County aims for denser, more affordable ‘missing middle’ homes

The County Council eased zoning restrictions to encourage townhomes and denser development.

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EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council eased zoning restrictions Wednesday, allowing denser residential developments and slightly taller townhomes.

The ordinance, sponsored by County Councilmember Nate Nehring, is meant to encourage more “missing middle” housing.

“Housing affordability is a huge and growing issue in Snohomish County,” Nehring said. “I talk to people every day that have good paying jobs and can’t afford to live here.”

The “missing middle” refers to housing structures like townhomes and duplexes, which are denser than single-family homes but less dense than a mid-rise apartment building. They’re typically more affordable for first-time homebuyers.

The council approved the ordinance Wednesday with a 4-0 vote. Councilmember Stephanie Wright, whose district covers Edmonds, Lynnwood and Woodway, was excused.

“I think this is a very progressive action,” County Council President Megan Dunn said at the hearing. “I’m glad we got input on the heights for surrounding cities, so that we’re not negatively impacting if cities were to later annex areas. I feel like it’s very compatible and also takes steps to make sure we’re not changing the character of the neighborhood.”

The ordinance only affects unincorporated Snohomish County. It increases the maximum density in certain zones, ultimately allowing developers to build more townhomes, triplexes and duplexes. It also aims to preserve existing housing to avoid displacing people.

“It almost grandfathers in the existing structures,” Nehring said. “The overall goal is to increase the housing supply and diversity.”

In one Urban Low Density Residential zone, it extends the maximum building height from 30 to 35 feet. Nehring said the height is similar to what cities allow in Snohomish County.

Increasing the amount of “missing middle” housing means more people can afford to buy their first home, Nehring said. The county has seen an increase in high-rise apartments near transit corridors, but they’re mostly rentals.

“One of the things we’re seeing is the supply of single family homes is incredibly small,” Nehring said. “Homeownership is one of the best, if not the best way, for economic and social mobility. It’s critical that we encourage opportunities for people to get into homeownership.”

The ordinance is part of a larger effort to address housing affordability in Snohomish County, where prices have skyrocketed since 2000. The median sale price for a single-family home was $682,000 in 2021. It has risen 116.6% since 2000.

HB 1590, which took effect in 2020, allowed counties to adopt a 0.1% sales tax for affordable housing construction. The council adopted the sales tax in December.

“I think it’s important that we’re looking at both ends,” Dunn said. “We’re increasing density and housing options, while we’re also allowing for a local source of income for other types of housing.”

The council also eased restrictions on accessory dwelling units in March, which are sometimes called “mother-in-law apartments” or “granny flats.”

Katie Hayes: katie.hayes@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.

Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.

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