How will the “missing middle” bill affect Tacoma?

Get ready for many more housing choices.

  • 6 min read
  • June 9, 2023

One priority for Washington State legislators during their regular session was to tackle a critical lack of affordable housing. House Bill 1110 was negotiated over the last few months and recently passed both chambers. Governor Inslee just recently signed it into law.

Known as the “middle housing bill”, it refers to developments made up of duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and other “plexes” as well as courtyard apartments and townhomes. The intention is to build these smaller, more affordable homes to help meet the need for housing at all income levels. According to the bill, construction of middle housing will now be allowed in neighborhoods previously zoned for only single-family housing.

Washington, along with much of the United States, suffers from a lack of affordable housing. The State Department of Commerce determined that Washington will need to build 1.1 million homes by 2044 to meet population demands. For Pierce County, the report says 135,652 housing units need to be built in the next 20 years.

For anybody who was in the market the last 3 to 4 years, home prices soared as inventory went down due to droves of newcomers moving to our area. Add a pandemic to the mix which caused an increase in the demand for housing, and “affordable” homes became scarce. So of the 1.1 million homes Washington needs, at least 20% are to be middle housing deemed “affordable” for people with average incomes, according to the bill.

In Tacoma, neighborhoods with blocks and blocks of single-family homes near schools and bus lines might see property purchased for middle housing. That also means the ‘burbs around Tacoma will be affected. For example, neighborhoods in Fircrest and University Place with vacant areas could be cleared for building middle housing rather than developments of single-family homes or apartment complexes.

However, in the final version of the bill, smaller towns were given a break and will not be forced to build larger “plexes” in single-family neighborhoods if the local government opts out. This is a huge change from an original proposal that was going to completely reverse the ban on multi-family development in single-family neighborhoods.

The bill dictates that bigger cities like Tacoma with more than 75,000 people must allow fourplexes throughout the city. They must allow sixplexes if they’re within a quarter-mile of a major transit stop or if two of the six units are affordable housing. Lots with abandoned or dilapidated homes, underused building lots and vacant areas could be looked at for placing middle housing.

Building neighborhoods for “density,” meaning more housing units per acre, has benefits beyond providing affordable housing. It is more efficient and requires less infrastructure than suburban sprawl. When single-housing developments go in, the utilities, water lines, roads, etc all have to be built at the same time. The spirit of this bill allows for middle housing in already existing neighborhoods so there is less cost and need for new infrastructure. 

Residents of Tacoma may be pleasantly surprised to learn that higher-density development actually generates less traffic than low-density (single-housing) development. While residents of low-density single-family communities often have two or more cars per household, residents of high-density plexes, apartments, and condominiums tend to have only one car per household. When public transportation is readily available and convenient, people in higher-density communities will often opt to use it.

The bill should be a positive for Tacoma and other bigger cities around the state since smaller towns and suburbs will share in the responsibility of building courtyard complexes and other “plexes” to help with growth. And, with Tacoma’s existing infrastructure, adding more density won’t be as costly to developers.

Some lawmakers argued that cities and towns will lose control over what is built within their boundaries. However, the benefits of the bill put these arguments to rest as a bipartisan coalition of 35 in the Senate and 79 in the House voted for passage. It is hard to predict where the greatest impact will be, but a change is coming and it will be noticeable in the next several years.

Another goal of the Bill is to encourage the construction of innovative homes that are environmentally sustainable. This will be a welcome change as new and futuristic housing developments meant to combat climate change will be built right in front of our eyes. Imagine Tacoma with new, “smart” plexes and courtyard apartments that are built after sustainable site development, that will house more people using less water, more efficient energy, less waste, and better indoor air quality.

So, while on the surface it may seem that dense housing may cause problems for Tacoma, such as more traffic and community instability, the opposite is true. These dwellings will not only offer affordability to those who have been priced out of buying homes, it will lower the costs to maintain infrastructure, reduce traffic, and decrease environmental destruction, among other things. It could also quite possibly attract new businesses and employers to the area – enhancing our “main street” small business corridors.

Feel free to reach out if you have any questions about housing, land use policy, or if you have any other real estate needs.

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