Have you ever walked around a single-family residential area in Seattle and come across a duplex, triplex, or apartment building that seemed just a little out of place? If you have, it’s probably because the structure was built prior to the adoption of single-family zoning—and not because it’s located in a present day multi-family or commercial zone. You likely are looking at a grandfathered in building harkening back to Seattle’s original streetcar days.

Jeffrey Linn, a local Seattle resident and cartographer, has put together an interactive map called “Multi-Family Land Use in Seattle” that highlights parcels where multi-family land uses are located in single-family zones. The map color codes the multi-family land uses to make it easy to differentiate between parcels and locations. Linn defines multi-family a bit more broadly than most planners would by including duplexes into the mix. But given that duplexes are outlawed in single-family areas in Seattle, they’re probably apt for inclusion. His map also picks up on multi-family uses like apartments, triplexes, condominiums, and fourplexes.

Clicking on parcels reveals more details. (Jeffrey Linn)
Clicking on parcels reveals more details. (Jeffrey Linn)

Users can pan around the map to query zoning and land use in greater detail. Clicking on an individual parcel reveals the type of use and zoning, square footage of the lot, and even the property address. Users can also toggle different layers for the map. Options include: zoning boundaries, urban villages, single-family areas, multi-family housing outside of single-family areas, and multi-family housing inside of single-family areas. And if that weren’t enough, users can plug an address into the search bar and go straight to the property in mind.

What is particularly interesting about the map is that it reveals very different patterns of multi-family housing in single-family areas across the city. For instance, most of West Seattle and Southeast Seattle have very sparse amounts of multi-family housing in single-family zones. Only a few key pockets appear in that portion of the city, particularly around Alaska St & Rainier Ave and Holden St & Delridge Way, and along Alki Ave and Harbor Ave.

Multi-family housing in single-family areas throughout West Seattle and Southeast Seattle. (Jeffrey Linn)
Multi-family housing in single-family areas throughout West Seattle and Southeast Seattle. (Jeffrey Linn)

Compare that to Central Seattle and North Seattle:

Multi-family housing in single-family areas throughout Central Seattle and a portion of North Seattle. (Jeffrey Linn)
Multi-family housing in single-family areas throughout Central Seattle and a portion of North Seattle. (Jeffrey Linn)

The pattern of multi-family housing throughout North Seattle and Central Seattle single-family zones is much more ubiquitous. It comes as little surprise that single-family areas closest to the core of Capitol Hill have tons of multi-family housing. It’s understood that Capitol Hill is dense. But even single-family outposts like Upper Queen Anne, Wallingford, Ravenna, and Fremont have scores of duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes scattered across them.

Most of these humble abodes are the kind of places that make for great neighbors and add a little fine grained flavor to a block. So why are they being told to “keep out”?

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Doug Trumm is the Publication Director at The Urbanist. He joined the exodus to Seattle in 2014, leaving behind his home state of Minnesota. Living on disputed land between Wallingford and Fremont, he is doing his best to improve both neighborhoods. He is a grad student at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and a marketing intern at King County Metro. His views are his own and do not represent his employer.

30 COMMENTS

  1. These are often the most interesting homes on the block – I have a full brick apartment building near me built almost to the sidewalks in a SF neighborhood. It’s beautiful, and would be well past illegal to build today. The duplexes and triplexes blend in well enough that you wouldn’t know they’re there except for the extra doors. The neighborhood beauty shop built to a corner with storefront windows has probably been many businesses over the years, without disturbing the neighbors.

    The reason there’s so many is because we imposed our SF zoning on a city that was already built out. Very few homes have been built since zoning went into place in areas like Queen Anne. Sadly, as these homes age they’ll have to be replaced with single family homes, lowering the density and making the neighborhood more bland.

    • But those interesting and beautiful full brick apartment buildings aren’t being built anymore. Instead we get Hardi-board boxes, so no surprise they are unwelcome in most SF neighborhoods. Fred Anhalt is sadly dead in Seattle, even his spirit.

      • You’re right. These days we build things like this (a few blocks over, in the LR zone). Oh wait, those are pretty nice, except for the forced setbacks and parking.

        I mean this. No, those are nice too. But they’re high-end, let’s go down the hill.

        Try these. Still pretty nice, except for the forced set backs.

        Is it just brick vs. wood that’s your issue? I’d be pretty open to just allowing full-lot apartments in SF zones if they’re required to be brick.

        • My issue is housing affordable to the middle — people too “rich” for subsidized housing and too poor to buy at the market. Your upscale examples are fine for the highest end of the marketplace, and they fit well in MF zones.

          I’m giving up arguing with that subset of urbanists who obsess with abolishing SF zoning. It ain’t gonna happen, and no amount of urbanist pedantry is going to change that. The mayor himself has said “the numbers just aren’t there”. Get over it.

