Wednesday, October 27, 2021
Oct. 27, 2021

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Vancouver considers more code amendments to make it easier to build affordable housing

By , Columbian politics reporter
Published:
3 Photos
Motorists near the intersection of Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard and Northeast 78th Avenue pass a six-story, mixed-use building under construction by Sea Mar Community Health Centers. Sea Mar’s housing development will feature health and human services on the first floor. A proposed code amendment would eliminate that first-floor commercial requirement.
Motorists near the intersection of Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard and Northeast 78th Avenue pass a six-story, mixed-use building under construction by Sea Mar Community Health Centers. Sea Mar’s housing development will feature health and human services on the first floor. A proposed code amendment would eliminate that first-floor commercial requirement. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

By now, the need for additional affordable housing in Vancouver is clear. The vacancy rate is at 2 percent, and residents need to earn $21.77 an hour to afford a one-bedroom in the city that comes with a price tag averaging $1,132 a month.

The challenge for the city is finding ways to spur development and create more housing opportunities.

The Vancouver Affordable Housing Task Force came up with several recommendations since it was convened in 2015, and some are already in effect.

• It pushed for the Affordable Housing Fund, which was created by voters in 2016 to help fund homeless and low-income housing.

• It championed the expansion of the city’s Multi-Family Tax Exemption program.

• It pressed for increased policy flexibility to allow for accessory dwelling units.

To build on that momentum, the city is considering additional code amendments that would make it easier for developers and homeowners to build affordable housing.

Bryan Snodgrass, principal planner in the city’s Community and Economic Development Department, said the changes aren’t intended to allow for just more housing, but for smaller and denser housing.

The first code amendment on deck would allow multifamily housing in certain commercial zones without a first-floor commercial requirement. As it stands now, housing projects looking to locate in commercial zones — typically near high-capacity transit — can do so if the ground floor of the building is dedicated to commercial space.

For example, Sea Mar Community Health Centers is building a six-story, mixed-use building on Fourth Plain Boulevard. The project is Sea Mar’s first venture into affordable housing in Clark County, and to accommodate the existing code, the building’s first floor will be dedicated to medical and dental offices. In this case, Sea Mar is able to use the code to its advantage to construct a housing development with health and human services on site.

Vancouver Housing Authority has built several low-income housing developments in the last several years, some of which are in commercial zones and feature ground-floor space dedicated to services rather than housing.

VHA Executive Director Roy Johnson said the code change would make constructing additional affordable housing easier and open up more areas to consider for future developments.

“The requirement for commercial space is not usually consistent with our goal to create affordable housing, since we would need to have strategies on what to do with the commercial space; it also adds additional expense to the overall project,” Johnson said.

Snodgrass said the concept is an attempt to strike a balance between allowing affordable housing in commercial zones and the right conditions to ensure limited conflicts with neighboring zones.

He added that the change would open up options for affordable housing that don’t exist now without impacting residential zones.

Although the proposal is the furthest along in the process — it was approved by the Planning Commission in September and will go before council this fall — it’s one of several being considered by city staff.

Other options being examined would create new types of zones for land use planning. The first would create a zone that reduces the minimum lot size from 5,000 square feet to 3,000 square feet. Another would allow for attached homes. A third would increase the number of residential units allowed per acre from 35 to 43, matching a zone type already in place in Clark County.

Snodgrass said the city wouldn’t change any existing parcels to these new zone types, but rather offer the zones as a menu of sorts for interested parties to consider. Developers or homeowners could apply for a zone change in the future.

The potential impact of these proposals is unknown, however.

“It’s hard to say at this point,” Snodgrass said. “At this point, it’s really creating more choices than there currently are. In that regard, it’s fair to say we’re behind comparable jurisdictions and some of our neighbors.”

City staff has been comparing Vancouver’s code allowances with nearby cities. Battle Ground, for example, already has its minimum lot size at 3,000 square feet. Olympia’s minimum is 2,000 square feet and Portland is 2,400.

The concepts were brought to the city council for an Oct. 1 workshop. Councilor Ty Stober cautioned that increasing density does not automatically bring affordability.

Overall, however, the council was pleased by the potential to increase density and encourage more affordable housing development.

Columbian politics reporter
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