During every election cycle The Urbanist asks candidates about their support for changing  current single-family zones. This year, every candidate for council except for Pat Murakami, and every candidate for mayor except for Jenny Durkan, voiced support for legalizing more dense housing types in single-family zones. Since this is a top priority for many urbanists, the near consensus is encouraging.

Yet this change still feels far away. A missed opportunity in 2015 illustrated the obstacles. After receiving pressure from Councilmember Mike O’Brien to produce more affordable housing, ex-mayor Ed Murray convened housing experts to discuss a comprehensive package. The package included changes to single-family zones. This particular proposal was leaked to Danny Westneat at The Seattle Times who broke a story titled “Get Rid Of Single Family Zoning? These Discussion Should Be Secret.” Despite the modest changes, you could almost feel the wet froth from the outraged backlash. Many self-described YIMBYs and urbanists pinned the blame on NIMBYs. The Urbanist at the time criticized Westneat’s framing but also called on electeds to bring this debate to the public and develop a real plan. We’re still waiting for that plan.

The are some lessons to be learned from this experience but before highlighting those, it’s worth reviewing why single-family zoning changes are so important.

Single-Family Zoning Changes Are Critical To Achieve Urbanist Goals

People come to urbanism for different reasons and have different priorities. However, underlying this political and social movement is a belief in the value of cities. Or put another way, urbanists believe in the value of more densely populated areas. This doesn’t mean more density is always better but is a general principle; high density offers huge benefits over low density.

Single-family zoning is low density so it seems logical it would be a primary target for urbanists. Single-family zoning is also associated with a long list of problems:

This list of problems could easily be expanded. Additionally, single-family zoning advantages can usually be provided in ways that don’t limit density. Perhaps most importantly though, a debate over single-family zoning puts urbanists on favorable terrain. We aren’t debating minutiae of administrative processes or subjective design. Instead, we’re centering the debate on the most restrictive rules limiting density and talking about the value of density–one of urbanism’s most core values.

How To Make This Dream A Reality

Lessons from 2015 should guide the path forward. First, ex-mayor Ed Murray never showed political desire to actively pursue changes to single-family zones. It should be unsurprising he didn’t stand up to the political backlash. Second, we need to initiate a public process–not a private committee–that engages communities in how this change will be implemented.

At the end of this election cycle we will have at least one new councilmember and a new mayor. They will be entering office as mandatory housing affordability upzones are wrapping up. This will bring an opportunity to put energy into new solutions. Urbanists should demand changes to single-family zones as a top housing priority. This effort may seem like a longshot but most residents don’t live in single-family zones and it appears a majority of Seattleites would support multifamily housing in single-family zones.

Below are some strategies for achieving meaningful change to single-family zones.

Make Single Family Zoning A Top Priority: Urbanists are a diverse group with diverse interests. However, variety is the enemy of clarity. Urbanists need two or three top priorities to send a clear message and politicians can be measured by their progress. Single-family zoning changes should be one of those top priorities.

Focus On Politicians, Not NIMBYs: It appears a majority of Seattle supports multifamily housing in single-family zones. Urbanists should continue talking about the benefits with people involved in the normal land use debates. However, political leadership on this issue is key. Urbanists should ensure candidates for office cannot get through an election without clearly and explicitly stating where they stand. Silence and waffling is worse than outright opposition. Once in office, political discussion about housing should include a discussion about changes to single-family zoning.

Support Policies That Can Build A Winning Coalition: Single-family zoning changes will require a coalition. Urbanists should think about how this policy can fit into other policies that broaden the coalition. There are two obvious policies to couple with upzones: impact fees and inclusionary zoning requirements. These policies would address concerns about infrastructure, improve equity, capture value created from upzoning, build allies, and fight the perception that urbanists are developer shills. Lastly, advocating for these changes in a way that builds a coalition means we shouldn’t spend a lot of energy impugning other groups’ priorities.