          • Wait. You want them to be cheap, but you want them to not look cheap. Sounds like concern trolling. *These would be fine if only they looked beautiful and cost nothing*

            We need more homes. If there’s some arbitrary aesthetic requirement you want us to meet, I’m willing to compromise. But I think I’ve shown you’re not willing to do that. So we’ll go around you.

          • Those people (too rich for subsidized housing, but can’t afford the market) are exactly the people who benefit from a change in zoning. It is quite common in my neighborhood (which isn’t exactly the nicest neighborhood in the city) to see small houses be replaced by huge ones. This is because the lot is so big. So rather than put in three normal sized houses, or a half dozen row houses, you have one giant house.

            Will zoning never change? I doubt it. The support for the status quo is based on misinformation and a handful of noisy residents, not the voters. The last election — the first one with districts — saw anti-growth candidates crushed at the ballot box. A lot of the people who supported districts (especially the folks who organized the campaign) were hoping for the opposite result, but it just didn’t happen. My guess is if you simply had a HALA up and down vote, it would pass easily. It is only the feckless politicians (led by the feckless mayor himself) that delays progress.

          • Yep, there are just scores of developers out there so eager to buy and demolish $450K SF homes and replace them with $350K flats and townhomes. If only we’d just give them the chance! If I drink your Kool-Aid, will they let me buy one?

          • You joke, but this has great potential in much of the city. Many of the houses in the old suburban parts of the city (e. g. north of 85th) have really big lots. They are often subdivided into standard lots, but the lot size is still very big (9600 square feet, if I’m not mistaken). So small houses tend to get replaced with giant ones. Allowing smaller subdivisions — say 4,000 square feet – would make the construction of houses like the ones Bryan linked to economically feasible. Rather than putting up a couple of monster houses, they would put up a half dozen reasonably sized houses. This wouldn’t be the density that many want, but it would still be a huge improvement. It would greatly increase affordability (for all types of housing, but especially detached single family homes).

          • You are proposing reducing minimum lot sizes, which makes far more sense than allowing MF development everywhere in SF zones.

          • I don’t know about that, but I would certainly support it (big time). MF development everywhere is rather bold (way more radical than HALA, for example) but I could see it working out quite nicely. If you didn’t allow the apartments to be any bigger than the houses then it would be interesting (you would have a boat load of conversions, which isn’t exactly the end of the world — you have to look closely to even figure out that the house is actually an apartment).

            But smaller lots would be wonderful. I really wish there were people pushing for that. It would be really nice for everyone (including those who dream of owning an actual house in this city).

          • Let’s reduce the minimum lot size from 5,000 to 4,000, and the larger lot zones (7200 and 9600) reduce those to 6,000. I can and would support this. I’d even support trying out the HALA SF upzones (MF development within the SF zoning envelope), let’s try that within the expanded Urban Village boundaries.

            I support some further reforms to increase density, posted in a comment thread below. There’s lots that could be agreed upon, among so-called urbanists and neighborhood folks, but we all gotta get beyond the noise.

        • Yes, we build things like this, but so what? They are far beyond the reach of the low income and no income people Sarajane is talking about who most urgently need housing. Developers are building thousands of units per year described in terms such as: “Beautiful living spaces include stunning
          finish materials from long time local builder. Exotic hardwoods, cork
          and travertine floors, slab granite and Caesar stone kitchen tops with
          top-of-the-line Wolf and Subzero appliances.” Some of these units were initially offered as condos at inflated prices in the years ramping up to the crash of 2008. After the crash some of these units remained vacant for years until they were converted to apartments, and only now are their assessed values comparable or exceeding prices prior to the crash. I can’t help wonder whether the massive inflation of the real estate market before the Great Recession and the disruption of housing construction during the recession is partly responsible for the lack of affordable condos these days. HALA aims to 50,000 new units of housing in the
          next 10 years, 60 percent of which will be market rate. Fantasy economics such as supply side, trickle down and filtering theories say all will be well if we just keep building, but 10 years down the road urbanists and homeless people are likely to be equally dissatisfied by the results. If we believe that housing is a human right (and I realize this is a stretch for many people), we can’t leave housing production almost entirely to the private market, which has failed us in the past, and will keep failing because it’s only motivation is profit. Communities need to commit to acquiring land and lots of it, in order to build basic (not luxurious) non-profit housing on it while holding the land in perpetuity to preserve opportunities to redevelop it at higher future densities, as needed. Once this is done, the cost of land goes out of the cost equation, as do taxes. That should decrease the cost of housing by at least 30%. If such a project were to continue long enough to gain control of at least 25% of the housing in a given market, that will further depress the cost of housing in the remaining private market. That is the only way we will ever be able to break the cycle of large, relentless increases in housing costs. We think nothing of publicly owned schools, libraries, transportation infrastructure and government buildings. Housing needs to be seen as a new, or maybe revived form of public infrastructure distributed throughout all neighborhoods within a jurisdiction in order to break down class and economic caste barriers.

