Tacoma is in a dire housing situation. According to a WalletHub report from this summer, among 180 rental markets, Tacoma is ranked 155 in rental affordability. Additionally, data from the American Community Survey shows that about 48% of housing units in Tacoma are rentals. These two facts together indicate a simple truth: half of Tacoma housing is out of reach for many residents. When you bring in the insane sales prices houses are going for nowadays, normal people cannot afford to live in over half of the homes in this city. Everyone else, including your author, is left spending a significant portion of their monthly income on rent.

Homes for all?

So the City of Tacoma took steps toward addressing this housing crisis by announcing its Home in Tacoma initiative earlier this year, which aims to radically reform Tacoma’s zoning policies to create affordable housing opportunities for its residents.

In broad strokes, the housing strategy would rename single family zoning as Low-Scale residential and allow for the construction of duplexes, triplexes, cottage housing, and, in some cases, small multifamily buildings in areas previously restricted to detached single family dwellings. The new housing would need to maintain the general size and height of existing detached houses with yards in these neighborhoods.

(Credit: Home in Tacoma Project, Infrastructure, Planning, & Sustainability Committee Recommendations, 10/27/21)

Home in Tacoma would also rezone some of these areas as Mid-Scale residential, in an effort to further increase housing availability across the city. These Mid-Scale developments would be multi-unit and range from duplexes to moderately sized multifamily buildings, all up to three stories tall, with four stories permissible along corridors.

A common name for developments such as these is “missing middle” housing, indicating that it falls in size between detached homes and large multi-unit buildings.

An architectural diagram shows range of housing options highlighting Missing Middle housing types ranging from duplexes to 20-unit apartment buildings. (Opticos Design)
The spectrum of housing that would become more available through Home in Tacoma (Credit: City of Tacoma and Opticos Design)

For both Low-Scale and Mid-Scale zoning designations, in addition to height and scale compatibility, attention would need to be paid to scale transitions between different zoning heights and maintaining pedestrian orientation to the street with landscaping. Reuse of existing structures would be strongly emphasized as well.

But responses to the proposed zoning changes have been mixed so far.

On July 13th, the City held a public hearing regarding the Home in Tacoma plan, receiving over 500 comments. Supporters of the plan cited a growing population of houseless folks, historically discriminatory policies, and look towards a more walkable, integrated city. On the flip side, residents that oppose the strategy noted that developing along transit routes as proposed would not necessarily translate to increased accessibility or traffic reduction. They also argued that a blanket strategy for the whole city would play out differently in each neighborhood, and generally expressed the desire to maintain things as they are in the older neighborhoods. Bear in mind these comments are just a portion of the spectrum of opinions shared. 

In a sense, Tacomans are torn. People want places for everyone to stay warm and dry, but people also want an intentional plan that won’t leave us with a mess to clean up in a decade.

The comments were passed along to the Infrastructure, Planning & Sustainability Committee (IPS) in late July, who reviewed and used them to update the Home in Tacoma plan over the following months. These recommendations were finalized on October 27th alongside an accompanying growth map and were formally presented to the City Council earlier this week on November 9th.

A step closer

A map showing growth scenarios in Tacoma, WA.
 Map of the most recent recommendations from the Infrastructure, Planning, and Sustainability Committee (Credit: City of Tacoma)

One of the starkest features that stands out is how pared down the most recent recommendation is compared to the original Home in Tacoma plan. In the latest proposal, only 17.5% of residential parcels would be rezoned for Mid-Scale residential, down from the 25% and 40% scenarios in the original plans. If you check out the interactive ArcGIS StoryMap, you can stack these different maps on top of one another to see where exactly these changes occurred. To see the biggest differences, compare the most recent proposal to the Evolve scenario and look around the local business districts, such as Proctor, Stadium, and Lincoln. Compare both layers to really see how they stack up against one another.

