by blanket applying the same policy across the city.

Nothing compels the city to select the lowest-cost neighborhoods for rezoning, nor to provide incentives to increase the low-cost housing stock.

Seattle’s urban village strategy has led to several new dense urban nodes that wouldn’t otherwise have existed. If you think it has also led to gentrification – then with less housing stock those neighborhoods would be even more expensive. Gentrification isn’t caused by new buildings, it’s caused by supply failing to match demand. The challenge with Seattle’s strategy is to identify the next areas to add density, so that supply can continue to grow at sufficient pace.

Well, Tacoma has a population of just over 210,000 people. You can ride across town, north to south, in about 30 minutes on a bike. Urban density (and light rail) are just silly urban planner talk. Tacoma is absolutely not Seattle and looking at the mess Seattle has made with bad urban planning, why would Tacoma want to be like Seattle?

The more affluent parts of the City have avoided growth though political means for decades. Whole city zoning laws change that. There’s going to be immediate interest (and a huge political fight) to build condos north of 6th Ave because there’s a demand for those units, no matter what the NIMBYs who currently live there think.

Gentrification is only caused by new buildings. Tacoma has the last market rate affordable housing in the whole Puget Sound area. When that’s gone, it’s gone for good. There’s no such thing as new affordable housing… land prices, building materials prices and labor push prices higher. East Tacoma still has run down 4 plexes full of people paying $1200 a month for rent. Those units cannot be replaced.

I’m sorry, but those 4-plexes work as low-income housing because of the city, not because they’re old. If it’s up to the free market, sooner or later they’ll be torn down and replaced with something that could be sold at market rate. Low-income housing does not have to be the oldest, crappiest units in town, and and new-build is absolutely possible if the city wishes to make it so. No for-profit developer ever built low-cost housing of their own free will, including those developments you’re thinking of. Whether new build or decrepit, it’s the city that ensure low-income housing exists. And none of this has anything to do with blanket zoning.