More Housing Variety, More Affordable Housing

A set of proposals aimed at increasing the amount of affordable housing and housing choice available in Tacoma has been making its way through the planning process, and is now ready for public comment.

Most of Tacoma’s residential land is zoned for single family homes, limiting the density and amount of housing available. This is part of a broader residential zoning code framework that has been in place in Tacoma since 1953. A major driving force behind that original code was the elimination of “messiness” of uses. It’s been more than half a century, and with Tacoma looking at a mandate to accommodate significant growth in the coming decades, it seems like it may be time to revisit the code, particularly as it applies to issues of density and affordability.

The proposals currently on the table for inclusion in the 2015 amendment to the comprehensive plan and land use code were initiated by Tacoma's Affordable Housing Policy Advisory Group. They include both a broadening of housing types available in the city's residentially zoned neighborhoods, and more general incentives to encourage the inclusion of affordable housing options in new development. The new proposals are meant to function as a part of the broader spectrum of affordable housing policies and strategies in Tacoma, which includes a range of subsidized housing, housing maintenance and rehabilitation, economic development, and other strategies. 

The proposed changes for 2015 fall generally into two categories; infill housing strategies, or affordable housing incentives/requirements.

The infill housing strategies don't directly or necessarily result in affordable housing, but the thought is that they may de facto lead to greater availability by lowering land and infrastructure costs, decreasing housing unit size, and increasing the diversity of housing choices available in all neighborhoods, and at all price levels.

A lot of these changes are aimed at making room in Tacoma's land use code for what is sometimes referred to as "the missing middle" (see the above image, taken from the August 3, 2015 City Council study session). That's a reference to code that allows for single-family detached housing, and multi-family high rises, but makes it much more difficult, if not downright impossible to build the in-between options like duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and other more creative arrangements. This means missed opportunities for density and infill development, as well as a gap in available housing for those who can't or don't want to fit into the two extremes of single-family homes or high rise apartments. Some of these changes seek to change this.

  1. Lot size flexibility - The proposal refers to this as "context-responsive infill." In 2008 changes were made allowing for the construction of homes on lots that are smaller than what is generally allowed in residential neighborhoods to encourage infill development. The new proposal would allow further reductions to a minimum lot size of 3,000 square feet through a lot size averaging approach. In exchange for that smaller lot size, however, the City would have greater discretion over what is built on it. Homes would be limited in size as a ratio of the lot size, and stricter design standards would be applied to support that "context-responsive" goal. This new rule would apply across all residential districts.
  2. Special review districts refinements - These would be changes to the special category previously created for neighborhoods that predate that 1950s code, and could not be rebuilt as they are - primarily a mix of different residential types - under today's rules. The proposed changes are intended to promote a development pattern that continues to be predominately single-family residential, with flexibility built in to allow for smaller lot sizes and a mix of other housing types. Changes include a reduction in the minimum lot size, enhanced small lot design standards, and updated conditional criteria to allow for 2- and 3-family structures where consistent with neighborhood and historic district character.
  3. Pilot residential infill program - This would allow for a variety of innovative housing types in residential districts with an enhanced discretionary review by the City during a test phase. At the end of the pilot project, it would be reviewed, and approaches refined as needed. The pilot would include infill housing, including detached accessory dwelling units in R-2 and historic districts, two-family development as a conditional use on corner lots in R-2 districts, multi-family as a conditional use in R-3 districts, and cottage housing developments as a conditional use in all residential districts.
  4. Planned residential districts - Current code allows for the construction of these, but it is undertilized, due in part to the lack of vast tracts of land in Tacoma, and partly due to lack of sufficient flexibility in the code to make it an attractive option for developers. The planned changes would update the code to make PRDs a more effective tool for site development. Optional density bonuses would be added to incentivize affordability and sustainability, and minimum site size and common open space requirements would be reduced for this category of development to increase opportunities for use of this approach, and design requirements would emphasize urban design, complete streets, and connections to surrounding streets and paths.

