Why The HALA Single-Family Upzones Died


For many urbanists, it’s been a journey of elation to despair. Just two weeks after the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) proposals were announced, several of its core recommendations have already been abandoned. Facing a growing backlash, Mayor Ed Murray announced he will no longer seek zoning changes in single-family neighborhoods.

The initial response from urbanists has been to blame elected leaders for a perceived failure of leadership. Missing from these perspectives is a realization that, to date, the proposed zoning changes had not generated broad public support. In the absence of such support, it was unrealistic to expect politicians to stick with the proposals, especially in the face of vocal opposition.

Despite early enthusiasm, the HALA single-family upzone proposals were doomed from the start. The recommendations were reached as a result of a series of private meetings that did not include significant public participation. The public first learned about the proposals in a leak to Danny Westneat, a Seattle Times columnist, making the proposals seem conspiratorial or secretive. The HALA committee finally made the plans public before there had been any meaningful effort to organize grassroots activism to support them—or to explain to Seattle residents why the zoning changes mattered.

The proposals were accompanied by a controversial claim that single family zoning was racist in origin. The HALA committee was right to raise the issue, and we need to continue the discussion about the ways housing markets, past and present, whether multifamily or single-family, are shaped by racism. Opponents of upzoning used the committee’s comments on racism to intentionally derail the discussion about the HALA proposals.

Many Seattle urbanists quickly took to social media to celebrate the HALA upzones. Rather than consolidate support and begin persuading Seattle residents to embrace the proposals, some upzone backers instead spent their time online attacking fellow urbanists and alienated important allies. In retrospect, this was a poor substitute for genuine organizing to build majority support for the upzones.

Rather than treat this as a policy discussion, it’s time to treat zoning changes as what they truly are: a political debate. When viewed through that lens, the reasons for the failure of the HALA single family upzone proposals become clear.

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a researcher and political communications expert who has taken a close look at how to persuade people to back an idea. She has persuasively demonstrated that winning messages follow the same pattern: engage the base, persuade the middle, and alienate the opposition.

When the base is engaged, they become authentic evangelists for a point of view that becomes compelling to the persuadable middle, the very people who are key to deciding whether a proposal lives or dies. Alienating the opposition is equally important. Doing so usually causes the opposition to react with extreme language that turns off the persuadable middle and drives them into the waiting arms of the base.

This is exactly what happened in the debate of the HALA upzones—with the urbanists playing the unwanted role of the “opposition.” When upzone opponents spoke of “neighborhood character” or pushed back against the zoning changes, they did so using moderate and accessible language. This is difficult for many urbanists to accept, as our conversations tend to be rooted in policy analysis and data that shows upzones make sense and that NIMBYism doesn’t. Perhaps unable to understand why any reasonable person would oppose upzones, urbanists generally reacted to opponents’ claims with extreme language and attacks. This merely pushed the persuadables toward the upzone opponents.

Upzone supporters should accept that their tactics were fundamentally flawed and self-defeating. It’s time to develop new methods that are designed to win friends and influence people, rather than simply try to win an argument.

First, stop viewing single-family homeowners as a monolithic bloc inherently opposed to zoning changes. Many residents who backed the zoning changes, myself included, live in single family homes. Recognizing that single family homeowners have diverse opinions makes it easier to start finding common ground and building alliances to pass zoning changes.

Second, listen to the objections that are being raised. It’s true that some residents will never accept any zoning changes and believe that new density and growth are inherently bad. But many more are open to additional density, even in their own neighborhood. They worry about parking, transit availability, and the impact of growth on schools and other public services. Take those concerns at face value, even if you doubt their sincerity, and work with residents to solve them. Doing so can help persuade the middle that zoning changes are worthwhile. If some residents still resist, they’ll look extreme for opposing reasonable and good faith efforts to find common ground.

Third, make sure arguments for zoning changes are rooted in values, not in facts and figures. The goal shouldn’t be “density” or “upzones” but “making Seattle more affordable” and “making Seattle sustainable.” Emphasize, as Sara Maxana has, that “growth” isn’t about buildings but is about giving people an opportunity to share the city. Point out that adding new housing units is also essential to ensuring that our own children are able to live in Seattle in the future, rather than get priced out and pushed to the suburbs.

Finally, put this in a strong social justice frame. That will require urbanists to stop arguing that upzones are the most important priority for urban housing policy, and acknowledge that displacement, inequality, and racial disparities need to be addressed as well. Linking upzones to a social justice urbanism is an important step in building a broader coalition to support the changes required to facilitate a more affordable city.

The successful battle to pass a $15 minimum wage should serve as an inspiration. It didn’t happen because a group of stakeholders met behind closed doors and hashed out a plan. It took years of grassroots organizing. The Fight for $15 movement used positive messaging that successfully persuaded the middle that raising the wage would be a good thing for Seattle and painted the opposition as regressive extremists. Mayor Murray’s stakeholder group acted only because the grassroots movement forced their hand. Their proposals quickly became law because a majority of Seattle residents already supported the basic concept.

The abandoned single-family upzone proposals are a frustrating defeat, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. Marriage equality advocates followed the persuasion model and finally succeeded in overturning all bans on same-sex marriage across the United States. Such a victory seemed impossible just ten years earlier, when voters in states across America approved constitutional amendments banning marriage equality.

