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Department of Commerce unveils Toolkit for developing “Middle Housing”

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On the heels of Washington State Legislature’s “year of housing” when several significant housing and land use bills were passed and signed into law, a new Toolkit was developed to help cities and towns meet their need for more housing.

Opticos Design, which partnered with Seattle King County REALTORS® on middle housing advocacy events in 2023 and 2022, produced an array of tools intended to help boost supply and yield more housing choices for renters and buyers.

The State Department of Commerce (DOC) is equipping its four Puget Sound counties and 82 cities with the resources to help these jurisdictions implement their “Planning for Housing” initiatives in response to a statewide housing shortage.

An estimated 800,000 new housing units are needed in the Puget Sound region by 2050. SKCR and other housing advocates believe Middle Housing is one way to meet this need.

Middle housing “is a term for homes that are at a middle scale between detached single-family houses and large multifamily complexes,” according to information on DOC’s website. Legislation passed this year defines it as “compatible in scale, form, and character with single-family houses” in a variety of configurations. Examples range from duplexes to sixplexes along with courtyard apartments and cottage clusters – buildings that are similar in size and height as detached houses that can be added to neighborhoods.

Courtesy of Wash. State Dept. of Commerce

In a blog about its work for the State of Washington, Tony Perez, senior associate at Opticos, explained the Toolkit is part of a larger effort DOC is providing. Other elements include a Model Ordinance to help implement HB 1110 (the “Middle Housing bill”) and Middle Housing Implementation Grants to eligible cities. Cities must comply with HB 1110 as early as June 2024.

Perez identified three basic components of the Opticos work with Commerce:

  • a place-based set of objective design and development standards that cities can customize to enable middle housing in their residential areas;
  • an open-source pro forma tool to help ensure that zoning choices will result in development that is financially feasible and attainable; and
  • a series of outreach/implementation tools to help cities and stakeholders communicate, learn about, and advocate for Middle Housing.

“Cities across Washington are not one-size-fits-all and the Toolkit responds appropriately in order to be broadly useful,” Perez wrote on his blog. The Toolkit provides resources to enable adding Middle Housing in neighborhoods with varying amenities, such as transit stations and neighborhood centers.

The Opticos “Atlas of Place Types” identifies different kinds of residential neighborhoods typically found in Washington communities and an indication of how much Middle Housing can be accommodated within them. HB 1110 mandates at least 2 or 4 units everywhere housing is allowed, depending on city size and location. Incentives are added for projects that include affordable housing and proximity to transit.

Opticos looked at nine different types of neighborhoods in 10 different cities across the Puget Sound region. The Toolkit provides a set of four different overlay zones with options that can be applied to deliver the types of Middle Housing that are desired.

Using a range of Middle Housing types, Opticos, in collaboration with Cascadia Partners, calculated the zones can produce densities ranging from 22 to 93 du/acre. Cascadia also prepared an easy-to-use Excel-based pro forma tool “to be used by anyone who wants to demonstrate the feasibility of Middle Housing projects across the Puget Sound Region.”

Perez said the Toolkit and its standards were informed by market research, pro-forma and cost analysis. As part of the research, Cascadia interviewed local builders and developers and the Opticos team met with representatives from several cities during a User-Testing Workshop. “The workshop was invaluable to informing the final version of the Toolkit and helped to craft it into a user-friendly format that covered the right content,” Perez stated.

The third component focused on outreach and communication resources. These are intended to help “communicate, learn about, and advocate for Middle Housing,” according to Opticos. A User Guide is also provided.

Opticos emphasized its objective standards “are not a model ordinance,” adding the Toolkit is designed to be complementary to the Model Ordinance that Commerce is preparing. (Editor’s note: HB 1110 requires Commerce to publish model ordinances by January 23, 2024. A public review draft of the model ordinances is scheduled for release in early November 2023 and will be preceded by outreach to stakeholder groups, a 30-day public comment period and a webinar.)

Perez and Cecilia Kim, Ph.D., planning manager at Opticos, will have a booth at the annual conference of the Washington State Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA WA). The event is scheduled from October 11-13 in Spokane.  

Based in Berkeley, California, Opticos is a team of urban designers, architects, and strategists whose work is focused on finding “new solutions to the most challenging housing and community issues of our time.”  The firm was founded in 2000 and is credited with introducing the concept of Missing Middle Housing.

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