      • It’s not that complicated. They aren’t being built because they are illegal. They are illegal in the single family zones, and in most multi-family zones (because they don’t have parking).

        Meanwhile, small houses on big lots are being replaced with really ugly monster houses all over my neighborhood. The law may have been designed to mandate more attractive housing, but it has resulted in the opposite.

  2. Some MF buildings got built in SF neighborhoods under “spot rezones.” The property owner would petition the City to rezone his lots for apartment construction, irrespective of the surrounding neighborhood. There are legal problems with this practice, and I doubt it occurs very much these days.

  3. The map seems to be counting ADUs as duplexes. Is this intentional? It seems a bit odd, since they’re perfectly legal in SFH zones under current zoning, unlike many of the buildings on the map.

    • This contributes to the lie that 65% of Seattle is zoned SF. Actually, according to HALA Land Use Appendix A, 18,810 acres of Seattle’s 35,151 acres are zoned SF = 35%. Multifamily + commercial = 6,230 of 35,151 acres = 12%. Rights of way = 14,153 of 35,151 acres = 27%.

      • Check your math. I don’t need to use a calculator to know that 18 is not 35% of 35. Holy cow, it is obviously more than half, or over 50%.

        Anyway, Here is the official City of Seattle planning website:
        http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cityplanning/populationdemographics/aboutseattle/landuse/default.htm)

        Under “Featured Documents”, you can see a link to Citywide Land Use and Zoning Acreage Table. That links to this pdf:
        http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cs/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/dpdd016840.pdf

        This lists City of Seattle Land Use Zoning. They list various zoning types
        by acreage, as well as percent gross acres. Single Family residential is
        64.8%. Round this up and you get 65%. Do you think the city of Seattle is lying when it printed that number?

        It all depends on how you count the land. If you include things like parks, water and roads, then of course much of the city is not zoned single family. So what? Unless you are trying to answer a trivia questing (e. g. how much of Seattle is water) then it is meaningless. None of that land will ever be developed. What matters from a zoning and development standpoint is how much — what percentage — is zoned for what type of development. For that, refer to that document I mentioned (or just remember that roughly 65% of the private land that can be developed in the city is zoned single family).

        • Yes, I do think the City DPD has been purposely misrepresenting the figures to justify more development, since they represent developers and not the rest of us. And no, you can’t say that 65% of Seattle is zoned single-family. That is demonstrably untrue and misleading when you omit “of developable land.” And, yes, 18,810 SF acres / 53,151 total acres in Seattle is 35%. How stupid to call me out when arithmatic proves you wrong and intentionally misleading.

          • Look at your original comment. Here, I’ll copy it for you:

            Actually, according to HALA Land Use Appendix A, 18,810 acres of Seattle’s 35,151 acres are zoned SF = 35%. (sic)

            Now you want to change that second number. Fine. But if say 2 + 2 = 5, don’t be surprised if someone corrects my math. I may come around later and say I meant 2 + 3 = 5, but either way I made a mistake.

            But whatever. You corrected your mistake. Great. But now you are complaining because people leave out “of developable land.” when discussing zoning? How absurd. Of course it is implied. It would be ridiculously misleading to write anything else.

            It cuts both ways (of course). Look at that PDF again. It says 11% of the gross acres are Multi-Family residential. Guess what happens if you include things like right of way, parks, lakes, rivers, wetlands and the like. It goes down! Of course it does. You are missing the entire point here.

            Here is what people are arguing, and have been arguing for a very long time: Not enough land is available for development. Only 11% of the land is zoned multi-family, according to that document. But if you want to argue that the 11% number is greatly exaggerated — that it really is much lower than that — be my guest. But what is the point, really? How do you propose we increase the amount of land that is zoned multi-family — start taking over the parks? Drain the lakes?

            Maybe it makes sense to change the rules that govern the single family zoned areas. There is just a huge amount more land that is zoned single family rather than multi-family (or industrial or commercial for that matter).

          • Do not confuse the acreage of multifamily with the zoned capacity. For the midrise zone that will soon cover most urban villages to look like Ballard, the proposed upzone increases SF or low-rise one-story by eight to 12 times. That’s typically 800% to 1,000%. There is no shortage of land to increase density and to house newcomers. There is a shortage of single-family homes, but you can’t use Urbanist arguments to justify land grabs by would-be homeowners.

          • Sarajane, speaking of the upzoning in urban villages, are the specifics known yet? When you say “the midrise zone that will soon cover urban villages…” do you mean changing SF and MF zoning in urban villages to the existing zoning designation known as “Midrise” or “MR”? I know there are parts of Capitol Hill and the U-District that are zoned MR. (I don’t know about Ballard.) I was wondering if you were talking specifically about going from LR zoning to the actual zoning designation called Midrise, or if you were using “midrise” as a more general description?