We can make this change a reality. In fact, this election may be the decisive one if urbanists make changing single-family zoning a priority.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider supporting our work. The Urbanist is a nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

41 COMMENTS

  1. The Urbanist could have thrown their full weight behind this issue a long long time ago and been *the* leader on this effort.

    Their complaint about urbanist diversity of opinion is something they’ve been central in maintaining and they’ve been so reluctant to actually come out and be bold as advocates. Instead trying to appear fair and balanced but I guess now they have decided ….. *now* is the time.

    Well, welcome to reality. You’re not an “objective” blog and your role should have been bold advocacy from day one.

    This is the bare minimum we should do in growing cities and it’s not fun to not have transit, housing, climate justice and other orgs & others not making rezones a priority.

    Super personally frustrating….

    This article doesn’t mention all the work me as a Yimby, all the people at Sightline, the organizing by Seattle for Everyone, or the latest work by the new group MOAR for looking beyond backyard cottages to rezone Seattle.

    It’s hella!!!! petty that they don’t mention all the leadership by Dan Bertolet on this issue.

    It’s hella frustrating they don’t mention groups like CID coalition and others who are the direct result of what happens under an uneven and inequitable rezone system like the “urban village strategy”.

    (There’s even a page Rezone Seattle that’s championed this stuff for a long time…. also not mentioned)

    The Urbanist doesn’t understand solidarity. It means standing uncomfortably beside people you disagree with and being clear who is doing the every day work on a topic.

    I do this work with the support of 37 supporters who give me about 300 dollars a month. I have done this work 60 hours a week for 22 months.

    I was a keynote speaker at a conference on this issue.

    Give me and other YIMBYs in Seattle some damn credit, The Urbanist.

    Don’t take ownership of this issue like you get to now decide this is the most important issue.

    • I personally donated to your efforts and many of the other efforts that you’ve mentioned here. I continue to appreciate and give credit to many efforts. There’s a lot of great work being done by a lot of different people, some that aren’t mentioned in your comment. I don’t believe this article makes any effort to take ownership or diminish the work people are doing. I’ll continue to promote good work being done by a variety of people and try harder to give credit where it’s due.

      • Your total donations to me were less than 25 dollars.

        Please do not donate to someone and then use that in an argument with them to claim you support their work as the editor of an urbanist advocacy blog.

        Really disappointing.

        I’ve blocked you from donating to me on Patreon in the future.

        • As you know my support was more than just donations. I was a monthly donor at $8.25 a month.

          But perhaps I’m misunderstanding your criticism. It appears to me like you’re criticizing me for not supporting advocacy when you say this,

          “Give me and other YIMBYs in Seattle some damn credit, The Urbanist.

          Don’t take ownership of this issue like you get to now decide this is the most important issue.”

          It’s inevitable that we will have to work in this space together in the future so I want to understand how I can do better and I’ll do my best not to be defensive. I do think it’s unfair to criticize me for not supporting lots of people and groups on urbanist issues. If the criticism is that I can do more support, ok, that’s probably true. If it’s something else, I’m here listening.

          • is LB the YimbySea twitter account? If so I’ve found them to be largely unreasonable (as in “cannot be reasoned with”) and immune to gray area, nuance, and a complete inability to form a consensus. Scorched earth policies don’t get enacted and “my way or the highway” is no way to form a coalition for the advancement of a cause. Blocking you from giving money? More of the same.

          • Going scorched Earth on fellow urbanists and advocates is kind of her thing. She’s well known for it.

            She’s a troll, and I really wish she’d go away already and stop infecting the Seattle urbanist scene with her bullshit and lies.

          • For the sake of the very movement that they want to see succeed I professionally recommend that they be moved into a different role. It’s not helpful to OUR efforts to have someone so divisive at the helm.

            Someone in her role/position/advocacy needs to be bringing people together, not ripping them apart over petty semantics.

            This may betray my ignorance, as I have no idea if YIMBYsea is anything more than a random twitter account, but if there is a real organization there please reign your leader in.