Alongside these more flexible infill strategies, the affordable housing incentives more explicitly address affordable housing availability. They offer height, density, or other bonuses to incentivize the inclusion of affordable housing in new development, and require it in cases of residential upzones. The idea is to make the construction of affordable housing more attractive and cost-effective for developers. These incentives seek to increase the stock of housing affordable to households with incomes considered "moderately low" - between 50% and 80% of the Area Median Income. The incentives are voluntary; the requirement of affordable housing associated with residential upzone requests would not be.

  1. Affordable housing incentives & upzone requirements: These changes would make density bonuses and permit fee reductions available to developers in exchange for voluntary inclusion of affordable housing. Requests for residential upzones would also come with a requirement that the requesting developer include affordable housing in the project or pay a fee-in-lieu. Additional incentives would include a downtown Tacoma floor area ratio bonus and a planned residential district density bonus for inclusion of affordable housing.
  2. City process enhancements: Although not directly tied to code amendments, these are areas where the City can facilitate the development of affordable housing by lowering costs and delays. One area would be the authorization of fee reductions and permit process enhancements, pending resource availability. Another area would be the development of a library of examples of desireable residential infill housing projects to illustrate what the City is looking for.

So there you have it, proposed affordable housing amendments for 2015. You can view this and other elements of the 2015 Annual Amendment on the City of Tacoma's Planning Department page, and learn more at a pair of upcoming info sessions, followed by a Planning Commission public hearing for all the proposed amendments. If you can't make that, but still have opinions about any or all of the proposed amendments, you can share them with the City in writing until 5 p.m. on Friday, August 28.

What's your opinion? Do these seem like workable proposals?

Community Informational Session 1 
Wednesday, August 12, 2015 
6 PM - 8 PM 
Baker Middle School 

Community Informational Session 2 
Thursday, August 13, 2015 
6 PM - 8 PM 
Stadium High School 

Planning Commission Public Hearing 
Wednesday, August 19, 2015 
5 PM 
Tacoma Municipal Building 

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Huh.  I remember a massive zoning overhaul a few years ago that was supposed to open doors for further development.  This new plan, added to the old, makes me wonder if the city had enough conversations with large and small developers for their input on the first round of zoning.  I hope they aren’t guessing what developers, homeowners, landlords, or tenants want… they need to know… with face to face conversations…

You can have amazing density (and therefore culture) with just 4-6 story buildings if there’s enough of them. 

August 6, 2015 at 3:45 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

3 | 0


Why not go for super-duper “amazing density (and therefore culture).”  Tacoma already has Bill Evans constructing the Little Cabrini Green of the West right here in Proctor.  It’s just a matter of time before Tacoma can boast of statistics like this:

Shot & Killed: 49
Shot & Wounded: 271
Total Shot: 320
Total Homicides: 57

Se the details here:

August 6, 2015 at 4:17 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

8 | 13


Who knew that there was a correlation that more people = more crime!?!

August 7, 2015 at 12:29 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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There is a positive correlation between DENSITY and CRIME RATE, particularly violent crime RATE.  Who know it?  The rates of violent crime rate are especially high when density combined with “affordable” housing are considered.

August 7, 2015 at 6:06 am / Reply / Quote and reply

7 | 7


Meh, your simplistic statement is more wrong than right.  There is a moderate correlation (which doesn’t equal causation, as any high school sophomore could tell you) between total crime and total population.  But the relationship between density and crime rate?  You’ll have to cite your sources.

“the relationship between crime rate and population size was not constant, i.e., it depended on the group of jurisdictions involved in the study.”


In other words, there are more important factors for crime rate than population size or density.

August 8, 2015 at 9:56 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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I mentioned the 4-6 story buildings because that’s likely what you’ll see built downtown and inside the business districts - it’s the “missing middle” as suggested in this article.  It’s ok though.  Paris is the most beautiful and culturally significant city on the planet and there’s hardly a building over six floors.

August 7, 2015 at 7:44 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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I love it. I think this is the right direction for improving vitality in our neighborhood centers, reducing sprawl and improving culture. I hope the design review is going to acknowledge modern design. It should not be geared toward Thomas Kinkade-like design requirements.

August 7, 2015 at 6:49 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Oh I can guarantee you you will not have that to worry about.  If this is passed this is what you can expect:

Everything Seattle does Tacoma politicians and bureaucrats will emulate a decade later.  By the way, what exactly are a “Thomas Kinkade like design requirements.”