A map of Tacoma using colors to indicate different zoning designations.
The previously considered Evolve growth scenario for Tacoma zoned much more of the city for mid scale development, as indicated in red. (Credit: City of Tacoma Arc GIS)

Aside from changing what was rezoned, additional updates were also made to the plan. These include:

  • Limiting the design of developments such that larger buildings (up to 4 stories) are directly adjacent to transit corridors;
  • Ensuring that new developments are not out of scale with adjacent properties (such as a 4 story apartment in the middle of a street of single story homes);
  • Increased flexibility for add-on units to existing single household homes;
  • Commitment to engage locally with neighborhoods;
  • Expansion of the 12-year Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE) to include more areas near commercial nodes and transit corridors.

Looking ahead, the first public reading of the ordinance will occur at a council meeting on November 16th. The final reading will take place on November 30th, hopefully with action from the City Council coming soon after. If all proceeds forward, Phase 2, determining the nuts and bolts of rezoning, is expected to occur in early 2022.

Public feedback sought

The City of Tacoma is taking public comments through email at cityclerk@cityoftacoma.org and City Council meetings every Tuesday at 5pm on Zoom.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Kevin Le (Guest Contributor)

Kevin Le is a Geographic Information Science (GIS) master's student at the University of Southern California. He moved to Tacoma a few years to go to UPS and has stuck around ever since. He's interested in how we can use spatial data to understand our urban landscape and build better cities for everyone.

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Doug Klotz

Unfortunately, this retrenchment shows the same pattern that Portland has: While yes Portland has redefined it’s “single family” zones to get a more units (over time), it still restricts regular multi-family developement to a half-block from the arterial, severely limiting the type of development that is needed, where it is needed. And apparently the primary factor seems to be “fear of parked cars” 🙁

AJ M

The low-rise rezone would allow ADUs and triplexes in effectively all of Tacoma, correct?

The areas untouched are either industrial lands or already zoned for dense use. While the mid-rise rezone is a bummer compared to the ambition of some of the initial plans, the low-rise rezone looks like a unequivocal success and a major step forward to more abundant & diverse housing in the region.

Andrew

This is a good point, AJ; it is a great success overall. In principle, it de-polarizes the landscape from being about single vs. multifamily areas to being about lower vs. higher density. It should enable much of the missing middle.

I would be interested to know how many more housing units this change could provide. It must be quite large.

Dardanelles

Even though this plan would be a huge move forward in terms of missing middle housing, it’s really disappointing to see the City retreat on mid-scale zoning. “Transit corridors” really means high-traffic arterials, and there’s zero logic in targeting apartments where buses run rather than to the walking radius around where they stop. To run a half-block wide strip of apartments along arterials is to enshrine in code the principle that apartment dwellers do not deserve to live on quiet, safe streets; these streets must be reserved for a of homeowners and house-renters. Given the documented health effects of living on high-traffic streets and the generally lower incomes of apartment dwellers, it’s a galling display of environmental injustice.

Andrew

I think the citizens of Tacoma have to ask themselves what matters to them. Do they really feel that not having cars on the street, and the comfort of things staying the same, is worse than unaffordability and/or sprawl? To be honest, the concerns about parking congestion and car traffic are real. In an area where most trips are made with a car, more density is going to mean more cars on the street.

This is kind of the reality in most areas in America that aren’t strictly urban in the way Seattle downtown is. So I see the worries that homeowners have about more vehicle traffic as true. Development along transit corridors (which I agree, is more effective for bringing in people who can live car-free or car-lite) is going to reduce that, but the real trade off is going to be affordability and density versus fewer parked cars.

I think a difficulty is that many people in these neighborhoods have been homeowners for a long time and just don’t get the affordability crisis that is hitting people. It’s a big deal and the city is treating it like a big deal. Unfortunately, many of the comments have people that don’t see it that way.

tacomee

Do any of you live in Tacoma? These arguments over growth are 20 plus years old. Here’s the historical background. North and West Tacoma has always been Whiter and richer that the rest of the City. The growth plans are always planned growth for poorer and less White neighborhoods– starting with Hilltop and around Tacoma Mall.

If the whole city was to have the same basic regulations, developers might target the richer areas in the North End and out West (with Tacoma Narrows bridge views). Read the Tacoma Tribune archives. Any planned growth in West or NorthTacoma has met fierce opposition. (Google Proctor Station).

One of the great things about North Tacoma is how walkable much of it is…. and there’s still parking if you want to drive. It’s one of best places to live in Washington State– building it out might change all that. I think most long time Tacoma folks aren’t the least surprised by the latest political backlash.