        • Your militancy and rudeness have galvanized my opinion on the issue. I will fight tooth and nail and lawyer and god damned broadsword to keep my neighborhood’s architecture and charm intact. If multifamily stuff didn’t look like Ikea + LEGO I’d be more amendable, but it reminds me of growing up in the bloc.

          • Why do you think you have the right to STEAL your neighbor’s property? To destroy their right to build what they want on it?

            If you want to control what your neighbor does with their property, buy an easement. You don’t have one, do you? (I know people who actually do.) Zoning is a scheme for you to control OTHER people’s property WITHOUT paying for it. It’s immoral.

  2. Entitled YIMBY’s unite! First the war on cars, now the war on single family zoning. There are plenty of (miserable to live) places that meet your requirements. Please go there.

      • I don’t choose to live without a car, nor do I choose to live in an area of dense housing. As I said, there are plenty of places existing already where that is possible if that’s the lifestyle you prefer. There are a growing number of them in Seattle, much to my dismay, but they’re there for your choosing.

        Demanding homogeneity from people is what dictators/authoritarians do. I have as much right to live the way I choose as you do. I’ve lived in my single family home for more than 40 years and I’ve paid taxes upon taxes upon taxes for that choice. The fact that someone else covets living in my neighborhood is insufficient to overturn my right to my chosen place, for which I’ve paid dearly. I see no more justification for your (or anyone) demanding that I change my choices to suit yours than for me to demand that you change yours to suit mine. There is plenty for everyone.

        • Usually, when I live in a rapidly growing economic powerhouse and am faced with some stark realities about how to fix ever worsening problems, sticking my head in the sand and hoping the issue goes away isn’t the place I start. Seattle is not a suburb, it is an eternally morphing entity dynamically adapting to change, I suggest you get used to this. Furthermore your world is not going to be “ruined” by this, spare us the dramatics. When your new favorite bar opens on the corner of X and Y and you can stroll home from it you can thank us later.

          • Where are you getting that I said my world is going to be “ruined”? I re-read what I wrote and I don’t see that.

            And how often do you “usually” live in a rapidly growing economic powerhouse? Your photo doesn’t look that old. And if you have, why did you leave?

            Furthermore, I am not interested in a favorite bar anywhere, and certainly not so near that I could stroll home, nor am I interested in strolling home, but thank you for your thoughts and suggestions.

          • The fact that someone else covets living in my neighborhood is insufficient to overturn my right to my chosen place, for which I’ve paid dearly.”

            Good news: you can keep your place.

        • Demanding homogeneity from people is what dictators/authoritarians do.

          Indeed! This is one of the many reasons we oppose single family zoning. It demands conformity across large swathes of land, and severely restricts the freedom of property owners to do it. The notion that the people proposing legalizing a diversity of land uses in an area where all but one are against the law is “demanding homogeneity” is utterly bizarre; I’m not sure you could get it more backwards if you tried.

          You’re the one demanding the use of the coercive power of the state to ensure no one who might want only want/need/afford to rent a small space, or who simply can’t afford the price of 5000 square feet of valuable land on top of their dwelling unit will be allowed to live in your neighborhood. *Someone* is demanding homogeneity here, but it isn’t The Urbanist.

          I have as much right to live the way I choose as you do. I’ve lived in my single family home for more than 40 years and I’ve paid taxes upon taxes upon taxes for that choice.

          I think you may be confused about how zoning works. If your land were to be rezoned multifamily, your house would still be yours. You wouldn’t be prevented from living in a single family home. You’d lose the power to force your neighbors to live in exactly the same kind of housing as you. As an enemy of enforced homogeneity, you should be eager to give up that power.

          I live in a single family home in Seattle, and if all goes according to plan, I hope to die in that home 40-50 years from now. This is a luxury I can afford because I got lucky, in terms of timing. I don’t and can’t support keeping my neighborhood in its current zoning because I don’t think people at my income bracket should be effectively banned from my own neighborhood, for the sin of not having my good timing.

