After a bold release by The Seattle Times yesterday, we learned that a series of possible changes to building typologies could be on the way for Seattle’s single-family residential zones. Danny Westneat, a columnist with the newspaper, wrote a short piece about the issue in his weekly column. Westneat described members from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee as pushing him to not publish the piece. I largely sympathize with the logic to publicize these big policy proposals; a public debate is important. But, his article illustrates exactly why some things have to be discussed in private before a final version is released.

The Seattle Times decided to go with an extremely inflammatory headline: “Get rid of single-family zoning in Seattle, housing task force says in draft report.” But that doesn’t accurately capture the meaning of the draft proposal.

Imagine reactions people might have after reading the headline. Urbanists were probably excited at the bold step. I thought it likely meant more building types and density in single-family residential zones. Westneat described the changes as possibly eliminating a “defining feature” of “Seattle’s strong neighborhood feel.” This latter reaction is much closer to the Seattle Times’ commentators:

STComment-SFZoning

STComment-SFZoning2

Unpacking Westneat’s Editorializing

Westneat gets both the tone and the facts wrong. While the HALA Committee does recommend abandoning the term “single-family zone,” understanding the details is critical. First, I’m going to examine the claim provided by Westneat:

Most dramatically, the committee is considering a recommendation to do away with single-family zoning — which for a hundred-plus years has been the defining feature of Seattle’s strong neighborhood feel.

To begin, the proposed changes would likely only apply to Urban Villages and/or their surrounding areas. This is nowhere close to eliminating the 65% of zoned land in Seattle devoted to suburban-style housing. This isn’t radical. It’s also unclear how a place can be an Urban Village while only allowing suburban housing types and virtually no other uses. A more accurate headline might state, “HALA Committee Recommends Actually Allowing Urban Villages.”

Furthermore, many of the areas that would be subject to change already see building and land use variety. Many areas zoned for single-family residential have varied character. They have commercial businesses, medium density residential, and larger buildings that were grandfathered in or exempted; buildings and uses that don’t actually meet the current zoning requirements. Single-family residential zones don’t even meet the traditional meaning of the term, allowing for institutional uses, home businesses, and even people who aren’t related to live together (gasp!). Again, the minor proposed changes to building typologies is barely a change at all, let alone a radical step.

volunteer-park-cafe
Volunteer Park Cafe is in a SF 5000 zone and would likely be an illegal use under current zoning.

Secondly, it is hard to see people lumping Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Kshama Sawant together politically. The only way that makes sense is through the vacuous suggestion that Seattle’s character is dependent on suburban homes rather than diverse people, uses, and business. Weastneat echos this idea when suggesting that this would change the bedrock of Seattle’s neighborhood character. What neighborhoods is he thinking of anyways? It certainly isn’t Georgetown, the International District, Capitol Hill, Columbia City, or many others with a wide spectrum of uses and building types.

Thirdly, Seattle definitely hasn’t maintained its “strong neighborhood feel” for over a hundred years because of single-family residential zoning. Zoning arguably didn’t even exist until the 1920s and it definitely didn’t act as a force to shape Seattle’s neighborhoods into single-family detached structures until much later.

Lastly, Westneat’s article completely fails to grapple with the reality of maintaining suburban-style zoning. Commenters are quick to decry the possibility of becoming New York or San Francisco but apparently ignore the alternatives. Should Seattle be more like Dallas, Houston, or Phoenix? Do single-family residential zones actually serve an important purpose that outweighs the drawbacks? Westneat doesn’t address this explicitly.

As it currently stands, many areas of the city don’t allow new construction to build fundamental needs for our daily lives. They legally exclude nearly all buildings and uses besides suburban homes. Yet on the flipside, they allow home businesses, grandfathered uses, institutional uses, and much more. Are we doing more harm or good when we prevent new corner grocery stores in 65% of the city? Or taking the view of density opponents, if there are so many negative side affects to multi-family zoning, why is it acceptable for only a small portion of the city’s population to bear the brunt of this burden? These are the real questions we need to grapple with and sort out. This is the purpose of a public debate. Supposedly this is why Westneat published his piece, but he completely glossed over all of the important context.

What The Proposal Actually Says

As Westneat notes, the proposal begins by articulating some of the problems with the current zoning in Seattle. For starters, the term single-family residential zoning is not very accurate. Furthermore, the term has a long history of exclusion. There are good reasons to depart from this practice. Overall, the proposal isn’t too radical and focuses on just a few areas of low density residential areas:

  • Increase production of ADUs and DADUs: The zoning code will modify things such as parking, setback and residency requirements. It would also provide standardize designs and legalize undocumented structures.
  • Establish “low density residential” areas: This term is suggested as the replacement for single-family zones but is actually only suggested to be tested in areas within walking distance of urban villages, commercial zones or frequent transit.

