This is probably the first of a series of articles specifically looking at “Single Family” zoning in Seattle and how we pivot to smarter growth patterns for our exploding population, cut the high cost of housing, employ necessary strategies for climate change, and reverse the inequity baked into our city’s lowest density zones.

A neighborhood with a mix of new and old residential structures with different housing types, reduced setbacks, a comfortably scaled streetscape and multi-modal right of way. Infill development is smart growth, and done well, has broad benefits for everyone in the neighborhood. (Matt Hutchins AIA/CAST architecture)
A neighborhood with a mix of new and old residential structures with different housing types, reduced setbacks, a comfortably scaled streetscape and multi-modal right of way. Infill development is smart growth, and done well, has broad benefits for everyone in the neighborhood. (Matt Hutchins AIA/CAST architecture)

1. Revise Single Family Zone setbacks. Reduce the front setback to ten feet and side to zero. All other things being equal, this change would push new development toward the street, concentrate shadows to the front half of lots and leave more contiguous, outdoor space in back for recreation, gardening and big trees. Side yards account for 20% of any given 100-foot deep 5,000-square foot lot, yet add little usable function. Zero lot line development, at 30-foot and 40-foot height limits, defines a very comfortable feeling streetscape, enclosed but not stifling, like the rowhouses and walkups built before larger footprint lots and detached houses became the American norm. The exact rollout of this idea would require a lot of study to get at the urban form Seattleites would want.

2. Regulate building form not number of units. Zoning and fees should be based on square footage. We can build for more households at a lower per unit cost, without overwhelming the existing neighborhood context if we’re solving for total volume rather than unit count. Building more smaller homes per lot reduces the cost per home, which in turn opens the door to a more socioeconomically diverse neighborhood where people have more choices in the type of home they’d like to live, and be closer to amenities like parks and transit that we already have.

When we focus on unit counts for revenue, it inhibits some number of units. For example, residential impact fees can add up fast. Redmond charges nearly $5,000 per multifamily unit, which is enough to make developers build less units at higher price point–a double whammy for modest, more affordable housing.

Seattle’s new RSL zone could be expanded to include much more of the city. (Matt Hutchins AIA/CAST architecture)
Seattle’s new RSL zone could be expanded to include much more of the city. (Matt Hutchins AIA/CAST architecture)

3. Increase number of attached units allowed under Seattle Residential Code from two to four, before requiring more expensive to satisfy Seattle Building Code (SBC). The SBC drives up construction cost for sprinklers and mechanical requirements. I know this stands zero chance of happening, but I have to include it in here–we are seeing clients who’d like to build two accessory dwelling units, but don’t because of the real cost of jumping to SBC compliance.

4. Allow Mom’n’Pop commercial uses, such as professional offices, cafes, corner stores and daycares, and give them a presence in the front yard near the sidewalk. One shouldn’t have to get into a car to do quick everyday errands. Plus, small commercial spaces are great for entrepreneurs starting up new ventures, or internet businesses that don’t require a lot of physical space to operate. In a COVID-19 city, remote work is going to replace many large common offices, and little spaces sprinkled through the city are going to be in high demand.

5. More incentives for stacked flats through floor area ratio, lot coverage, and a higher threshold for entering design review to make them pencil. Educate builders, banks and buyers about how to successfully develop co-ops. Reform our condominium laws with common sense protections for consumers and limits of liability for builders. It would open up a new whole market of small scale development to buyers who’d never otherwise afford or want a stand alone house, plus serve those for which climbing stairs isn’t practical like our upcoming ‘silver wave’ of downsizing Boomers.

Flats can scale out to mesh well with existing neighborhood context and serve our aging population well. (Matt Hutchins AIA/CAST architecture)
Flats can scale out to mesh well with existing neighborhood context and serve our aging population well. (Matt Hutchins AIA/CAST architecture)

6. Prioritize investments in social infrastructure in historically underserved parts of the existing city with more parks, schools, transit, trees, urban agriculture, food options, health and cultural venues, gathering spaces, and sidewalks, rather than on undeveloped land or augmenting more affluent quarters. A complete neighborhood has one of everything, but inflexible zoning creates everything of just one type–detached houses. Let culture and community happen by making it easier for neighborhoods to fill in the gaps.

Require street trees as part of a complete street improvement as well as protected bike lanes and storm water infrastructure. (Matt Hutchins AIA/CAST architecture)
Require street trees as part of a complete street improvement as well as protected bike lanes and storm water infrastructure. (Matt Hutchins AIA/CAST architecture)

7. Rebalance the right-of-way. Reduce road width for cars and add space for bikes, pedestrians, street trees, and stormwater infrastructure. COVID-19 has shown us that: 1) it is possible to envision a post-car city, and 2) that the benefits for health and the environment are real once we change our behavior. There are large parts of the city that as yet don’t even have sidewalks, so the opportunity to make more multi-modal streets is still available.