Andrew

I don’t live in Tacoma. I live near Seattle – like a lot of people, I can’t afford to live in Seattle proper. I think that historical context, to my understanding, is true in a lot of cities. Opposition to upzones is pretty widespread in single-family areas, and it’s the richer and whiter areas that are more successful in fighting upzones.

It would be lovely for the whole city to have the same basic regulations. It should be a goal that upzoning is done across the city in an equitable way. The upshot of this article is that the reductions in planned higher-density zoning aren’t being done to increase equity. They are just cuts to multifamily zoning across the city.

These battles have been fighting for a long time about growth, but the context has changed in that housing prices are reaching a fever pitch. Apparently Tacoma’s rental prices raised 19% in the past year, which is awful. Personally, I would prioritize the interests of affordable housing in feasible locations over ease of parking or less noise or clear views. Of course, I am a young renter and understand the problems of affordability more clearly than I understand what homeowners are worried about. But even if try to discount my particular perspective, I see affordability as a necessity, and parking ease as a convenience.

I think one final point is that neighborhoods can’t necessarily escape the problem of growth even if they resist upzones. I rent in a single family zoned neighborhood that is crowded. People park in their front yards because they don’t have enough space on the street. And the concerns homeowners have about renters – well, as long as real estate is a good investment, richer people and investors are going to buying and renting out houses. So it’s a question of zoning in a sensible, sufficient way, or seeing overcrowding and ridiculous sprawl because growth is happening anyway.

Last edited 19 days ago by Andrew
tacomee

I think the long game for North Tacoma folks is to limit higher-density zoning across the City and then fight it by a case by case basis north of I-5, pushing most of the growth South. (and Hilltop… getting rid of the cheaper rentals, and many of the African Americans who live in them, has been an unspoken goal of the Tacoma business community for a long time. If Back Lives Matter, then why is the NW getting Whiter by the day?

Many neighborhoods in Tacoma are a bit old and rundown, but they have a history as places where lower income people could live. Most people reading the Urbanist have no idea where Oakland is in Tacoma. Tacoma shouldn’t be a suburb for people who can’t afford Seattle. It’s it’s own place… or it used to be.

Pacific Ave (Pierce Transit Route #1) is lined with old houses chopped up into apartments that are among the cheapest rents in Puget Sound. That whole area is going to targeted for “up zoning” and TOD…. shiny new units for high income folks. This will only serve to fuel more homelessness. Look around, it already has.

Cam Solomon

When there is too much of something, like, say, houses, prices fall. When there is not enough of something, prices rise. I would argue that homelessness and affordability is caused by not enough building, not too much building. There is a time lag between zoning changes and getting more supply, so these basic economic relationships may be obscured, and it may feel as if that teardown being replaced by 16 plex is the cause of homelessness and affordability. But in the medium and long run, it is the cure.

Last edited 19 days ago by Cam Solomon
Cam Solomon

This is what makes me scratch my head, btw, about my NIMBY northend nieghbors, and their dontseattlizetacoma campaign. Don’t they know that much of what they don’t like about Seattle, such as homelessness and lack of affordability, is caused by Seattle’s very unwillingness to upzone, accept in very limited urban villages? They are actually setting us up to become seattle with their resistence to upzoning, instead of avoiding it’s fate.

Last edited 19 days ago by Cam Solomon
tacomee

Ah, I doubt that. The trouble is people on a fixed income just can’t afford to rent a place a live… even a crappy place to live. America is filled with people with physical health problems, mental health problems, addiction problems… who get a government check (like SSI). For years these sorts of folks rented the crappy units on Pac Ave and the East Side. I owned a house just off of Pacific and I watched my some of my neighbors march off to methadone clinic every morning. They aren’t bad people mostly. They’re just people who have had a lot of hard luck and made bad choices. If somebody wants to live in trailer or crappy apartment and drink malt liquor all day… so be it

But the powers that be in the Puget Sound and tearing down all the trailer parks and sub-standard housing where the down-and-out used to live. Now they’re drinking malt liquor in a tent down by the railroad tracks on the East Side. There is no place left to hide.

I believe that being progressive means having mercy.