          • You make some good points. The “true” answer is probably somewhere in the middle, although I don’t know where. I do have to say, though, that I am not demanding the use of the coercive power of the state to CHANGE the situation, which is what I see some advocating by pushing for the elimination of SF zoning. I am saying that single family neighborhoods are an important part of our city and we should not be forced to accommodate multi-family zoning in them. I have no objection to ADUs or backyard cottages because I think they do less to damage the kind of quality of life people choose single family neighborhoods for.

            I also don’t think that people who want to eliminate single family zoning are entitled to force that change on those of us who don’t want it. Like you, I had the luck and foresight to buy a long time ago and hope to die in my home. I can sympathize with the desire to live in a great neighborhood, and many SF neighborhoods are great, but as much as I’d like to live on a large waterfront property on the Sound or Lake Washington, for example, I still don’t feel that that entitles me to demand that those who currently live there make it affordable for me by changing their zoning and letting their nice homes be replaced by the kind of multi-family buildings Seattle is allowing to be built. That said, I do agree that people should be free to do what they wish with their own property, so those in SF areas who want to allow multi-family are free to lobby the city. I won’t be joining them, however, and I will do what is in my power to preserve the place I’ve invested so much in.

          • I am not demanding the use of the coercive power of the state to CHANGE the situation, which is what I see some advocating by pushing for the elimination of SF zoning.

            This is a real stretch of an argument. Imagine several religions were outlawed. Churches raided, ministers routinely arrested for holding religious ceremonies. If I were to propose an American-style regime of religious freedom. Would it make any sense to say to me “You’re the one using the coercive power of the state to change things!”? Of course not. I’m proposing taking a bunch of conduct that doesn’t directly harm anyone and not make them crimes anymore.

            There’s an old lady who lives across the street; she’s been in her large house for many decades. It’s too much house for her, and she’s probably going to sell it and go into assisted living at some point. She’d love to convert to three or four apartments, live on the rent, and age in place.

            The obvious benefits to her are real–we know seniors able to age in place have better quality of life and better health. The created apartments would raise her standard of living and create a couple of probably pretty affordable housing options (it’s not like she’d go for the amenities and high-end finishes. It would cost the city exactly nothing. She didn’t do it because it’s a crime to do so. I don’t understand how anyone who values freedom in any remotely mainstream conception of the term can see that as anything other than an obscene abuse of state power. But that’s precisely what the “single family zoning forever” crowd are doing.,

            we should not be forced to accommodate multi-family zoning in them.

            This is just a very strange way of talking about things like what I mentioned above. We live in a society with people who share the freedoms we have, which means we have to “accommodate” lots of stuff we don’t like. The costs to you are minor and indirect; maybe you just don’t get to monopolize shared public goods quite as much (like free car storage, so you can store other stuff in your garage).

            I also don’t think that people who want to eliminate single family zoning are entitled to force that change on those of us who don’t want it.

            Again, a change in zoning doesn’t force anything on you that you don’t want. It stops you from forcing your preferences on your neighbors. If literally no one in your neighborhood wants anything other than a traditional single family home, nothing will change.

            I think there’s a really big blind spot in how a lot of people who really do seem to value freedom most of the time think about freedom when it comes to zoning. It would never occur to most people that “Freedom of X” means a right to tell your neighbors they can’t do X differently than I do, with speech, religion, association, marriage, etc. Or with what cars to drive or what instruments to play or whether to have a dog or not. But when it comes to building a different kind of building, somehow that becomes part of the story of what freedom means for them. I’ve never seen a remotely convincing case for why this is an exception–why this in this particular area of our lives, freedom means telling your neighbors they have to be just like you. We all understand that’s antithetical to freedom in virtually every other way.

        • Nobody is forcing you to sell your house if you don’t want to. But we want to give other people that choice.

        • Where can I find a transit oriented space in Seattle that still has a bunch of space for continued MFH growth, and what should be done when that space inevitably runs dry?

        • You have the right to have a single family home. If you want to be an authoritarian dictator and force all your neighbors to have a single-family home, well, we actually have a system for that: you can buy easements from all of them.

