Zoning Objective Design Standards Newsletter Missing Middle Housing Urban Design Placemaking Projects Form-Based Codes Updates

Bringing Middle Housing to Washington Cities and Towns

Opticos Design recently produced a Toolkit for the State of Washington to help bring more Middle Housing to cities and towns as part of their “Planning for Housing” initiative

Washington is confronting a statewide housing shortage with 800,000 new housing units needed in the Puget Sound region by 2050 alone, and Middle Housing is one way to meet this need. The State has passed several laws in 2023, to produce more housing choices for renters and buyers, including HB 1110 (the ‘Middle Housing bill’) effective July 2023, which – depending on city size and location – requires cities to allow at least 2 or 4 units everywhere housing is allowed, with additional incentives for projects including affordable housing and proximity to transit. HB 1110 includes zoning relief, reducing parking requirements based on context, and calls for streamlined development review and approval, requiring administrative review and compliance only with objective standards.

Cities need to comply with HB 1110 as early as June 2024. The new law aims to substantially change the way Washington cities plan for housing in that it specifically applies to residential neighborhoods and makes Middle Housing implementation a requirement rather than an option. Communities will need new zoning tools to accommodate the new law and objective standards to review proposed projects. Luckily, HB1110 also requires that the State equip its cities and counties with tools to help get there: the Toolkit is part of a larger effort that the State’s Commerce Department is providing, including a Model Ordinance to help implement the bill, and Middle Housing Implementation Grants to eligible cities to fund changes.

 Our work with Commerce includes 3 basic components:

  • 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.

Place-based Objective Design Standards

HB 1110 defines Middle Housing as “compatible in scale, form, and character with single-family houses” in a variety of configurations including duplexes, multiplexes, small apartment buildings, and cottage housing with the intention that Middle Housing can be added to neighborhoods. The Toolkit provides resources to do just that, however cities across Washington are not one-size-fits-all and the Toolkit responds appropriately in order to be broadly useful. Middle Housing implementation is also just one part of any community’s efforts to provide more housing, and all cities have amenities – like downtowns, neighborhood centers, and transit stations – where more than just the “minimum” change that HB 1110 mandates might make a lot of sense.

The Opticos team’s first step was to create an Atlas of Place Types that identified the different kinds of residential neighborhoods typically found in Washington communities and generally how much Middle Housing can be accommodated within them. The Atlas is designed so that communities can identify the types of neighborhoods that they have or want and then recommends specific Middle Housing types that will fit on the existing lot sizes. We looked at 9 different types of neighborhoods in 10 different cities across the Puget Sound Region to understand how Middle Housing fits into Washington communities.

The Toolkit provides a set of 4 different overlay zones that can be applied to neighborhoods in order to deliver the Middle Housing types that are desired. It provides at least a couple of options for each Place Type depending on how much change the community wants to see; this can range from places where Middle Housing is expected to generally fit within the existing zoning envelope with regards to building height, footprint, and setbacks, to places where change is expected and Middle Housing might exceed them. In order to reflect the kinds of neighborhoods Washington communities have today, the overlays start at 2.5 story places that can accommodate up to 4-plexes, to 3 or even 4-story places that can accommodate much larger Middle Housing types.

With the bill’s requirement for Administrative Review, objective standards need to be clear enough to handle all of the design-related decisions often made during discretionary review. Understanding that cities don’t all regulate things in the same way, the Toolkit covers a range of topics that most communities will want to consider, and organizes them into Basic and Detailed versions. The Basic set of overlay zones and standards includes only the essential standards needed to enable and achieve Middle Housing; while the Detailed set includes a more robust set of standards that enable cities to regulate many of the finer details of Middle Housing (e.g., massing, facade design) that come up during Design Review. The intent is that cities can take the Basic set and further customize it for their local needs and start using it as soon as they adopt it. But there’s also the ability for cities to supplement the Basic set with selected content from the Detailed set to cover additional topics that they find important. It all depends on your city’s desired level of regulation.

Open Source Pro-Forma Tool

The Toolkit and its standards were informed by market research, pro-forma and cost analysis that were prepared by Cascadia Partners, a key member of our team. Cascadia also prepared a pro-forma tool to be used by anyone who wants to demonstrate the feasibility of Middle Housing projects across the Puget Sound Region. Users can select their city, place type, and desired Middle Housing type, can see how particular development standards impact feasibility, and show how types can achieve different levels of affordability and attainability. In this way, the pro-forma tool can be used together with the Toolkit to make decisions about zoning for Middle Housing. Backed by data and informed by Cascadia’s interviews of builders and developers in the region, the tool is Excel-based and easy to use.

Outreach and Communication Resources

We also prepared a set of resources to help communicate, learn about, and advocate for Middle Housing. These include a series of informational posters, a photo library of existing Middle Housing projects across the state, and informative graphic models of Middle Housing types. A series of presentations and videos also provide key background on Washington’s housing needs, the role Middle Housing can play, and how the Toolkit can be used. All of these are summarized in a brief User Guide and also available for download and distribution on Commerce’s website.

This past May the Opticos team had the opportunity to meet with representatives from many Puget Sound cities during a User-Testing Workshop. At the workshop our team heard questions about and received feedback on the Draft Toolkit and the pro-forma feasibility tool. 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.

Importantly, these objective standards are not a model ordinance. Model ordinances are helpful but can tend to be over generalized in order to be useful by a broad range of cities. The Toolkit is designed to be complementary to the Model Ordinance that Commerce is preparing, and a customized version of both will make sense for many Washington communities seeking to update their zoning to comply with HB 1110. Using the Toolkit zones also means that cities can update their zoning map or create a new one to designate how and where Middle Housing can fit in their community.