To get more detail on how the draft was put together, you can read through the actual votes on specific proposals. Contrary to The Seattle Times‘ headline and tone of Westneat’s article, this is extremely preliminary and a relatively small step.

The Decision Facing Seattle

Westneat and The Seattle Times would have a hard time coming up with logical reasons a city should plan for suburban-style zoning, but this conversation wasn’t even attempted. Instead, Westneat’s article avoids the journalistic responsibility of grappling with costs, benefits, and alternatives. This is similar to Westneat’s previous articles criticizing the police and transit agencies without actually articulating an understanding of the problems faced by these organizations.

In truth, many people choose to pay more for less housing so they can access urban benefits. These benefits are largely unavailable in single-family residential zones and suburban neighborhoods. Many of those neighborhoods aren’t economically accessible to a vast number of people because they fundamentally limit the amount and diversity of housing. Westneat mentions this through quotes of committee members, but instead saves his editorializing to remark on how dramatic this proposal is.

The city must be in the business of expanding access to urban benefits, and single-family residential zones are one of the biggest obstacles to this goal. They restrict the number of people who can live in the city and they restrict the areas that can even have urban benefits. This is at the heart of the draft proposal. This isn’t to say we should follow the inflammatory suggestion of The Seattle Times article and eliminate these zones. But reform is critical. These changes have been bitterly opposed at every turn, with analogies to rape and neighbors crying during public testimony. It’s likely this irrational opposition is at least partially due to inflammatory framing. Staff at The Seattle Times should be asking themselves today if they think inflammatory clickbait is more important than educating readers.

26 COMMENTS

  1. I think the proposal is a sensible, logical, and measured plan to accommodate the growth of seattle in a healthy and more organic way.

  2. Amen. Westneat’s article was an absolutely hysterical reaction to a modest, sensible proposal that would change the physical environment of neighborhoods slowly, and ultimately very much at all.

    Loosening restrictions on ADUs and DADUs in particular are no-brainers: they help affordability twice; first because rental costs are unlikely to be as high as other, more expensive forms of new construction, and second, because they decrease the increasingly high cost of living for the homeowner. They’re also better for inequality (rent $$ goes to middle and upper middle class people, instead of the investor class).

  3. You’re completely wrong! You say that the report says only that “proposed changes would likely only apply to Urban Villages and/or their surrounding areas.” Your problem is that you saw the part where it recommends converting single-family zoning in Urban Village areas, and then you stopped reading. You need to keep reading — and not even very far.

    On page 11 of the draft HALA report, it says, “HALA recommends allowing more flexibility and variety of housing in Single Family zones to increase the economic and demographic diversity of those who are able to live in these family oriented neighborhoods. In fact, HALA recommends we abandon the term ‘single family zone’ and refer to such areas as low-density residential zones. ”

    Now — it doesn’t take a genius to see what they really mean, which is that they are recommending not just changing the name, but (without trying to say it directly, because it’s a terrible idea) changing the actual zoning citywide. Notice that in that first sentence they don’t say “some” Single Family zones, because they really mean “ALL” Single Family zones.

    • This is what I said:

      “Westneat gets both the tone and the facts wrong. While the HALA Committee does recommend abandoning the term “single-family zone,” understanding the details is critical. First, I’m going to examine the claim provided by Westneat:”

      I then went on to show that SF Zones already allow lots of variety in building types and uses. Suggesting that ADUs, DADUs, Duplexes and Triplexes are are a radical step is ignorant of what SF Zones actually already allow.

      • To be fair to the previous commentor, the HALA Draft Report specifically calls for this provision throughout the City’s Single-Family zones, with pilot areas to be within walking distance of urban villages or commercial areas. Found on page 13 of the report you linked above.

  4. On the one hand it’s tragic that data-free hostility to affordable (and eminently livable) forms like row houses, townhouses, and three flats is making it harder for working and middle class people to live in Seattle. On the other the widespread Seattle assumption that “neighborhood” entails “only single family homes on large lots” is so myopic it can almost be entertaining. Back East I grew up in a neighborhood that was nearly all 3-flat walk-ups and it was, you know…a great neighborhood…

    • Absolutely! Almost the whole inner city of Edinburgh (one of the world’s most beautiful and livable cities) is composed of Victorian tenement buildings (3 or 4 storey, terraced apartment buildings) with the occasional row of townhouses thrown in. And this results in fantastic, walkable communities, for families too.

