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Tacoma residents clash over proposal to expand housing options in single-family neighborhoods

Parker Miles Blohm
Houses overlook Commencement Bay in Tacoma.

Leaders in Tacoma are considering a plan to overhaul residential zoning in the city at a time when home prices and rents are skyrocketing amid unprecedented growth. 

The Tacoma City Council held a highly anticipated public hearing during its regular meeting Tuesday on the so-called Home in Tacoma Project, which previously earned a recommendation from the planning commission in a split vote.  

Right now, residential zoning in the city is overwhelmingly weighted toward single-family housing. The proposal would change that by allowing a broader range of options in those areas, known as the “missing middle.” The types of housing that fall into that “middle” include low-scale units, such as duplexes and cottages, or mid-scale multifamily housing, such as midsize apartment buildings. 

Currently, 75 percent of the city is exclusively zoned for single-family housing. The plan would do away with that and single-family homes would fall under the expanded low-scale zoning. 

Elliott Barnett, a senior planner for the city, says the plan carefully considers the characteristics of each individual neighborhood in direct response to concerns current homeowners raised.

“The proposal here really emphasizes the importance of design and scale as the underpinning of all of our residential areas,” Barnett said ahead of Tuesday’s public hearing. “It also recognizes that our neighborhoods are all unique.” 

More than 200 people attended the hearing, a greater turnout than any other meeting since the council went virtual at the start of the pandemic. Dozens of residents -- both homeowners and renters -- spoke about the plan. 

Supporters say it’s a bold step toward solving the city’s housing crisis by increasing supply, choice and affordability. They say it creates more diverse, walkable neighborhoods and reduces reliance on cars by allowing people to live closer to transit, jobs and services. 

“We need to dismantle decades of restrictions that have served and possibly were even created to separate people by income and race,” resident Theresa Power-Drutis said. “We need to do that now.”

Opponents say they aren’t convinced it will improve affordability without strict requirements for developers. They worry the proposal would change too much too fast, leading to unintended consequences such as displacement or loss of green space.

“In order for you to ensure that housing stays affordable you need to make sure somebody keeps track of all the housing that developers build,” Esther Day said. 

Many of the council members who spoke ahead of the public hearing expressed skepticism about the plan. But Deputy Mayor Keith Blocker says he thinks it’s the right move. 

“It’s not normal for the value of a house to double in four years and that’s what we’re seeing,” Blocker said. He said more flexible zoning will translate to more affordable housing.

But Councilmember Robert Thoms said he’s not convinced.

“Having a policy that actually incentivizes and/or looks for parts of our community that have historically been disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and lacking investment would be a better place to focus our efforts on than upzoning the entire community,” Thoms said. 

Some members of the council expressed concern that three of the nine members of the planning commission opposed the proposal. 

“I think that’s telling,” Councilmember Lillian Hunter said. 

While there was a lot of disagreement during Tuesday’s hearing, many people agreed that housing affordability requires urgent action.

According to Redfin, the Seattle-based real estate brokerage, Tacoma home prices were up more than 26 percent in June compared to the same month last year. The median home price in Tacoma last month was $455,000. Homes in Tacoma are selling, on average, after five days on the market. Many real estate experts have pointed to a lack of inventory to meet demand. 

Add to that the percentage of people who are “cost burdened” in Tacoma: 40 percent of residents are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. 

Tacoma isn’t the first city to explore zoning as a solution to housing affordability and access. Olympia adopted citywide reforms in December 2020, allowing for more missing middle housing units. Similarly, Portland’s Residential Infill Project approved last summer changed the city’s zoning to allow four-unit houses on residential lots. That change allows six-unit buildings if a portion of them are reserved for low-income residents. 

The Home in Tacoma Project is in the early stages of planning. The Tacoma City Council is expected to vote on a vision for the plan this fall, after months of reviewing feedback from the public. Council members won’t vote on any specific policy changes until next year. 

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.