Seattle needs zoning changes, but those changes won’t happen without broad political support from residents, including single-family homeowners. The HALA proposals have kicked off a conversation that needs to continue, especially as the remainder of the HALA proposals are taken up by the City Council. A grassroots movement designed to excite residents about the benefits and possibilities of zoning changes, rather than a mean-spirited campaign of attacks against anyone who isn’t deemed sufficiently supportive, is how we will finally make those changes a reality.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Robert Cruickshank is a transit rider and progressive campaigner who lives in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. From 2011 to 2013 he served as Senior Communications Advisor to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

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As one of the many NIMBYs who was glad to see this current plan die a quick death I would like to emphasize that the absolute lack of good transit through much of the SFR areas and the elimination of all parking requirements is a huge part of the concern here. A lot of the SFR zones are outside the urban core or I-5 corridor areas that have multiple and regular bus service currently. Given how poorly Metro and other City services are provided currently to many areas of the City it is not unreasonable for folks to step back and say that areas like Olympic Hills and much of Crown Hill/Bitter Lake were going to be turned into a right old mess under the proposed changes. There are large areas in those neighborhoods where bus service is fairly infrequent on a single line that is often too far for a lot of people to want to walk to – and that is assuming your job is right downtown or in the U District so you don’t have multiple transfers. Those are also the neighborhoods most likely to suffer as they tend to have the lower cost and smaller homes that developers would have been allowed to now replace with a duplex or triplex without any parking on the hopes that buses might become viable someday in the future. It really seemed that what the HALA committee proposed through its blank City-wide upzone was to effectively incentivize developers to put a lot more density in some of the areas that are least prepared to handle it.

What I have yet to hear clearly articulated is (1) how shifting growth out of the urban villages and into a more low/mid-density layout across the whole City makes sense in terms of effectively providing infrastructure and services and (2) why allowing a duplex or triplex to replace a SFR is better than requiring developers to actually just build 3br apartments/condos in the urban villages. Removing SFR for duplex/triplex development is ultimately just going to make the remaining SFR scarcer and presumably more costly, while providing really very little in terms of difference from a 3br unit in a larger building after the developers fill the SFR lot to capacity.

While I think it is fair to question the breakneck pace of current growth, I don’t think a lot of us “NIMBYs” are opposed to the idea of new units being needed in the City. But before the City changes what we currently have on a City-wide basis there absolutely does need to be some evidence/discussion that it has been well thought out and really makes sense as opposed to continuing on with the urban villages being the primary drivers for new density and growing them out marginally around the periphery, and up with higher limits in those areas, as needed.


A few things. The transit problems are made worse by overly restricted development. A good example is Magnolia. When I was a kid, they had great bus service. Now it is terrible. Magnolia hasn’t gotten smaller, but relative to the rest of the county, it has. A lot of the growth has occurred farther away from the city, making it harder to serve. The end result is bad service for everyone.

Vancouver BC is an interesting contrast with Seattle. It looks very much like Seattle (very similar neighborhood — http://daily.sightline.org/2013/03/07/in-law-and-out-law-apartments/) but the houses have a lot more people in them. This leads to much cheaper (per person) transit, and much better transit. Vancouver has triple the number of transit riders than Seattle (per capita).

As to requiring parking, it is always good to remember who pays for it. The short answer is anyone who rents, or anyone who is considering buying a place. This is because parking requirements push up the cost of development. These costs effect everyone else. Imagine a $5,000 tax on new cars. New cars suddenly get a lot more expensive. Used cars get a lot more valuable. The parking requirement works like that. If we really feel like parking is a community need (and that is a reasonable suggestion) than the cost should be shared throughout the city, not placed on the backs of those who rent.

As to clearly articulating the two questions you raised, I’ll do my best (but clearly articulating anything is not my strong suit). First, shifting growth to other areas is not necessarily a bad thing, as I describe above. The toughest problem this city faces is dealing with bottlenecks. Areas like South Lake Union are booming, and I don’t think the city is dealing with that growth any better than if it was more spread out. Even with all the cranes, and all the huge growth, the city is growing at only one or two percent a year. So if Magnolia, Wallingford, or West Seattle was growing at one or two percent a year instead of South Lake Union growing at 50% a year, I don’t think it would be worse. I don’t think it would be harder to handle. If anything, it might be easier.

As to allowing a duplex or triplex in SFR neighborhoods, it is complicated. I have written about it in my other comments. But there are a several things to consider:

A duplex or triplex in a SFH neighborhood (any neighborhood) does not mean that the existing house needs to be torn down. Far from it. In many cities, this is what duplexes and triplexes look like. It just makes more economic sense to leverage the existing structure, unless rent is really high. Unfortunately, because we have restricted growth to only a handful of areas, rent is really high.

Imagine that Kale has become more popular. Farmers know they can make good money growing Kale. But does that mean that orchards are replaced by kale farms? Of course not. But those that have extra land out back convert it to Kale. Now, imagine that the federal government says you can only grow kale in “Kale Villages”. You don’t have to grow kale there, but that is the only place where you are allowed to grow kale. A few things happen. First, kale becomes a lot more expensive. People still want kale, and there are only a handful of places where it can be grown. Second, orchards are indeed torn down to grow kale. Growing kale is just so lucrative that farmers are willing to destroy perfectly good orchards just for the chance to make a little more growing kale.