          What’s that? You don’t want to buy easements? You want to use the heavy-handed authoritarian power of city government to prohibit your neighbor from building a duplex (or even subdividing their existing home into a duplex)…. without even paying your neighbor anything in compensation?

          Well, I think that’s a nasty, thieving point of view.

          If you care about preserving the “surroundings” of your house, buy easements from your neighbors. That’s how it works in a capitalist system. My parents own view easements! Do you?

          Zoning is an essentially Soviet policy of state central control. If you’re a big fan of Soviet government, then I understand your love for single-family zoning. But like most Soviet policies, it’s created a complete disaster where most people can’t afford housing at all.

  3. “impact fees and inclusionary zoning requirements” aren’t ways to “build a winning coalition.”

    Anyone who agrees with your (correct, in my view) list of the harms caused by single family zoning already views it as causing environmental harm and exclusion, so charging fees in order to reduce the harm is completely the opposite of what policy should be.

    Folks who would benefit from the introduction of multifamily homes on smaller plots of land in much of the city’s highest access to opportunity and most healthful areas are hurt by anything that slows this down or makes it more expensive. And it’s worth considering the optics of “you–people with less rather than more money, disproportionately people of color–have been zoned out of these areas, and now we are going to charge you and/or the people doing what’s needed to make it more accessible extra money for the privilege.”

    The position of people who would defend single family zoning but for some kind of inclusionary fee boils down to “I will keep punching poor people* in the face until someone else gives them a dollar.”

    That of those who would defend it but for some kind of impact fee boils down to “I will keep punching poor people* in the face until someone gives ME a dollar.”

    I hope we can come up with better coalition members than that.

    *Or Mother Earth, either works.

    • I respectfully disagree on many points here. Seattle is currently in the process of changing a significant portion of our single-family zoning by implementing inclusionary zoning.

      • Seattle is currently in the process of changing a significant portion of our single-family zoning by implementing inclusionary zoning.”

        So we’re in a potential RSL zone and I talked with a city staffer about this. If it happens, under MHA, and we wanted to turn our 3,000SF house into 3 2BR apartments (something that could be done without exterior changes), we’d have to pay $30,000 in fees (or somehow commit to an affordable unit scheme which is the same difference if it’s even feasible in a 3 unit building).

        Or we can just let things ride and cater to rich folks – sell or rent it for its value as an SFH (about $1.5M or equiavent rent).

        That’s a totally backwards.

    • I don’t disagree with your assessment of the potential for negative consequences of impact fees, but I don’t think it follows from that that such policies aren’t necessary or at least helpful in building a winning coalition for ending single family zoning. They’re quite popular among a lot of people we need to get on our side, even if that popularity stems in part from some magical thinking about how the costs associated with them will be distributed.

      • I think you’re absolutely right that they are quite popular among a lot of people, but I’m skeptical as to how many are both (a) truly persuadable and (b) persuadable to support the right thing solely by doing the wrong thing in light of what were trying to persuade them to do.

        They may exist but my suspicion is you lose a lot more than you gain by trying to win them over.

  4. What ever happened to working hard, saving your money, buy a house/condo somewhere, selling and up grading in both house and area where you want to live? Do people no longer want that? Is it now buy a condo/house, have the City dramatically change the neighbor from what it once was and expect everyone to be accepting and happy? Do young people have a right to demand owning housing in neighborhoods they want at prices they can currently afford? That would be a big shift from the past and current reality. Why is liking your house, your neighbors, your neighborhood, other neighborhoods bad? Are we all forced to now have to want, like, and participate in housing which others like and want?

    • People want to afford housing. Rent is too damn high. It is impossible to buy anything, let alone an entire house, in the city of Seattle if you make anything around the median income. Trust me, my partner and I tried. We both work hard, have saved money and have oodles of privilege to boot and we still can’t afford to purchase anything in the city. There is nothing wrong with liking your house and neighborhood, but I think it is important to allow more density in these neighborhoods to address our severe housing shortage.