8. Make every house Passivhaus. All new residential construction should meet the Passivhaus standard for low energy use, thermal comfort, and airtightness. It is based on solid building science, results in higher performance structures that are more durable and use less energy every day for their entire lifecycle. It isn’t a far cry from where our energy code will eventually go, but why wait? The systems, materials, and details are being used worldwide, and entire countries, such as Belgium, mandate quality buildings under the Passivhaus standard.

9. Reward the creation of additional units with extra floor area ratio and/or lot coverage. Portland’s Residential Infill Project is an excellent template for trading additional square footage for extra units. Seattle has a similar incentive with accessory dwelling units not counted toward floor area ratio. We should go further and pair additional principal units with a larger total buildable footprint and/or floor area. The mechanisms of the zoning code should push new projects to take full advantage of scarce land and available development capacity.

This is a cross-post from Matt Hutchins’ personal blog on Medium.

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Matt Hutchins (Guest Contributor)

Matt Hutchins is an advocate for abundance housing, smart growth and sustainable architecture. As a Principal at CAST Architecture, he is working on innovative housing options from cottages to co-housing.

32 COMMENTS

  1. Why the desire to eliminate set backs? I get having let set backs on active streets, but on a quiet residential street, it seems eliminating the setback simply moves semi-public open space in the front yard to private open space in backyards. Emphasizing the front porch over the back yard is one of the few things American residential streets consistently do better than European. I hate European residential streets that are nothing but pavement, sidewalks, and walls, with all the open space in the rear out of view.

  2. In my neighborhood (central Ballard) it seems like there were tons of stacked-flat type condo buildings built in the 70s and early 80s. The new development is all townhouses that are getting skinnier and skinnier. The newest townhomes just seem an incredibly inefficient use of space as the staircases end up taking a significant portion of the floor space.

    Would love to see stacked flats and small condo buildings come back. That’s the type of housing I would prefer to live in but it’s extremely difficult to find in Seattle.

  3. Great work! My additions:

    1. 10 ft is fine for a *maximum* setback. I’d make the minimum either 2 ft or 0 ft.

    9. Forget FAR & bonus coverage. Lot coverage should be 60% required. Maximum housing size should be 2,250 sq ft per unit. That creates 4 units on site for a typical 5,000 sq ft lot. 2,250 sq ft is only 45% coverage and wouldn’t comply without building a second unit (this forces at least two housing units on ALL new construction and adds housing!)

    10. Exempt all housing projects from Design Review (the program should only exist for buildings 6+ stories anyway of non housing uses)

    • wrt you’re comment on #9 I’ve been a fan of the idea of capping home sizes but allowing folks to buy more square feet for cash – intended to turn a desire for a larger home among (say) tech workers into a flow of funds we could put into building social housing (or rental subidies).

  4. Thanks for these 9.

    Here’s a bid for a 10: especially given the current circumstances plus the near-certainty Seattle will recover better than many cities with smaller tech sectors, how about something along the lines of this to turn the accumulated, illiquid housing wealth into income, jobs, and homes:

    – allow as right subdivision or long term ground lease of any lot for new homes (down to say 2,500 or 1,500 square feet)
    – possibly allow pre-sales and building plans & approvals to start ASAP
    – fast-track anything that meets affordability and equity goals on some kind of point system (e.g., stacked flats in large-lot single family areas, new apartments in high-opportunity low diversity areas; property owner is low income or property taxes are greater than X% of income etc.)

    This could turn equity into cash to help folks recover (or even as soon as “now” ) not only with zero displacement, but also positive impacts for affordability, integration, and people being able to downsize in their neighborhood and age in place. And it would spin up construction jobs during the recovery period.

    It would have the added benefit of potentially sopping up demand by tech workers for homes with net new homes rather than tear downs or outbidding everyone else (we’re on such family, very happily on split lot infill because of grandfathered lot rules!)

    • Yes, a deeper dive that includes real-world examples of how such designs could work in an actual Seattle SF neighborhood. Find a vacant lot and rough-in some buildings. Or find a teardown that’s on the market.

        • Not quite what I had in mind. I want illustration of what 10-foot front yards and zero side yards would actually look like in an actual Seattle neighborhood. They wouldn’t fit in most neighborhoods, so I can understand some urbanist resistance to such illustrations.

          I’m impressed with the author’s suggestion that the “exact rollout of this idea would require a lot of study to get at the urban form Seattleites would want.” Sounds like some real-world thoughtfulness from an urbanist~ something we need more of.

      • The aerial views show a mix of old structures under existing rules and new ones given the changes I suggest. The street level renderings are what is currently allowed under RSL, a slightly denser SF zone inside urban hubs and villages. I definitely plan on elaborating on these ideas using more renderings set at the sidewalk/street level (as well as some of the other ideas in the comments)

      • In his article, the author posits that on a typical 50’x100′ urban lot, 5-foot side yards consume 20% of lot area~ which is just not the case. Even a 40-foot-deep house, 5′ side yards are only eight percent of lot area.