      • Note that the correct total Seattle acreage is 53,151. I mistyped the figure above. All the percentages and conclusions are correct. The city chart linked below shows how the city falsely incorporates city parks into the single-family total, instead of leaving them as a different land use. Nice to know that I “own” Green Lake, Magnusen, Discovery and Lincoln Parks.

        • Look at the first column in this document: http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cs/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/dpdd016840.pdf.
          I’ll copy the numbers for you:

          SFH: 21,224
          Multi-Family Residential: 3,716
          Commercial/Mixed Use: 2,878
          Downtown: 496
          Master Planned Community: 26
          Major Institutions: 939
          Industrial: 4,661

          These don’t include parks, right of way, or any of that. It should be pretty obvious that well over half the land listed here is zoned single family. Do you really want to start playing semantics and statistics? How about this, then: 85% of the private residential land in Seattle is zoned single family. Or how about this: Not counting industrial land, 72% of the private land in the city is zoned single family residential.

          Look, zoning involves trade-offs. We could screw over an entire class of workers in this city and get rid of the industrial zones. Switch them over to multi-family. This would certainly help, but not a lot, because relatively speaking, there isn’t much land there. Most (and I literally mean most) of the private land is zoned single family. As long the rules for this land remain as restrictive as they are (amongst the most restrictive in the region, if not the country) we will have a housing crisis. I own my house, so I shouldn’t care. But being a bleeding heart liberal, I do. What gets me is the denial by similar liberals that the problem doesn’t exist, or that someone else is to blame. Of course there are other things we should do (and are doing) but it is ridiculous to ignore the housing potential of most of our private land. It is just as silly to argue about how best to summarize the situation, when it is pretty obvious looking at that chart.

          • Sarajane is absolutely correct about the math – the percentage of SF land in Seattle is either 35%, or 48% if ROWs are included in the SF area. The areas used by the City included parks, schools, cemeteries, other institutions located in SF zones AND GREEN LAKE itself in the SF area, for example.

            Sarajane is also not misinterpreting what the City has been saying about the SF area. From the HALA Report “Approximately 65% of Seattle’s land9 – not just its residential land but all its land – is zoned single family”.

            Now whether that number means much is another story. Yes, the City and urbanist blogs continue to repeat the 65% figure for some reason, likely to make it sound like a horribly wasteful use of land. But the 65% figure is flat-out wrong. One should ask what other data being circulated is erroneous and what other proposals in HALA are based on incorrect data.

            Further, the Mayor is now talking about only the urban villages, which is around 6% of the land area in Seattle. Upzoning all of that area to LR1 might add about the same number of units as one moderately-sized apartment building and the Mayor needs to consider whether the battle will be worth the risk. Poor choice, in my opinion. Better to rely on ADU/DADU to provide the same density increase and to develop some SF versions of RSL and LR1 standards that are sympathetic to the adjacent SF properties with respect to setbacks, height and massing.

  4. Excellent resource, thanks. Minor errors in a couple places along east side of 3rd NW between 41st and 42nd, and also one lot on Bowdoin just up from 3rd where zone boundary shows but text incorrectly indicates LR1 as SF.

  5. There are two different conversations about affordable housing. I’m an affordable housing advocate concerned with building enough subsidized housing for all our homeless and low-income population, those who cannot afford to pay anywhere close to $1,000/mo., those who are priced out because you can’t even find market-rate rentals that will accept Sec.8 anywhere in Seattle.

    This affordable housing conversation is about funding and policies in multifamily housing such as lack of 1-for-1 replacement or a plan for preservation. Instead, we are poised to tear down 1,600 older, affordable rental units in the U District to make way for offices and a tech hub.

    The other conversation is about the lack of affordable housing for sale–affordable to those with middle-class jobs above the area median housebold income who qualify for mortgages. This is a function of land use, of density, and of laws, homeowner association regulations and liability suits that are preventing any condo development, which were traditionally the First Home. That door being closed, Millennials are focused on a land grab. Politically, it won’t work.

  6. The addendum to the HALA Report also includes the numbers. It seems pointless to endlessly debate the numbers. Better to move on to solutions. I think the Mayor is being a bully and acting silly alienating SF property owners. Besides, as far as SF land area is concerned, Seattle is as good as most others and better (as in smaller %) than quite a few:

    Here is my meaningless comparison of percent SF land area for other cities:
    Seattle 38%, 43%, 48%, 54%, 62%, 65%, 67%
    Greenboro 39%
    Tokyo 47%
    Philadelphia 39%
    Los Angeles 80%
    New York City 36%
    Charlotte 66%
    Dallas 61%
    Atlanta 63%
    Phoenix 63%

    See my post above to rossb, as well.

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