Once upon a time, the NIMBYs ruled the earth. They would roam from neighborhood council meeting to city council meeting, roaring "Not In My Back Yard" whenever a new housing complex or zoning change would be proposed in their neighborhood.
Pity the poor YIMBY — the "Yes In My Back Yard" type — whose voice would get drowned out by a chorus of passionate homeowners warning new developments would bring crime and gridlock.
But then, seemingly all at once, the YIMBYs scored a massive victory, in Spokane of all places.
"We needed to do something, and we need to do something big to make a difference," says Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward. "What we were doing wasn't producing units fast enough, wasn't meeting the need fast enough."
Last week, Spokane unanimously passed an ordinance that legalized duplexes in residential areas throughout the city, long part of the wishlist by housing advocates looking to bring down prices. But it goes far beyond that: For the next year, it legalizes triplexes, fourplexes, townhomes and urban villages. It relaxes restrictions on alternative-development units, height limitations and yard size.
"We went beyond even what we thought was bold and made it even bigger," Woodward tells the Inlander.
And suddenly, urban planning aficionados were looking at Spokane with jealousy.
"While Spokane usually looks to Boise as a model, it pains us to say that Boise, for once, should look to Spokane as a role model," wrote the editorial board of the Idaho Statesman.
So how did the YIMBYs suddenly start winning in Spokane?
1 Our housing crisis really is that bad
"I brought this up in 2018," says former City Council President Ben Stuckart, who attempted to run for mayor on the issue of housing affordability, but he says he got "zero support on the council, zero support on the administrative side."
But if you were warning people about the dangers of inflation in 2020 — when unemployment was soaring in the midst of a pandemic — you could get laughed out of the room. Two years later, when it's inflation that looks out of control, people start to listen to you.
And while plenty of observers looking at the data, including the Inlander, were warning of impending doom all the way back in 2017, it's only recently that the crisis has reached New York Times headline proportions.
According to the Spokane Association of Realtors, it would take 25,000 more units just to get up to the national average amount of housing, amid a nationwide housing crisis.
"We may actually be one of the worst cities in the country for the amount of housing units per family," says Darin Watkins, government affairs director for the Spokane Association of Realtors.
And when the situation gets dire enough, even famously cautious urban planners get willing to take risks.
"When your house is about to collapse, you don't walk out of the house," says Spokane Planning Director Spencer Gardner. "You run."
2 Spokane finally got a planning director
Spokane had gone nearly four years without an official director of planning. Multiple City Council members — and the mayor herself — gave credit to Gardner's presence, as well as to the city's economic development director, Steve McDonald, for changing the dynamic.
"Having those two experts now on staff, they're starting to create trust," says City Council member Karen Stratton.
Gardner does not try to present himself as some charismatic trailblazer — he aw-shucks away any suggestion that he was the architect of the big changes.
"My strategy was to do what the mayor and council told me," he chuckles, referencing the fact that the City Council and the city staff had previously outlined a plan of attack for the housing crisis. But Gardner also brought a kind of historical perspective to the table.
Spokane's challenges are nothing compared to the first decade of the 1900s, Gardner pointed out, when Spokane suddenly added 70,000 new people.
"We think, 'Wow, this growth is unmanageable,'" Gardner says. "And we're talking about a few percentage points of growth. In that period, they were tripling in size."
The key, he says, was allowing a large variety of housing types, for all kinds of different income levels, to spring up quickly. Anything they could do to build housing, they did.
"That was before we really had zoning code that made it difficult or illegal to build a variety of housing and neighborhoods," Gardner says.
3 The council changed its position because the council changed
Former Council member Candace Mumm had helped design the city's comprehensive zoning layout and had cut her teeth in politics on opposition to unconstrained development on Five Mile Prairie. She was often one of the most skeptical voices when it came to loosening development regulations, but she termed out and was replaced by Zack Zappone, who hailed the vote as "important and historic."
Similarly, in the last three years, Northeast Spokane's district got Michael Cathcart, who used to lobby for the Spokane Home Builders Association, and new Council member Jonathan Bingle works as a contractor.
Today, the most skeptical voice belongs to Council member Lori Kinnear, who continues to worry that denser housing citywide could strain streets. But she got on board after speaking with Gardner and discussing the need to work with the Spokane Transit Authority to ensure that the neighborhoods that grew the quickest got more bus access.
4 The issue escaped the partisan divide
"I'd like to believe that it has been some of my unending advocacy," Cathcart says of the unanimous vote. "It seems pretty evident to me, for whatever reason, we are on the same page."
Somehow, YIMBYs have managed to transcend partisanship.
Last week, it wasn't a surprise to hear conservative Bingle, who was backed by the local Realtors, speak out in support of a deregulatory measure that gave the free market more free rein and gave homeowners more property rights.
But it also wasn't a surprise to see his progressive opponent last year, Naghmana Sherazi, also speak out in favor of it. She's now working for the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium, which is particularly concerned about the housing crisis' impacts on minorities and other vulnerable groups
5 The opposition was muted — but the effect probably will be, too
"They saw the inevitability of it," Stuckart says of the lack of crowds of opposition to the ordinance. "They saw the writing on the wall."
Another potential theory: NIMBYs aren't opposed to all dense housing development. They just think it should be built, well, somewhere else. By passing the ordinance citywide instead of just in a few specific areas — spreading out the impact — they may have diluted the opposition.
But another reason for the weaker opposition is less encouraging: The impact isn't likely to be as dramatic as advocates hope. The ordinance does still require homes to have design standards, Gardner says — which could address neighborhood fears, but also slow down other projects. And this experiment is only a yearlong pilot — it's possible the City Council or the mayor won't want to continue with it after it's done.
Kinnear remains cautious.
"I think it's imperative that we keep the character of our neighborhoods," she says. "The biggest investment most people make is a house. They choose it wisely."
And Mayor Woodward is closely watching to see how many housing units the experiment produces. Minneapolis, which was widely praised for passing a similar bill in 2018, only had 53 duplexes, triplexes or fourplex units permitted during 2021. But observers credit a slew of other measures for successfully keeping rents down in Minneapolis compared to other communities.
"We have dramatically increased our capacity for housing across the community," Gardner says. "[But] it's not going to solve our problem."
But he hopes it's a start. ♦