      • If you’re so naive to think this is the fate Seattle’s neighborhoods if this re-zoning is allowed – that is, East Coast or European style dense neighborhoods of beautiful row-houses and Victorian terraced apartments and vintage 3-flat walk-ups – then I’ve got some ocean-front property to sell you in Nevada! If you really want to see what is to come, head over to Ballard north of Market between say 20th Ave NW and 28th Ave NW….or north of Green Lake…between Aurora and Ashworth and 85th and 90th. There you will see rows of hideous, cheaply built townhouses, with no parks or “corner groceries” as the author says. And don’t think for an instant that this helps make housing affordable. Go to an already multi-family zoned area like the Central District and watch as RIGHT NOW, 1920’s craftsman triplexes or apartment structures housing hipsters paying over-priced, but still semi-affordable rent are razed to be replaced by clusters of glass and metal modernist box townhomes affordable only by Amazon yuppie imports.

  5. The city needs to grow. Just because the neighborhood was low-density residential back in 1880’s & 1980’s doesn’t mean it needs to be now. The only reason we have these great neighborhoods with little markets and business districts is because those businesses weren’t restricted by zoning. Manhattan used to have farms on it, but the city grew and changed. If you try to lock it in time, it’ll die.

  6. As a new resident to Seattle, and one that lives in a townhouse development in Queen Anne I must add a few comments. The block I live on is and has been heavily redeveloped over the past few years. The alley is really becoming a new street of front doors. I don’t think the new density is hurting the neighborhood. I am actually proud of my home. It is a 5 Star Green property and I even have a garage. The architecture is thoughtful and fits well into the neighborhood. I think new design standards are critical to avoid 3 story solid boxes. I will say I am very concerned about proposals to eliminate parking for new development. While I am not in favor of two car garages, I am in favor of at least one space per house. While, we all might believe that one day we can abandon our cars to move about the city, we do have to remember that people in Seattle also enjoy the outdoors and quite frankly the only way to get there is via a car and a car is still a critical device to get from point A to B. And there is only so much room on the street for cars. One last thing, quite frankly, I am shocked about the lack of discussion of adding development impact fees to new construction. Being from California, we learned a long ago that cities can do a great job extracting funds from developers to help pay for schools, increased sewer needs, repairing the roads, etc. The only fee being discussed in Seattle is affordable housing. I guess to do the other things this region will continue to rely on regressive sales taxes and property taxes. While impact fees may/ or will raise the price of homes, they do ‘impact’ areas and they should pay their share.

  7. Uh, accusing a columnist of editorializing is hardly a criticism. It’s his job to editorialize.

  8. As other commenters have already pointed out, the draft does call for changing single family zoned parcels within urban villages, but then it also calls for doing this elsewhere: “The City should pursue changing Single Family zoning to a low density residential zone that allows more variety of housing in these areas.” What the committee actually passed by a 19 to 3 vote specifically cites the 65 percent of land zoned single-family, not urban villages, and it was to create a new category of zoning, low density residential zone, allowing duplexes and triplexes and the like in single-family zoned areas. It then recommended, by a 21 to 1 vote, to do a “density by design pilot program to allow construction of real world examples, then use these projects to develop the potential code changes” — i.e. changing single family zones to the new zoning category. I think you’re right that the headline was too sweeping in implying that all single-family zoning everywhere would go away, though in the headline’s defense, the report does say, and I quote: “In fact, HALA recommends we abandon the term single family zone and refer to such areas as low-density residential zones.” They then define low-density residential zone as containing higher density housing.
    It seems like if you’re going to say I got the facts wrong, you ought to get your facts right as to what the draft actually says.
    As to me editorializing, I never said in the column what I think of any of this. I am strongly supportive of more mother-in-laws and backyard cottages, for example, and have never understood the resistance to that. So I like that part. Triplexes in the single-family areas? Eh, I don’t really see the need. If possible, it seems to me that most higher-density growth ought to go where we could serve it with transit…
    Finally, I think we at the Seattle Times are generally OK with how we did on “educating readers.” The main point being that we gave readers the report so they could judge for themselves and start having the conservation about what it all means. I plead guilty to not interpreting the nuances of the 60 or so pages we posted online in those first few hours, though now at least we can try to do that in the coming days and weeks.

    • Hi Danny, Thanks for reading. We may disagree here but the way I read your article was that this would be a radical change to Single Family Zoning.

      I’m open to changing or walking back what I wrote but it’s not clear to me what facts I got wrong. The primary focus of the draft was making ADUs and DADUs easier, building typologies that already exist in SF Zones. It also mentions Duplexes and Triplexes in SF Zones. Would this mean that SF Zones no longer exist? That depends on what you mean by SF Zones. From my view, definitely not considering there is a wide variety of building types and uses in our SF Zones. Furthermore, the definition of SF Zones have changed over time and vary widely between cities. When you read the comments on your article or the comments that were sent to the mayor do you think you are providing the context for readers to understand this? I don’t get that impression. Do you expect the average readers to disregard the impression of your article and instead read the entire draft?