That is basically where we are at with urban villages. Really nice houses are torn down to make room for apartments that aren’t much bigger. The rules lead to more destruction — more places torn down — at the same time they lead to higher rents. The two go together. It doesn’t make sense to tear down a two story building and replace it with a three story building unless rents are really high. If the only new units being added to the city are the result of replacing two story buildings with three story buildings, then rent will be really high. If the city only allows new density in a handful of areas, than those handful of areas will have tremendous destruction.

Now consider how someone adds density in an area that is not in high demand. Imagine if someone in Magnolia was allowed to convert their house to a triplex. Imagine if someone in Wallingford was allowed to build a backyard bungalow or someone in West Seattle was allowed to add on a basement apartment. All of these types of developments are very cheap. Extremely cheap. Even if rent is very low, they can pay for themselves in a couple years. This puts downward pressure on rents, and makes it less likely that a house, anywhere, will be torn down. The guy who was about to level the five bedroom house to put up an eight bedroom apartment realizes that it no longer makes financial sense. Better to just do a conversion there as well — rent isn’t high enough to sacrifice that nice old house.

If urban villages made up most of the city, then it could probably work out just fine. The urban villages would look like much of the city. There would be few a handful of ugly six story buildings, but those would be built where land was cheap (e. g. replacing a parking lot). There would be lots of small additions (which is what a lot of the Central Area looks like — additions were added before the zoning changed). From the outside, these places just look like houses. It isn’t until you get in there that you realize it holds twice as many people.

If demand was low, then the urban village concept would probably be fine. But with Amazon (and other businesses) pushing demand, the urban villages can’t handle the growth in a normal fashion. They are only a tiny part of the overall city, and quite often there is a decent house there. The old lots have largely been replaced already. Now you are seeing perfectly good houses — expensive houses — being torn down. This isn’t good for renters, nor is it good for people who like to live in a city that retains a lot of its old buildings.


An interesting compilation of contemporary urbanist orthodoxy; thanks for sharing. Your line that “urban villages can’t handle the growth” is specious. Notice the cranes constructing all the new apartment towers, and the City’s own report about current zoning being able to accommodate 224,000 new housing units. Yes, they are all expensive places to live, but so too would be the townhouses and triplexes you want to see replacing SF homes. It may come as a shock to you, but most of the folks who want to live in SF neighborhoods want to live in SF homes. Your strategy sends those folks to Shoreline and Burien.


Hi Roger,

I know we’ve talked about this a few times. To be clear, all new housing is kind of expensive compared to older housing. But on the other hand, smaller units are also less expensive. If duplexes, triplexes, rowhouses, or stacked flats are built, they will definitely be smaller. It’s likely that these will sell for less than larger SF homes because they are smaller. Why buy a more expensive unit in a duplex with less space than a larger single family home? It is likely these buildings will be less expensive than traditional SF homes (and definitely new traditional SF homes), which means people with lower incomes would be able to access these neighborhoods who wouldn’t otherwise.

Also, a big reason why apartments in UVs and UCs are not sufficient is because they serve a different demographic and provide different amenities. Allowing additional building types in different areas will serve a broader ranger of people’s housing needs and desires. The perfect example of this is Seattle’s restriction on multi-generational housing. This restriction of building types cause a family who owned land to move out of the city.


The only restriction on multi-generational housing is that “the market” doesn’t produce it. 250 sq. ft. dormitory-like apartments, and 1 BR townhouses, produce higher ROI than 2 and 3 BR housing units. How do you change uses allowed in SF (or any other zone) that will encourage those larger units? Mega-houses are being built; they are multi-generational but they are not affordable. Immigrants and other demographics who want the kind of housing I think you mean either buy on the East Side, or rent an old house.

While the so called market is an obstacle in some cases it’s not the whole story. The reference I’m making is to a project a family wanted to build that DPD rejected. You can read about it here:



Oh, geez, that’s disgusting. That’s a very nice house. Really a bit of a throwback to the old-style family mansion. I’m sorry that Seattle actively chased it out of town.


But the zoning restrictions make it harder. I have a friend who rents a small two bedroom house. This would be great for a family (even a large family). There is a big yard out back. The owner could easily build an addition to the house or add a second bungalow. This would not be that expensive. But the law doesn’t allow it. So the place my friend rents has really high rent because there are very few places like it. The city is full of places like this. Take a five bedroom house and convert it to an apartment and chances are, you don’t get five apartments. You get three. This sort of conversion is dirt cheap. Maybe later you add a bungalow, or make another addition. So now you have six apartments. A couple two bedroom apartments and four one bedroom apartments. Everyone wins.

Except you can’t do that. It is illegal for many reasons. So it either sits as a very expensive, very rare house rental, or if it is within the magic boundaries, it gets torn down. It gets replaced by eight apartments. Each one is tiny, but the market (compared to a single house) is really high for each unit. Of course rent is high, otherwise you wouldn’t throw away the house.

Current law simply screws over everyone. As Alan Durning said, we have made inexpensive housing illegal.


Worth noting, even in neighboring Portland OR, those sorts of conversions (5 bedroom house into three apartments) are *quite common*. Seattle, however, bans those conversions.


Data please from Portland. How many such conversions per year = “quite common”?


“How do you change uses allowed in SF (or any other zone) that will encourage those larger units?”

You glut the 1 BR market.

Most cities nationwide have already glutted the 1 BR market (long ago) so developers build other sizes of apartments. Seattle has *so little* land where apartment buildings can be built that there’s still a huge demand for the 1 BRs.