      • maybe you have too many oodles of privilege? it’s almost as if that has nothing to do with buying a house.

        • It helps, which is his point. He has time, which is very important in this market. He has connections, and can talk to various people who make the process much easier. Yet even with all of that, he can’t buy a place that is simply decent. The average house is no longer affordable to the average person, let alone someone making less than the average wage.

    • People don’t have a right to ownership in a neighborhood, but they do have a right to demand a city not exacerbate an artificial shortage. Cause working hard and saving your money doesn’t work in a shortage. The more people save, the higher prices go up, because their is X amount of housing and X+Y amount people bidding on that same housing. Y number of people will always lose out no matter how much is saved.

    • You own your house, but you don’t get to decide who moves into your neighborhood. Your property ends at the property line.

      Young people are working hard and saving up. The problem is there is a housing shortage. People save more and prices just go up.

    • “Are we all forced to now have to want, like, and participate in housing which others like and want?”

      No. If you don’t like duplexes, for example, you are under no obligation to live in or even visit one.

    • >> What ever happened to working hard, saving your money, buy a house/condo
      somewhere, selling and up grading in both house and area where you want
      to live? Do people no longer want that?

      That is precisely what they want, but it is impossible now, because demand is so high. You can’t buy a house *in the city* unless you are wealthy. That wealth could have occurred because you were born with it, acquired it through your extremely high paying job, or simply bought a house at the right time. But it can’t occur the way that it did for my generation (or my parent’s generation, or my grandparent’s generation). At least not in this city. Simply having a good job, being very frugal and saving your money won’t do it. In most of the city, it won’t be close (only in Rainier Valley is it at least close).

      >> Do young people have a right to demand owning housing in neighborhoods they want at prices they can currently afford?

      Yes. Life, liberty, property, as they used to say.

      >> Are we all forced to now have to want, like, and participate in housing which others like and want?

      Yes, as always. I’m sure there are lots of people who buy a house and wish the house was smaller, or bigger. They wish the lawns were smaller, bigger, or had more beauty bark. The fences higher, lower, or nonexistent.

      But the only logical way to address all those concerns is to actually build what the people want. If I move into the neighborhood, and want a smaller house, or a smaller lawn, why can’t I have that? Why should someone — a wealthy neighbor — decide that I can’t have that? What is next, that the neighbors gang up, and tell me they don’t like the color of my house?

      Sorry, but that is crazy. I may not like the fact that you want to paint your house orange and purple, but I will defend to my death your right to paint it.

      (Funny how Locke and Voltaire never really go out of style)

  5. Impact fees for duplexes? I don’t think impact fees or MHA fees for small multifamily housing really make sense.

    Impact fees are really about discouraging construction.

  6. I recognize the block that the single family zoning picture depicts – it’s the 3200 block of NW Market St, where 10 single family homes are surrounded on three sides by multifamily, and where the majority of residents have been begging the city to upzone those last ten homes to LR-1 or LR-2 consistent with the property all around them since 2015. As evident in the picture, the 10 homes are identical and have no architectural value. Mr. Pickford found further that this block was formerly consistently zoned multifamily but around 1990 just these ten homes were downzoned to single family. Long time residents remember the event and say it happened when a homeowner on the block just up the hill who worked for the city did an “inside job” downzoning on them to protect his views over their homes. Please help us get fair property rights on our city in a perfect location for additional housing in Seattle by upzoning the 10 single family homes on 3200 bock of NW Market St to LR-1 or LR-2.

  7. Many older neighborhoods have fallen into decay as city hall politicians catered to sprawl developers over the last 40 years. As a result, many older communities don’t meet existing local standards for streets, sewers, parks and other infrastructure. Upzoning those communities to eliminate single family housing will only exacerbate the problems. Before the cities start upzoning existing neighborhoods to replace single family houses with new apartment blocks and condo towers, they need to bring the existing community infrastructure up to existing city standards. Failure to do that before upzoning older neighborhoods will just cause more problems.

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