The new state toolkit's focus appears to be allaying expected neighbor concerns rather than boosting housing creation. (Opticos Design / Washington State Department of Commerce)

Commerce recently had a consultant create a form-based code, but the draft fails to advance housing abundance.

Now that Washington State’s Middle Housing bill (HB1110) has been signed into law, the next question is what implementation will look like — what kind of housing and where. The Department of Commerce has published a request for consultants to draft a model code that 1) will help jurisdictions write their own compliant middle housing code or 2) will supersede local zoning if they fail to implement their own in advance of the deadline (six months after their comprehensive planning update).

While we don’t know what cities and towns are thinking, we do have a picture of how Commerce is approaching the middle housing code. Last fall, Commerce hired a consultant to “inform about and assist local governments with middle housing policies, regulations, and programs.” 

In May, a focus group of planners, developers, and architects previewed a draft ‘Toolkit’ that illustrates four strategies that local governments could overlay on their residential zoning to allow new denser housing types within existing detached single family neighborhoods. The foundation of this toolkit is a form-based code meant to create ‘objective’ standards for middle housing that can be applied widely.

The cover page starts out promising enough, but Washington’s new middle housing toolkit ends up hewing it down to the status quo too much. (Opticos Design / Commerce)

The issue is that the toolkit, rather than solving for affordability, feasibility, and the lowest carbon footprint, is primarily focused on crafting development guidelines that will keep new infill development the size of average houses and thus minimize the outcry from vocal neighbors. While this might be an easier to swallow approach for Washington cities and towns, it doesn’t scale up to address the deeper issues that HB 1110 was passed to address: the massive shortfall of new places for people to live. 

While Commerce’s original intent was to come up with instructive materials broadly applicable to most local governments, the effort lags behind what more progressive jurisdictions are already doing. But when we dig into the details, the toolkit suggests real reductions in development capacity: smaller footprints, bigger setbacks, and lower roof heights than are currently allowed in many Puget Sound cities. At its very worst, it will give slow-growth municipalities the option to select a new zoning overlay that is more prescriptive and restrictive, thus spoiling any chance that any new middle housing will be built.

A graphic shows larger middle housing types with a caption that says "Restrictive zoning codes, incentives that favor building
detached houses, inadequate financing options and
condominium liability laws have made Middle Housing
challenging to build." Also "Common barriers to middle housing" with text dispelling the myth: "Nobody wants that anymore. Since the 1950s, the single-family
home has been marketed as the
aspirational housing choice for
everyone. However, the reality is
that, due to changing lifestyles and
household preferences, renters and homeowners want more diverse and attainable housing options." This project isn’t
big enough”
Multifamily development is often
associated with large apartment
buildings or subsidized projects built by speciality developers. Frequently,
Middle Housing projects are perceived
to be too small to be economically
viable in many housing markets." We tried it and it
didn’t work” and "You can't build that here"
An accompanying poster notes the barriers to missing middle housing, and makes good points. If only the toolkit offered more help. (Opticos Design / Commerce)

Let’s go through the proposed new toolkit and look at some of the underlying flaws. 

  • They state, “This toolkit does not provide standards for buildings taller than three stories.” For three of the four overlays in the Toolkit, buildings are conceived as two and a half stories with a height bonus for hip and gable roofs –  less that most of Washington cities’ least dense residential zones today. Rather than proposing an actual incremental increase, it ignores the status quo as a starting point. If you want a single pitch ‘shed’ roof, the 22-foot height limit is actually less than what we allow for a backyard cottage in Seattle today.
  • Parking is mandated throughout the toolkit, a reversal for many jurisdictions that are moving away from required off street parking. Indeed one of the strengths of HB 1110 is releasing parking restrictions for new housing.
  • Most overlay zones top out at four units per parcel, equivalent to Seattle’s second least dense zone, Residential Small Lot. Much of the ‘middle’ housing that is missing is between a house-sized triplex and the ‘5 over 1’ medium-sized apartment building. While this toolkit focuses on redundant standards for housing types we already allow, like townhouses and triplexes, it is silent on helping planners visualize appropriately-scaled urban buildings that might have between six to twenty units.
  • Townhomes today, for better or worse, are the least expensive middle housing alternative available in the market, and the toolkit hamstrings their development with provisions that limit the number per building and the building length. The most successful rowhouse style homes on corner lots wouldn’t comply.
For typical parcels, the provisions for multiple buildings per site, such as access to a large shared yard and distances between buildings and to parking, would be more difficult to achieve. (Opticos Design / State of Washington)
  • The toolkit increases barriers for sites with multiple buildings on a single site, which would render many currently popular types of middle housing, such as detached townhouses, cottage clusters in Residential Small Lot zoning, and arguably even detached accessory dwelling units nearly impossible to build on compact urban lots.  
  • The toolkit does not provide flexibility for sites that might want to preserve existing housing and build more. It assumes parcels are cleared rather than provide provisions for new buildings in the backyard, lot splitting, or additions that add units.
Development standards create a more stringent form-based code that limits current development types like townhouses. (Opticos Design / State of Washington)
  • While much of today’s urban design discourse is centered around neighborhoods where goods and services are accessible within a 15-minute walk or roll, the toolkit doesn’t have any provisions for mixed uses like daycares, commercial suites or corner stores.
Development standards for the NRO.S2 overlay often allow less than could be built on a parcel today. A fourplex in Spokane we’d designed would have to shrink 32% to meet these standards. (Opticos Design / State of Washington)
  • Finally, as one gets into the details of each overlay, it is chock full of reductions: larger setbacks, less lot coverage, less height, larger minimum lot areas, prescriptive design standards – each taking a bite out of the viability of future housing. When we compared a fourplex we’re currently designing in Spokane against the toolkit, we’d need to reduce the footprint by 32%, lose the front and back porches, and downgrade the 2-bedroom units to 1-bedrooms.  

Unlocking the residential potential of urban land is critical if we’re going to provide the more than 1.1 million homes Washington State projects we’ll need over the next 20 years, and that means reintroducing multi-family housing types that exclusionary zoning has regulated out of existence.

With this upcoming model code, we can take a good hard look at how new infill development is built, but we first have to move past the idea that middle housing is house-sized buildings carved into more apartments, or cottage clusters. Overall, the toolkit’s conceptual limitations and prescriptive ‘objective standards’ don’t reflect the real conditions of Washington neighborhoods.  

A more serious effort would worry less about what neighbors might think and center our goals of housing abundance and climate action leading with middle housing types that work all the way up to four- and five-story mid-sized buildings in keeping with the best practices of urban planning around the world. Washington needs a flexible model code that supports the big picture goals of abundant housing.

Article Author
Matt Hutchins (Guest Contributor)

Matt Hutchins is an advocate for housing abundance, smart growth and sustainable architecture. As a Principal at CAST Architecture, he is working on innovative housing options, from cottages to co-housing.