Basically the housing shortage is the key problem here.


Owen, re your “If duplexes, triplexes, rowhouses, or stacked flats are built, they will definitely be smaller. It’s likely that these will sell for less than larger SF homes because they are smaller.” Smaller new units may not sell for less than the larger SF home originally on the property. New homes are built to higher standards and will command a higher price per sq. ft. Private developers are profit maximizers, and they will build whatever will yield the highest profits. If you have some hypotheticals, with valid cost numbers, that demonstrate lower-priced new units, please share.

As I’ve said before, I’m concerned about families wanting to live in SF homes to raise a family (my daughters, nieces, and nephews). Yes, I understand that under current urbanist orthodoxy, that’s a bad thing and people shouldn’t do it, but it’s still a huge reality. The HALA recommendations for SF would have developers bidding against those families for SF houses, thereby driving prices up. And developers would win most of those bidding duels, resulting in the demolition of SF homes — and a shrinking inventory of SF houses in Seattle drives prices up even further. Altogether a lose-lose situation for families still wanting a SF home, sending many of them to Burien, Lynnwood, or Renton — where city government still welcomes such families.


Let’s be careful about interpreting what others are saying. It’s annoying when urbanists gloss over arguments simply by using the word NIMBY and it’s equally frustrating when Urbanists are painted as thinking SF homeowners and SF zones are evil. That’s not what we’re saying here at all.

Most urbanists would like to increase the number of people who are able to live close to where they work and ensure economic diversity. The vast number of jobs are within the city of Seattle so that means increasing the number of people who can live in the city without ruining affordability.

We agree that ensuring family sized housing is critical. Urbanists believe duplexes, triplexes, row houses and stacked flats are great at achieving family friendly housing.

The number of people who want to live in Seattle continues to grow and we are seeing the cost of owning a single family home increase. If Seattle remains a desirable place and more people want to live here, do you see a way to achieve affordable family sized housing in Seattle without allowing these typologies? If so, what is your suggestion and how do we get from here to there?


Yes Owen, your Urbanists are a more tolerant bunch than the folks we encounter on Publicola and Slog comment threads. It would take too much space to list all the adjectives they’ve thrown at defenders of SF homes.

I agree we should try to attract families with children into townhouses, but builders need to put up units that are more family-friendly. How do we get that to happen? Does DPD have to rewrite zoning code?

I’m *still* looking for hypotheticals, some cost scenarios where a developer buys a SF house, tears it down, and builds 3 townhouses that sell for less than the original SF house. Anybody working in the building industry should be able to put something like that together, and I’m beginning to think the absence of response to my challenge is it can’t be done.

The HALA recommendations for SF zoning would’ve had a better reception if they hadn’t applied citywide. We want people to use transit and other non-SOV modes, so new MF units could’ve been restricted to blocks within a 10-minute walk of frequent transit service, and that 10-minute walk on ADA-accessible sidewalks. But the HALA committee showed no restraint at all; they wanted MF development even in SF neighborhoods where transit was minimal and sidewalks non-existent. They wanted everything and, in all likelihood, have ended up with nothing (in the SF zones).


Yes, DPD needs to rewrite zoning code to get builders to put up 3-bedroom and 4-bedroom units, and large 2-bedroom units, instead of endless tiny 1- and 2-bedroom units. They don’t need to add anything to the code, exactly; they need to allow more housing construction overall, citywide.

The issue at the moment is that there is such a serious shortage of housing that developers can make the most money by building nothing but the smallest apartments, so they do. If there were more land where more housing could be built, the “tiny 1-bedroom” market would be glutted quickly, and developers would move on to the 3-bedroom and 4-bedroom market in order to make more money.


Interesting suggestion, and contra to all the urbanists clamoring for DPD to loosen up development codes to allow more micro-units.


The vast majority of families genuinely don’t give a damn whether their home is “single-family” or a duplex condo. They do care about being able to find something they can afford. The “single-family” restriction, along with the large lot restriction, the setback rules which ban townhouses, etc., mean that there are a lot fewer houses overall, so the price goes waaaay up.

I think single-family fully-detached homes are great, for those who can afford it. But by definition single-family homes in the city are going to be expensive because you’re hogging substantial amounts of valuable land for one family. Allowing rowhouses and duplexes allows people with much lower incomes to live in homes which are, in design and construction and usage, very similar to single-family fully-detached homes. In fact, they can even be conversions from single-family homes. My home town has oodles of former single-family homes which are now duplexes or triplexes.


“single-family fully-detached homes are great, for those who can afford it.” So by your way of thinking, non-rich Seattle families seeking a SF home should just plan on moving to the suburbs? The more SF houses get torn down or converted into something else, the more expensive the remaining SF become.

“My home town has oodles of former single-family homes which are now duplexes or triplexes.” I see you are another urbanist newcomer seeking to remake Seattle more like your hometown. Please broaden your thinking; Seattle has a different history and it needs to be respected.


>> The more SF houses get torn down or converted into something else, the more expensive the remaining SF become.