      Another way to think about this, if the draft hadn’t suggested replacing the term ‘single family zone’ but contained the same policy proposals, would the reaction have been the same? What if the proposal had been framed as legally allowing building types that already exist in SF zones? My guess is the reader reaction would’ve been completely different, which makes me feel like we are getting caught up on wording rather than substance. In the end, does any change to SF Zoning code mean we are eliminating SF Zoning or are the specifics of the change important?

      It’s certainly fine if you think an area with Triplexes isn’t a SF Zone. I disagree that these are incompatible. If you’d ever like to meet in person to talk in more detail about this our doors are open. I appreciate we’re having this conversation but think it could’ve been started in a much less inflammatory, yet more informative way. Thanks again for the feedback.

      Regards,
      Owen

      • If we change single family zones to low density residential zones, as defined in this draft, then yes, it means single family zoning would no longer exist. It doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be people living in single family homes, but we’re talking about zoning here. At face value what the report plainly says is we should upzone single family zoning. It seems pretty plain to me.
        Yes, I think if the draft had just said that we should allow duplexes, triplexes, rooming houses, mother in laws and backyard cottages in single family zones, the reaction would be largely the same. It’s true these buildings are out there in some places already, but as a matter of zoning policy it’s a major shift. The committee knows it’s a huge shift — it talks about how big of a change this is in the cover letter. Why not just take them at their word that this is a big change? I do think it heightened the reaction that the committee said single-family zoning is there for racist and classist reasons. That gave some the sense that the committee was saying single-family zoning is morally wrong, which I doubt was their intent.

        • The argument I’m making is that it is being portrayed as a a radical shift but it’s not. That’s the fundamental criticism of your article. We clearly disagree.

          I think I make a strong argument for why this isn’t radical. The draft mostly focuses on ADU and DADUs, something that is already allowed. It does mentions duplexes and triplexes. It’s is measured when suggesting we test this. But even if duplexes and triplexes were allowed in all SF Zones these are really no different than a large single family home with a lot of people living in it. Should we disallow buildings with more than 8 rooms in SF Zones? What about families with lots of kids? Should we prevent homes that allow separate entrances so multigenerational families can have privacy?

          The line you are drawing between SF Zones is grayer than you paint it and almost entirely informed by an incomplete history of zoning in Seattle. This context is important.

          I get that you think this is radical and that’s a fine opinion but I disagree. Further, I would argue that people who put it in this context likely would agree with me that it’s not radical in any way besides the perception of people with a narrow view of SF zoning.

          • Radical is your word, not mine. It’s not like they’re bulldozing single family homes or anything. But I would encourage you to read their four-page preamble to the report, where they say what they’re recommending are major shifts to respond to what they call “a crisis of unprecedented proportions.” So that’s where I got that this was a big deal — not from in my own head, but from the report.

          • That’s true, it is my word not yours but that’s the impression I got from reading your piece. I think if the council was ‘doing away with single family zoning’ that would be pretty radical. My idea of what that would look like would be a lot closer to 6 or 7 story upzones, minimum density requirements and no setbacks.

      • Changing the definition of Single Family Zoning means it won’t exist in Seattle any longer. It’s not a minor change. It’s the biggest zoning change ever considered in the history of Seattle.

  9. What I enjoy and appreciate about some of Seattle’s SF neighborhoods are the architectural details of older houses, the lush gardens, and the (few) places where there is a delicate balance of variety and uniformity in both the housing and the overall streetscape. (There are some good contemporary house designs, but too many turn their back on the street and, worse, put up horribly un-urban tall wood fences of the kind you expect to see in suburban tract developments. You know who you are.) These are ALL features that can also be accomplished at greater densities, but they must be done with greater skill than shown to date by Seattle builders and architects. Density? Bring it on; we need it. But only if it comes with greater sophistication in architectural and landscape design; some standards for residential streetscapes (more trees, handsome signs/mailboxes/street furniture/lighting, sidewalks/path/trails of many kinds, and transit accoutrements); and more and better designed public spaces–parks, yes, but also street-related bits of property. It’s embarrassing how weedy, ill-kempt, and full of trash our public spaces are. We need these improvements whether SF zoning is changed or not; there is as much bad design in SF n’hoods as there as in the higher density areas–sometimes more. Density isn’t the issue; design is.

  10. the proposal says all single family zoning would be redefined and allow up to a triplex. It could happen on any single family lot in the city. If that’s not getting rid of Single Family Zoning then I don’t know what is.

  11. Me thinks the real issue is this paragraph…The draft report notes that “Seattle (single-family) zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city’s goals for equity and affordability.”

    Um…so if you live in a single family house, you’re racist and exercising your economic privilege to exclude others less fortunate than you (or, you didn’t “earn” that single family home)

  12. What are these urban benefits, that people living in blocks of duplexes and sf housing cannot access?

Comments are closed.