HIP Tool: Multifamily Tax Exemption

A state law (RCW 84.14) helps cities attract residential development. Cities may exempt multifamily housing from property taxes in urban centers with insufficient residential opportunities. The city defines a residential target area or areas within an urban center; approved project sites are exempt from ad valorem property taxation on the residential improvement value for a period of eight or 12 years. The 12-year exemption requires a minimum level of affordable housing to be included in the development (at least 20% of the units or 100% if the building is solely owner-occupied). The eight-year exemption leaves the public benefit requirement—in both type and size—to the jurisdiction’s discretion. The eight-year exemption carries no affordable housing requirement. Cities must pass an enabling ordinance to enact the MFTE and to allow applications for the exemption.


What issues does a multifamily tax exemption (MFTE) address?

This tool encourages multifamily development and redevelopment in compact mixed-use districts (urban centers) where housing and affordable housing options are deficient. Through the multifamily tax exemption, a jurisdiction can incentivize dense and diverse housing options in urban centers lacking in housing choices or affordable units. MFTE can also apply to rehabilitating existing properties and redeveloping vacant or underused properties.

Where is the multifamily tax exemption most applicable?

Cities planning under the Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70a) that have designated urban centers with a deficiency of housing opportunities are eligible to implement this tool. In King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties, cities must have at least 5,000 in population. Cities must designate eligible areas that contain urban centers. Urban centers—in the context of the MFTE-enabling legislation—have a particular meaning:

“…a compact identifiable district where urban residents may obtain a variety of products and services. An urban center must contain:
     a) Several existing or previous, or both, business establishments that may include but are not limited to shops, offices, banks, restaurants, governmental agencies;
     b) Adequate public facilities including streets, sidewalks, lighting, transit, domestic water, and sanitary sewer systems; and
     c) A mixture of uses and activities that may include housing, recreation, and cultural activities in association with either commercial or office, or both, use.” (RCW 84.14.010)

Based on the state law, designated districts are commercial or business districts with some mix of uses. Such areas may exist in downtowns, commercial corridors, or other intensively developed neighborhoods. Examples of designated districts throughout the central Puget Sound region are listed in the model policies, regulations and other information section.

MFTEs have been effective in producing multifamily units in the region’s larger cities. Since its inception, the MFTE law has been expanded to include smaller cities. The effectiveness of this tool in larger jurisdictions could make it an attractive tool for smaller and moderate-sized cities that meet the population threshold.

Multifamily tax exemptions can encourage relatively dense attached flats or townhomes, in mixed-use projects or residential complexes, which means this tool is particularly useful in urban centers and transit-oriented developments. Dense development is also economically efficient in expensive housing markets, and can reduce housing costs.

Tool Profile

Focus Areas

  • Urban Centers
  • Transit Oriented Development
  • Expensive Housing Markets

Project Types

  • Multifamily
  • Ownership
  • Rental
  • Market Rate
  • Subsidized

Affordability Level

  • 80 to 120% AMI
  • Less than 80% AMI

Housing Goal

  • Affordability