Not necessarily. If the SF house was being torn down and replaced by an office building, or some other non-housing use, then this would certainly be the case. But if it is being replaced by housing that is more dense, then that puts negative pressure on housing in general, which makes houses more affordable. The opposite is true as well. At some point, rent becomes so high that almost all of the houses are used by people who rent them out (sharing bathrooms and a kitchen). Absent a study, i would assume that the more liberal the laws, the more it puts downward pressure on all housing. But I wouldn’t make a bet either way. Preservation has value in its own right, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to cheaper housing. My guess is that the cheapest way to increase SF home ownership is to allow a lot more row houses, since those tend to use very little land per house (and we aren’t making any more land). Subdivisions also accomplish the same goal (which would basically be similar to a DADU, but with separate ownership).


You can’t say that all housing is fungible. Replacing a SF home with MF housing doesn’t help the families looking for a SF home to raise their children in. To the extent it reduces the stock of SF houses in Seattle, the value of those remaining houses is driven up (demand > supply).


Did you even read what I said, or did you skim it, to fit some preconceived notion of how other people feel? Stop misrepresenting what I said. Read the whole sentence. Hell, just read the rest of the sentence ” the urban villages can’t handle the growth in a normal fashion”. Get it? in a normal fashion What part of that don’t you understand? The entire post describes why the growth isn’t normal! Holy smoke, read it again, dude. Slowly this time.

Yes, we can shoehorn growth into tiny little areas, demolishing everything in its path. But rent will be sky high. The character of those neighborhoods will be destroyed. Is that really what you want? Do you want to destroy all those interesting looking old houses to avoid the house next to you being converted to an apartment? Is that your position?

As for SF homes, don’t be ridiculous. No one is forcing anyone to move out of their home. Quite the opposite. The change would simply allow people to do more with their house. If you sell, you can sell to someone who converts it to an apartment. If you really can’t handle the idea of living next to a duplex — then yes, you will move to Shoreline. But overall, this will mean a lot less people moving to Shoreline, because a lot more people will be able to afford to live in the city. I’ve never met anyone who would move if suddenly there were more people in their neighbors house. But hey, if they do, I’m sure there are lots and lots of people who would gladly move in.


Nobody would force a SF homeowner to move, but with developers active in the SF market, the knocks on the door would come, and some of them would be an “offer he can’t refuse.” Existing homeowners will cash out and go wherever they wish. Families wanting to buy a SF house, to live in and raise a family, would be competing against developers with deeper pockets, and for an every-shrinking inventory of SF homes. They will be the ones choosing to buy in Shoreline or Renton.

I’m sensing a strategy from history, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”


OK, RDPence, a few things. Generally speaking houses in this city are very expensive. They will continue to go up in price, and there is little that can be done about it. Blame Amazon if you want, but demand is pushing things higher.

That being said, the changes that the committee proposed would help. This is because the home owner is competing with the condo owner. If a house in Rainier Valley costs $400,000 and a condo on Capitol Hill costs $300,000, my guess is a lot of people buy the condo. But if the price of the condo goes up to $500,000, then the house becomes a lot more valuable. In other words, the tight market (which is the exacerbated by the zoning laws) make the price of houses go up.

The biggest change is that you would simply have more places for people to live. Instead of one lot with one house you have one lot with three houses. Whether those three houses are owned or rented matter very little. Renters compete with buyers. Either way they put negative pressure on rents as well as the value of a single home (but not the lot).

I think it is hopelessly naive to assume that if we continue to put restrictions on growth and continue to have high demand that by preserving the remaining houses they will somehow become more affordable. It just isn’t going to happen. If we build other places (whether backyard cottages or the like) then it could provide downward market pressure. Otherwise, you are simply going to see higher and higher prices (because of increased demand and limited supply).

I keep returning to the same thing. This will increase the number of inexpensive places. Most of the time, it will increase the number of places while retaining the old places. I can see the argument against this. A lot of lawns will be destroyed. A lot of really nice landscaping will simply disappear. In my neighborhood, for example, this means the loss of many a fine tree (typically a Douglas Fir). This is unfortunate, but overall, for the environment, better than the alternative. It is much better for folks looking to buy a place. Many of them will never afford a typical Seattle house (no matter what we do) but a lot of them will be able to afford a small bungalow in back of a regular house, or a condo.

There are reasons to support the current system. If you really want all growth to happen in someone else’s backyard, then the current system (which does exactly that) is great. If you want to see density very low in many Seattle neighborhoods, then the current system is great. If you want to see old houses being replaced by monster houses in some neighborhoods, and being replaced by ugly six story boxes in the handful of “urban villages”, then the current system is great. But if you want affordable housing — whether you are talking about buying a house or a condo or renting a place — then the HALA recommendations would be better.


I think it is hopelessly naive to assume that if we continue to put restrictions on growth and continue to have high demand that by preserving the remaining houses they will somehow become more affordable. It just isn’t going to happen.

It’s increasingly obvious Roger just doesn’t care. He pretends to care, because to do otherwise would make you look callous, but at the end of the day he’s got his cheap house, and he doesn’t want anything around him to change. I’m sure if he could press a magic button and make housing cost less in Seattle he’d probably do it, but at the end of the day the risk of even the most trivial change to his preferred built environment is too high a price to pay for him.


Purposely misinterpreting the arguments of others is ultimately self-defeating. The mayor himself said “[Single-family] isn’t where the numbers are for creating affordable housing and low-income housing. It helps, but the numbers aren’t there.” It’s silly to be so fixated on this one now-rejected issue.