August 7, 2015 at 8:34 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Go ahead and thumbs down what I posted, you still know I’m right.

August 7, 2015 at 9:13 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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You have also succeeded in exposing your bigotry by taking a swipe at individuals who enjoy Thomas Kinkade artwork, he was a particularly popular and successful artist whose had an immediately recognizable style to it.  It is not a style that I appreciate, but it most definitely was a style that more people freely chose to spend their hard-earned money on than practically any artist of the last half century plus.

Kinkade was also universally panned by “experts.”  Back in the day, a person might walk into the Tacoma Mall Thomas Kinkade Gallery in the Tacoma Mall and say to themselves: I like that.  In fact I like that enough to take money out of my pocket and leave here with that painting.  No one was coerced into paying for a Thomas Kinkede painting, in fact there really was no incentive to even contemplate forcing people to pay for a Thomas Kinkade painting.  People liked it enough to pay for it voluntarily. 

Compare and contrast that to all too much of the absolute rubbish that the so called and mostly self identified “experts” love.  Much of it is worse than rubbish, it is an insult to the senses and the idiots who stood around with chin in hand uttering what they thought would make them sound erudite to their fellow travelers wouldn’t know whether to appreciate what they were oohing and awing about it they had not been told what to think by some oracle of the humanistic movement. 

Go pound sand Jackass and bigot!

August 7, 2015 at 8:59 am / Reply / Quote and reply

7 | 9


Your rant about experts & coercion is unnecessary and your leap to name calling is immature.

My comment simply highlights the concern that increased design review should not come with a requirement to build in a popular style over a creative one. It should attempt to encourage a diversity of quality development without a prescriptive style.

August 8, 2015 at 9:36 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Jerry Ramsey

Zoning, by its very definition, is exclusionary “I’m better than you” ideology. It leads to separation, dare I say defacto segregation? At minimum economic stratification is a result—- then all of the associated problems follow along. You don’t need “gates” to have a gated community, just civic policies that fence people in—or out.

August 7, 2015 at 9:16 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Jim C

I’m not sure how we’re “missing” these building types; take a mental tour of the city.  There are apartment buildings throughout Stadium and the North Slope, the West Side, the Mall, Central, downtown, Oakland/Madrona and so on and so forth. I observe a high concentration of subdivided houses (duplex/triplex) in the UPS neighborhood, 6th Ave, East Tacoma, Hilltop, and I’m sure others can point out more. Yeah, there aren’t many 65-foot midrise structures in our neighborhoods but that isn’t what the zoning changes are about.

August 7, 2015 at 9:41 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Tacoma Ave. is such an amazing avenue.  I could totally see condos left and right all the way from Wright Park to the bridge leading into the Lincoln District.

Lincoln Hard

August 7, 2015 at 2:32 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

2 | 1


I’d like to see very energy efficient less energy consuming more resource friendly owner occupied micro houses on small lots rather than rentals.Why not $50,000 micro houses with land especially for single occupancy. I think that there is less crime when its owner occupied and there is more pride in ownership vs not caring very much about others when you’re a renter.A person can downsize,take pride in being more Earth friendly rather than a have it all consumerist resource hog whom doesn’t give a da*n about the country or others in the future.

August 7, 2015 at 6:13 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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We can have affordable housing, or we can have nice neighborhoods.  Not both.

Density is OK in nice neighborhoods; with affordable housing, not so much.

August 7, 2015 at 9:23 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

7 | 3


This proposal to add density is coming from a City that is so inept that they cannot maintain the pavement or pickup garbage on a weekly basis.  They are unable to perform the most basic government services and Tacoma residents are pay the close to the highest taxes in an what is a very high tax State. 

How about the City focus on improving service delivery of basic functions of local government to above third-world standards before we talk about anything else, particularly adding more burden to a City government that is not able to function at the current level of demand.

August 9, 2015 at 2:11 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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we need more low income housing for low income people. we would like to live in a decent place

August 13, 2015 at 1:43 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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June 12, 2018 at 9:12 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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