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News / Business / Clark County Business

Zoning key piece of housing puzzle in Clark County, Vancouver

Officials weigh changes to increase density to create more affordable residential options

By Kelsey Turner, Columbian staff reporter
Published: February 9, 2023, 6:02am
3 Photos
A sidewalk snakes between nearly finished town homes at The Courtyards at Hidden Crest development in Vancouver in February. Zoning districts for middle housing developments like town homes can help make way for more middle-income housing options in Clark County.
A sidewalk snakes between nearly finished town homes at The Courtyards at Hidden Crest development in Vancouver in February. Zoning districts for middle housing developments like town homes can help make way for more middle-income housing options in Clark County. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Clark County’s housing supply hasn’t kept pace with demand. The county is short 13,500 units, according to city of Vancouver data that goes through 2019, a number that is likely higher today.

Meanwhile, the population keeps growing. Washington’s Office of Financial Management estimates Clark County’s population will increase by more than one-third over the next two decades, to about 700,000 people.

“Our biggest challenge is accommodating the population that will be here in 20 years,” said Chad Eiken, Vancouver community development director. The strain on supply along with increased demand continues pushing up housing costs.

Vancouver is developing more housing than ever before, but it’s still not enough. To close the gap, the city needs to ramp up its production from 1,600 to 2,500 units per year. “We’ve never seen that level of development,” Eiken said.

In the face of this housing shortage, the county and its cities are examining how an important aspect of community planning can play a role in the solution: zoning.

Local zoning regulations can help accommodate growth by allowing higher-density developments with multiple units, making housing more affordable and accessible to middle- and lower-income residents.

“Most communities — and I think Vancouver and communities in Clark County are no exception — are just so overwhelmingly zoned for single-family homes,” said Joe Thompson, president of Mercy Housing Northwest, a nonprofit affordable housing developer. “That is not a productive or realistic way to approach it now, especially in most communities (that) are now majority renters.”

Victor Caesar, Vancouver Housing Authority’s chief real estate officer, said zoning is a big factor in determining where the authority can build and how much a project will cost. Denser zoning districts could expand the number of affordable units the authority can develop.

“I think a lot of folks hear the word ‘density,’ and they think that’s a bad thing,” Caesar said. “But at the end of the day, we want to preserve the wilderness, we want to preserve open space and protect the wildlife. And so I think density, if done well, can be great.”

County kicks off comprehensive plan

Washington’s Growth Management Act requires fast-growing cities and counties to make a comprehensive plan, updated every 10 years, to manage population growth. Clark County kicked off its comprehensive plan update with a meeting last month. It has until June 30, 2025, to submit its plan to the state.

Zoning changes are a key part of the plan for Clark County and Vancouver. The city recently revised its zoning code as part of the legislation’s implementation, increasing density in some parts of the city.

Last summer, Vancouver updated its zoning code to allow for more “middle housing,” a term for multi-unit developments that fit in with low-density neighborhoods but provide more affordable options, like cottage clusters, multiplexes and town homes.

“It’s been referred to as ‘missing middle’ because nobody’s doing it anymore,” Eiken said. “It appeals to a lot of younger people. … It’s an affordable way to get into a house, and they maybe don’t need all the space that a growing family does.”

The creation of Vancouver’s R-17 zoning district was the city’s “biggest step” in trying to get middle housing, Eiken added. The district makes space for duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, as well as single-family residences on lots as small as 2,000 square feet. Since enacting the code changes, the city has received several pre-applications for cottage cluster developments, groups of small, detached housing units clustered around a common space.

Unincorporated Clark County is also seeing an increase in cottage clusters, according to April Furth, the county’s community development director. Furth thinks this increase stems from a need for middle- and lower-income housing options.

“For Clark County, you can get up to 200 percent density in a cottage housing cluster,” she said. “That’s the benefit, is the 200 percent density that they wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

Phil Wuest, chief development officer at Ginn Group, a Vancouver-based development company, said the county’s “cottage codes,” adopted in 2018, have enabled Ginn Group to develop more middle housing in urban Clark County.

Wuest thinks these zoning changes are steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done to meet working families’ needs.

“It’s those middle housing densities, there’s not a lot of supply of land that’s zoned appropriately to allow that to occur,” Wuest said. “The jurisdictions are changing. They’re trying to, I think, bring the zoning codes more up to date. But it’s kind of slow going.”

Ongoing challenges

Even with increased middle housing options, zoning remains a barrier as developers seek to build more diverse housing throughout the county.

Thompson with Mercy Housing said parking requirements, coverage caps and building height restrictions are roadblocks when developing higher-density complexes. Coverage caps limiting the size of buildings’ footprints are more restrictive in Vancouver than in Seattle, Tacoma and Bellingham, he said.

Columbia Heights, a 69-unit low-income complex in Vancouver that opened in August, could have had more units were it not for these restrictions, according to Thompson.

“Parking takes up space that could otherwise be used for people’s homes,” he said. “At Columbia Heights, about half the parking spots are used pretty much at any one time. So it’s over-parked relative to the need, and yet there’s that requirement.”

To address this issue, Vancouver has allowed some residential zones to lower their parking requirements if the developments are near transit, Eiken said. The county is strategically looking to develop housing with transit options close by, reducing the need for cars and parking, according to Furth.

Height restrictions also limit the number of units, not just because buildings can’t extend too far upward, but also because building up often doesn’t make financial sense. Buildings that are more than three floors need more expensive construction materials, as well as elevators and staircases on both sides to comply with accessibility standards.

“You have to be able to go up a certain amount for it to pencil out for the developer,” Furth said. “If you have a height restriction and it’s stopping us at four (floors), they can’t go past three, then, because it’s too expensive to develop it and make it affordable to people.”

Because Vancouver has not increased its building height limits in low-density, single-family neighborhoods, it can be challenging to build more dense middle housing like fourplexes, Eiken said. The city will be examining building heights as part of its comprehensive plan update.

Preserving character

Higher density comes with its drawbacks, too. Current zoning restrictions help preserve the small-town feel that much of Clark County offers, a characteristic important to many residents.

The city gets complaints from residents about most development projects, especially high-density projects, according to Eiken. “People are used to what they know and what they have, and change is hard,” he said. “But density helps pay for the roads, it helps pay for the schools, pays for the parks that we’re all enjoying.”

Zoning, however, is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving the region’s housing affordability, Eiken added. “It’s going to take changes in zoning, it’s going to take investment like the Affordable Housing Fund, it’s going to take incentives and process improvements.”

For Noelle Lovern, government affairs director at the Building Industry Association of Clark County, public engagement and education around affordable housing are critical to creating community understanding of this issue.

“It’s complex. And that’s why we need everybody at the table solving the problem,” Lovern said. “We have to move forward. We have to move the chains. Otherwise, we’re just gonna stay right where we are, which is actually falling backwards.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff reporter