Yeah, I remember the last time a mayor rejected a committee’s findings and thought he knew the numbers. Nickels basically said that the cost of a new six lane tunnel would essentially be the same as a new viaduct, and could carry as many people. So he pushed ahead with that, despite the fact that the committee specifically opposed a tunnel (the committee proposed two alternatives — either a new viaduct or a combination of improvements to I-5, the surface streets and transit). As we all know, once the tunnel is built, it sill only be two lanes each direction and it won’t have downtown exits or ramps to Western. In other words, it will be terrible for drivers. But yeah, the mayor knew best — because he knew “numbers”.

I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this RD. Let’s see — around 65%* of the land that can be developed in this city is zoned Single Family. It dwarfs the other land. So if “the numbers aren’t there” for all this land, then what the heck are you worried about? If opening up this land to duplexes and triplexes won’t matter much, then obviously it won’t change much. I’m suggesting that these areas grow at around 1% a year. So every hundred house or so gets a new backyard bungalow or maybe converted to an apartment every year Are you saying that this won’t happen? That the growth will be much slower? It is either one or the other. Either change would occur in those areas (and put significant downward pressure on rents) or it won’t.

* http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cs/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/dpdd016840.pdf


Read Eric Scigliano’s piece in Crosscut re the percentage figures for residential land use.

If all you’re talking about now is ADUs and DADUs, then we’re on the same page. Loosen the rules, particularly re offstreet parking. But I have a problem with developers bidding against families to purchase SF houses, which is what we would have if we open up SF zones to MF redevelopment.


So you are saying Eric Seigliano’s piece is right, but the City of Seattle’s website is wrong? Interesting.

62.5% to 65%, depending on how you count the numbers. Like a lot of the people in this debate. Eric is simply wrong. Check that URL again. It starts with “http://www.seattle.gov”. Check it again. Look at that right column. Right there, in black and white (or maybe it is red and white) it says “64.8%” on the same line as “Single Family Residential:”. Are you saying that the document that is hosted on the City of Seattle’s website is inaccurate, or are you claiming that the document doesn’t say that, or are you claiming that the document isn’t hosted by the city? I would like to know, because it looks pretty legit to me. Some might say it is bonafide. But please, tell me which one it is.


I’m simply saying there are other interpretations of the data. (The City is not always right, as urbanist critics point out re the 224K units of unbuilt capacity). The SF acreage that matters is both zoned SF and buildable as SF — it should not include parks, steep slopes and slide areas, major and minor institutions, most churches, reservoirs, utility corridors, street and highway ROW, and cemeteries. And maybe a couple more categories I’ve overlooked.

Personally, I’d question the judgement of anyone who would change their opinion of what should happen based on the percent of real estate devoted to SF zoning. At the end of the day, it’s a non-issue. I believe the whole matter was conjured up for dramatic purposes.


There are different ways of interpreting the data. That is why I said it ranges from 62.5% to 64.8%. The data is accurate. The numbers are accurate. The number in the far left column is parcel acreage. It is the number of acres that are zoned in the city. It doesn’t include any of the areas you mentioned. This is straight up parcel acreage (e. g. that plot of land owned by Fred is zoned industrial). If you go by that number, then 62.5% of the land is zoned Single Family Residential (at least according to my calculations). Feel free to correct my math, but I simply took the SF number (21,224 acres) and divided it by total (33,940 acres).

Where it gets complicated is with the rest of the columns. This is where the city has included open space, right of way and the like. The city has thrown those together (because sometimes an owner can gain access) and came up with the last number (in the case of SF, this is 64.8%).

So there you have it. Depending on how you measure it, from 62.5% to 64.8% of the land zoned in the city is zoned for Single Family Residential. I personally prefer the first number. It is raw acreage, and simpler to understand. But there really isn’t much difference.

The key is how you actually state the number. If you say that over 60% of the zoned land in the city is zoned Single Family, then you are speaking the truth. But that percentage becomes really small when compared to the total area of the city (which includes lakes, parks, wetlands, roads, etc.). The second number is interesting, but simply a distraction. From a housing standpoint, I could care less how much of the land is parks (just as I could care less how much of the city is water). What is important is how much of the zoned land is zoned for one thing versus another. If over 60% of the land was zoned industrial, I would push for moving some of that to residential. If Multi-Family residential land was much higher than Single Family land, then I wouldn’t be pushing for changing Single Family zoning rules. But it is the opposite. Areas zoned Singe Family dominate the land available for development, which is why changes there could result in a lot more housing with very little change to the neighborhood.


You seem so sure of yourself. Have you discussed this with the technicians who ran the data? The City’s published table merely says this is zoned acreage, which includes a huge cemetery on zoning map 62. And I suspect it includes lots of other uses that can’t be developed as SF housing. You know for certain that someone combed all the zoning maps and subtracted out all the undevelopable SF real estate? I would sure like to see the resulting map.


Why would the city publish inaccurate data? Besides, no has disputed the data in the first column, but feel free to do so. Feel free to do the math yourself, but so far, no one has. The only dispute was over the data in the last column, which is the number that HALA used, and is why the Crosscut article was written. But as I said, the difference is minor between the two (62.5% versus 64.8%).

You can dispute everything, if you want. You can argue whether a census map is accurate, whether housing prices are accurate or whether the city has the correct data on land under their jurisdiction. But I can tell you right now that the third data is bound to be a lot more accurate, since it is a lot easier to determine.


Accurate data can be inaccurately interpreted. The table speaks to zoned acreage, which we know from observation includes acreage that cannot be developed as SF housing. The table itself gives no assurance those undevelopable acres have been excluded from the count. Since you don’t want to raise that question with staff, I will do it.


