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Expanding Affordable Housing Options Through Missing Middle Housing


May 17, 2021  by  Leonard Bauer
Category:  Housing Development Regulations and Zoning Guest Author

Expanding Affordable Housing Options Through Missing Middle Housing

All images in this blog have been provided courtesy of the City of Lake Stevens

In 2019, we wrote a two-part blog series on the City of Olympia’s experience adopting an ordinance to increase ‘missing middle’ housing options in low-density neighborhoods. Missing middle housing options include small-scale, multi-unit housing, such as duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, backyard cottages (i.e., accessory dwelling units or ADUs), and courtyard-style apartments.  As we wrote then, allowing and encouraging these housing types can provide more affordable living options, help cities accommodate future population increases without sprawl, increase walkability, and support neighborhood businesses.

In this two-part blog series, we will continue to look at how expanding zoning codes to permit missing middle housing, both in Olympia and elsewhere, can bring new affordable housing options to a city. This blog will focus on expansion efforts in other jurisdictions while the second blog will offer an overview of how Olympia used recent legislation to encourage the development of more missing middle housing.

Background

In the two years since publication of our 2019 blog series, across the state the need for greater housing choices within existing neighborhoods has become even more urgent. Housing prices in most Washington cities have grown at an increasingly higher rate. In addition to this housing affordability crisis, our country has awakened more fully to two other crises — the ongoing effects of structural racism and climate change.  Increasing the variety of housing types throughout our cities and towns can help address all three of these crises.

The Washington State Legislature adopted E2SHB 1923 in 2019 and SHB 2343 in 2020 (both primarily codified in RCW 36.70A.600). These amendments encouraged cities to take specific actions to increase residential building capacity, with encouragement being in the form of grants from the Washington State Department of Commerce and protection from legal appeals under the Growth Management Act (GMA) and the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). 

Legislation Provides a Boost to Local Efforts

The City of Olympia’s previous missing middle housing ordinance had been stalled by a legal appeals process in early 2019; However, later that year, the Olympia City Council chose to revisit the topic again — this time taking the new path provided by RCW 36.70A.600.  Olympia chose to pursue three of the specific actions listed in the statute to increase residential building capacity by focusing on ADUs; duplexes on corner lots; and duplexes, triplexes, and courtyard apartments in more zoning districts.   

According to Commerce, 63 cities in addition to Olympia have received funding under the E2SHB 1923 grant program to adopt actions listed in RCW 36.70A.600. Most are still heavily involved in the development process, but several cities have already adopted new zoning codes to increase residential housing opportunities, some even without having received state funding.  

We spoke with staff from five cities seeking to increase housing options — Wenatchee, Orting, Lake Stevens, Fife, and Walla Walla — to see how their experiences might help others. More on Olympia’s newly-adopted ordinance will be coming in Part 2 of this series.

Why Cities Look at Missing Middle Housing

The primary motivation for the profiled cities to pursue a missing middle housing program was to increase the variety of housing types and meet strong community concerns over housing affordability.  The four largest cities — Walla Walla, Wenatchee, Lake Stevens, and Olympia — started community discussions on the topic long before the legislature adopted E2SHB 1923 in 2019.  

missing_middle_graph_618x355

In Walla Walla, a community engagement process highlighted the fact that median housing prices had increased 23% in one year.  In Wenatchee, 80 partner organizations led a broad community engagement process called Our Valley Our Future to discuss options. In Lake Stevens and Olympia, organizations and groups of residents expressed significant concern about housing affordability, and there was building community interest in developing new affordable housing types, such as duplexes and ADUs, in communities across Orting.

In addition, construction and development firms in the cities we spoke to had an interest in the establishment of more efficient development standards and processes for their cities, which was a guiding factor in their decision to support a missing middle housing process.

The five profiled cities also benefited from grant funding made available and protection from GMA/SEPA appeals offered via RCW 36.70A.600. Prior to the passage of E2SHB 1923, the cities of Wenatchee and Walla Walla were already working with local nonprofits to find funding and developing analysis to support their affordable housing efforts. However, for Lake Stevens, Orting, and Fife, state funding and removal of potential GMA/SEPA appeals were important factors in kickstarting new programs.

Commerce awarded a total of $342,000 to Lake Stevens, Orting, Wenatchee, and Fife under the E2SHB 1923 grant program (Walla Walla completed its missing middle process before the grants were available). 

Each of the five cities passed a new ordinance making significant changes to its municipal code and/or development process, including:

  • Amending multiple zoning districts to permit more types of housing;
  • Making land use permitting processes less confusing and more predictable, such as Wenatchee eliminating a planned residential development process in favor of a set of objective design review standards;
  • Developing or amending design standards, which were key factors in programs in Lake Stevens and Olympia; and
  • Identifying additional improvements to the city’s development codes that would support their overall  housing program goals (e.g., Fife and Lake Stevens).

What Have We Learned in the Past Two Years?

Unlike Olympia’s first missing middle housing process, which generated significant controversy, Wenatchee, Orting, Lake Stevens, Fife, and Walla Walla experienced a more welcomed response to the increased housing densities being proposed.

Oly_ADU2_618x355

In some cases, there were strong concerns over specific provisions — such as the amount of separation between structures in Lake Stevens or a change to the process for short plats in Fife — but otherwise, these five cities found that building on the momentum of broader community discussions about housing affordability led to a greater understanding of the need for more housing opportunities within existing neighborhoods. 

The experience these five cities had in developing a missing middle program provide a potential blueprint for other communities wishing to begin discussions on how to increase affordable housing opportunities.

The author wishes to thank Glenn DeVries, City of Wenatchee; Russell Wright and Sabrina Gassaway, City of Lake Stevens; Emily Adams, AHBL and City of Orting; Chris Larson, City of Fife; and Melissa Shumake, City of Walla Walla, for their contributions to this blog.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Leonard Bauer

Leonard Bauer, FAICP, is the City of Olympia’s Deputy Director for Community Planning and Development.

Leonard was the Managing Director of Growth Management Services at the Washington State Department of Commerce for 12 years. Prior to that, he spent 14 years as a planner and planning director at various local governments.

He is the co-author of a Land Use Dispute Resolution Handbook, and in 2014 he was inducted as a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is also the 2013 recipient of the WA Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Meyer Wolfe Award for Professional Achievement.

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