Basically we’re talking about allowing landlords to rent out both the main house and the ADU. Or to split the main house into a duplex and rent out both halves.

Both options are illegal right now, for some reason.


They are illegal only in SF zones. ADUs and DADUs are allowed as ways to help homeowners stay in their homes by providing extra income. They have a purpose beyond merely expanding the inventory of dwelling units.


There are other restrictions to ADUs and DADUs as well. One of the biggest is the parking requirement (you need parking for the ADU as well as the main unit once you construct the ADU). Another is the size limitation and set back requirements. These vary by city, but compared to most cities in the region, our requirements are very restrictive (http://daily.sightline.org/2013/03/15/adus-and-donts/).


I support removing the parking requirement for ADUs and DADUs in neighborhoods where on-street parking is not a problem. Current size limit is 800SF, and I’ve never heard a complaint that’s too small. How large do you think they should be? Or is that another “let the market decide” matter

Minimum setbacks should be determined to ensure adequate emergency access (firefighting) and minimize shadowing on neighbors’ backyards.

Please try to remember: Density is not the only value in play. Broaden your vision.


You still didn’t read what RossB said.

Yes, some homeowners would cash out. The developers would mostly do *conversions*, keeping the same building and splitting it up to make a duplex or triplex or 4-unit apartment building. Most of the neighbors would stay single-family. The buildings themselves would mostly be preserved.

By contrast, the current policy is to cram all the growth into a few tiny areas, which means that the developers demolish everything in those areas and build ugly “code-max” buildings.


You are a devoted believer in faith-based urban planning.


the City’s own report about current zoning being able to accommodate 224,000 new housing units.

No matter how many times people patiently explain to you that number is bullshit, and you have no rebuttal beyond “hey, it’s in the city report so ¯_(ツ)_/¯” Yet you keep trotting it out. You never address the issue that obviously we won’t be tearing down profitable 3-4 story apartments to build 5 story ones unless the city has already become ridiculously expensive. No one is going to force profitable businesses to sell if they don’t want to. Of some homeowners, for that matter. Maxing out density is not a realistic option. You know this, now, but you don’t address You’re simply not engaging in an honest manner at this point.


If the number is bullshit, then take that up with the City of Seattle; it’s their planning document. Obviously not all those units will get built; 224,000 is three times the number of units the city needs over the next 20 years, at the current growth rate.

Read the appendix that reports the methodology used. It is not based on tearing down profitable buildings to build new buildings 1- 2 stories taller.

If there is a problem with unavailability of building sites, the development industry would be complaining loudly about the problem. But they are not. The skyline full of construction cranes, and more are in the pipeline.


They ARE taking it up with the City of Seattle. That’s the WHOLE POINT of trying to get the zoning code changed.

The methodology is based on tearing down everything in the “targeted for destruction” zones to build towers. If you think this is a good idea — raze some parts of the city while freezing others in amber — then great.

But I think you agree with the urbanists here that that’s a bad way to develop a city. Better to develop it piecemeal, organically, as Jane Jacobs advised, and to do that you have to allow *smaller development* in *more places*.


Don’t target development, allow it to occur over a wide area. Exactly the argument used by SF tract developers when they fought the urban growth boundary.

CJ DiRaimo

Using the word NIMBY is the first step in alienating folks that might support the cause. This created an us vs. them debate splitting the conversation. Instead of using inclusive language I read and heard people turn away and ignore general concerns by throwing the term NIMBY in their faces.


This is good analysis. I look forward to urbanists admitting that “displacement, inequality, and racial disparities need to be addressed”, and addressing these things means housing market regulation. Such regulation would spell the end of supply-uber-alles arguments, and the nasty corollary that has involved accusing those who want to prevent gentrification of being racist for trying to preserve racial diversity and affordability in the South End. It’s hard to imagine a more tone-deaf strategy for promoting neighborhood change or building a coalition with social justice activists than celebrating displacement as progress.


Thanks for your comments Trevor. This is something many of us at The Urbanist agree that displacement is a huge issues and why we have been advocates for linkage fees and now inclusionary zoning. Of course there’s a lot more that needs to be done but we want to help create a path forward on this.


I’m glad to hear. I haven’t followed theurbanist.org closely. But I am glad to know that it doesn’t fall into simple pro vs anti housing market regulation discourse that some other urbanist bloggers traffic in.


Great job, Robert. This is the language of compromise and consensus and I wish you had been on the HALA committee. I will likely not engage any longer because of the name-calling and misunderstanding about what different neighborhoods (and they are different) have gone thru.


Excellent. I agree completely with your statements. I’ve read too much crap from people trying to demonize single family home owners. For the most part, most are rightfully afraid of ugly buildings. I understand. We have built a lot of ugly in this town. But many of those folks haven’t considered the very high cost of rent that the restrictions cause, nor have they considered that these changes could actually result in less destruction, nor more.

No one questioned Danny Westneat’s premise. He has had more power on this issue than anyone else, and basically said if you make this change, you can kiss bungalows goodbye. I reject that assertion. I think it is the opposite. The reasons are complex, but I believe that these changes would result in a lot more “apartments” that are basically house conversions, or additions made to existing houses (whether attached or not). That is what apartment dwellers like.

To me this is the key argument. It is not an easy one, because it involves economics (a complex, multi-factorial situation). But I contend that allowing density without really tall buildings in most of the city means that these types of developments (conversions and additions) are way more attractive than tear downs (of any sort — including the monster home tear downs legal today).

I think one of the biggest problems is that everything happened so fast. This happened in late July, in the middle of a primary campaign involving every city council member. I think the mayor should rightly be criticized not for deciding what he decided, but for making the decision so soon. This should be the subject of much debate during this election. A lot of supporters of the HALA plans are simply out of town (this being summer) or trying to decide which candidate to support (there are a bunch of great candidates in my area). I have supported the mayor in general, but for him to reject the findings of a committee after months and months of work right before an election and during the
summer is just cowardly. It would be much better for him to just say “I’ll think about, and get back to you after the new city council is elected.”. Now he is the position of being a flip-flopper if he changes his mind (with pressure from the council) to adopt all the recommendations.


I didn’t see anyone demonizing SF homeowners. A couple of people groaning on Twitter, maybe, but certainly no articles I read on the issue demonized them.


You’re kidding, right?

CJ DiRaimo

I agree, I would bring up general concern about, poor transit, lack of side walks, crime and parking and I would get NIMBY thrown at me.


I completely agree with the lessons learned and more value-based path moving forward. But I am concerned that this post conflates some of the HALA recommendations.
There is only ONE (not “several”) recommendation that seems to be off the table right now, and that is the one that would have allowed duplexes, triplexes, townhomes in SFZ. Another recommendation to loosen up regulations around ADU/DADU in SFZ seems to still be on the table for Council.
But let’s not conflate the recommendations that proposed flexibility in SFZ (that have caused all the controversy and from which policy makers are backing away) with the recommendation for actual UPZONES (change in zoning classifications)–because the proposed upzones are still very much on the table, including some in SFZ!
Still on the table is the proposal to upzone the 6% of SFZ near transit–not just a recommendation to allow building flexibility, but a proposal to actually reclassify the land. THIS IS HUGE FOR URBANISTS and we need to be piling on in support.

Also still on the table is the recommendation to upzone urban centers and villages as part of the Grand Bargain. Again, huge potential gain in housing choices near transit.

These two recommendations are hugely important and need support at Council! And there are 60+ recommendations in HALA. Let’s rally support for them.


FYI, Roosevelt/Ravenna? Already upzoned. Years ago.


Actually, HALA calls for the Roosevelt/Ravenna urban village to be expanded, meaning a larger multi-family zone than previously defined. (This is part of the oft mentioned 6% SFZ upzone recommendation, which is still on the table.)

I own in a SFH in the area, and while I generally support this expansion, this is the proposal that seems to be freaking my neighbors out. It does not help that the map describing the proposed change is not very detailed.

Ironically, it seems to me that the dropping of the proposed city-wide SFZ redefinition (which I thought was a great idea) could lead to more swift change in the Ravenna/Roosevelt area since there will now be fewer development options in other areas of the city.


>> Ironically, it seems to me that the dropping of the proposed city-wide
SFZ redefinition (which I thought was a great idea) could lead to more
swift change in the Ravenna/Roosevelt area since there will now be fewer
development options in other areas of the city.

Exactly. Those that want to see old houses preserved should keep in mind that the current approach doesn’t do that. The current approach basically singles out a small area and says “go to town”. Tear down a house like this, to put up a relatively small apartment. Doing that only makes sense when rents are sky high, and developers can’t find cheaper, less developed land to convert to an apartment. With more wide spread growth, that wouldn’t happen. That house (and similar houses in Roosevelt/Ravenna) would be converted to an apartment. Backyard cottages, basement apartments and other conversions would be added all over the city. Rents would be cheaper, and there would be less destruction. Those that want to see the character of old Seattle should embrace the city wide SFZ changes.


The 6% upzone near transit is also HUGE for people that own houses in those areas that do not want to lose their neighborhood & community and we need to be piling on to oppose it.

Why is my family’s quality of life and dreams of owning a beautiful quaint craftsman home in Wallingford after working for 20 years deemed less important than anyone else’s dreams of moving to Seattle, let alone those coming here for a year to work at a tech company before leaving to some other destination? Where is the equality in that? Please do not ignore our dreams, aspirations and histories while advocating that we be sacrificed to the cold logic of the supposed “greater good”.


The devil’s in the details, to coin a phrase. There may be some neighborhoods where it would be appropriate to upzone some blocks near the urban village center, and others where it would not. But those decisions should not be made by executive fiat in City Hall. The City needs to collaborate with neighborhoods in a way that gives voice to a broad range of facts and opinions. Nobody should assume such a process would invariably be overwhelmed by “nimbys”. There are lots of very reasonable people active in neighborhood affairs in Seattle; we just don’t respond well to command decisions imposed from on high.


The biggest problem with a small amount of upzoning in a few places is precisely that it “destroys neighborhood character”.

When you allow backyard cottages, duplexes, and townhouses in a LARGE area, that does NOT happen. The “slightly denser” housing gets spread out all over town, rather than tearing down everything in the one tiny upzoned area.


You operate with a false assumption — that zoning is the only factor controlling redevelopment.


Good piece, although I’m not convinced this can be pulled off successfully at the city level. Most good zoning schemes abroad are set at the national level, although the state level would likely be enough here.

Anonymous Bosch

Except that there’s no legal framework for such a thing in the United States (or Washington state).


Spot on! Will comment more later…