  5. I always thought it would be a good idea at a minimum that all corner lots, where two streets intersect, be mixed use lots. IE you can build a corner bodega with housing on top at any intersection. That way you get some mixed use into the neighborhoods but you also don’t allow it to be randomly placed on any lot. So it creates a predictable pattern for people looking to buy.

  6. Here’s one more change to consider.

    Zones, however they come to be individually defined, should have soft borders. Along their borders, parcels that are adjacent to (or across the street from) other parcels in a different zone, should be able to be developed according to the rules of either zone. This would allow, for example, organic incursions of multi-family housing into single-family zones, depending on market pressures. For the purpose of applying this rule, such an incursion would then be considered part of the zone whose rules were applied to it. Rules could be applied to these incursions in terms of pace of development, comparative height or bulk, etc, to keep the process manageable and incremental. What do you think?

  7. Seattle’s population isn’t going to be “exploding.” With the advent of mass remote working and the loss of jobs that likely won’t return we aren’t going to need additional housing on the scale this piece envisions.

    • Seattle will grow even faster post-coronavirus crisis. Amazon, Microsoft, and Google will all wind up with even more employees, as a bigger percentage of the global economy flows throw cloud computing, ecommerce, and remote collaboration tools.

      Tech workers have some degree of flexibility where they work from, but, guess what – Seattle is an awesome place to live if you’re a tech worker! You’re basically guaranteed multiple options for a local job, forever. You get more home for your money than the Bay Area or New York City, and great urban and natural amenities.

      And because of our tech sector, however hard the recovery is, Seattle will recover better than most places,, Some places may never fully rebound – things like fragile cities’ service sectors will just shrink. So we may see an influx of people looking for work to open a business driving in-migration to Seattle as well,

      • You underestimate tech company management’s desires to cut office costs. The ongoing recession is causing office space costs in Texas to plummet (because of oil price drops). The tech co’s are going to buy lots of that office space, so they can “social distance” employees going forward — the ones who need to be “on site.” Many of their employees will continue to work remotely. Reconfiguring downtown Seattle and downtown Bellevue office space won’t be practical, and before long you’ll see it being abandoned. Watch for rents of class A office space in Seattle to start falling — that will be a leading indicator.

        • LOL

          I am tech company top management.

          The leading cloud vendors who have been merrily making enormous amounts of money while also fiercely competing with each other to gobble up market share faster are not interested in blowing up what’s been working or distracting the company from that.

          And they have 0 leverage to compel scarce talent to work from Texas.

        • huh? I haven’t heard of a single tech company making big moves of employees to Texas. Maybe Austin but that’s probably the one Texas city that’s NOT going to see massive price drop in office space.

      • Guess what? Seattle isn’t a tech campus and we shouldn’t build housing suited only to fit as many tech workers in our city as possible. No matter how you dress up your argument, some of us can see that this is the major driving force behind deregulation of single family housing zoning. Tech workers can telecommute, we need to stop destroying our neighborhoods to placate their needs. Btw cracker boxes with zero setbacks always look horrible and are a horrible idea.

        • Tech workers will have no problem buying the single family homes. If you don’t expand options beyond SFHs, techis are all you will be left with. Hope it’s worth it to you.

        • The only people I know who can afford Single-Family detached homes in Seattle are couples with both people working in tech. Have you looked at the prices of SFH recently? Anything in half-decent condition in a half-decent neighborhood pretty much starts at 1.2 million.

          • Good point, Spark. Makes me wonder about folks who prescribe all these wonderful reforms that effectively abolish SF zoning~ most all those expensive SF homes are going to stay right where they are–nobody is going to tear them down and replace them with 3-up “affordable” stacked flats.

          • “most all those expensive SF homes are going to stay right where they are–nobody is going to tear them down and replace them with 3-up “affordable” stacked flats”

            Sure, but single family teardowns that sell for $700k and get turned into new $1.5M new houses will be legal to turn into new stacked flats that sell for 3 x $500k instead.

            That’s why change is urgent. Rich people are gobbling up all the run down houses and turning them into luxury houses.

          • Re your “Rich people are gobbling up all the run down houses and turning them into luxury houses.” The reality is upzoning to 3-flats will NOT prevent any of those “rich people” from continuing to build luxury SF houses, if that’s what they chose to do. Maybe you should propose forbidding “underbuilding” in residential zones~ force builders to build to the maximum permitted density.

          • Roger, banning or severely limiting mansion-building (aka underbuilding) is a solution that’s out there for a while and that we’ve pushed for. And you commented on my article making the case in 2017. That idea is based on the Portland Infill Project which did go forward and set a pretty strict cap on single family home size, while adding incentives for duplexes and triplexes. Seems like a good policy model. https://www.theurbanist.org/2017/01/09/ban-mcmansions/

          • Doug, thanks for the link to the past, a trip down memory lane. Sometime in the hopefully not too distant future, I’d like to sit down for a beer with you. I’ve always felt there’s a happy “middle ground” that could be found. There are ways to increase density without poking a thumb in the eyes of SF neighbors. I have a little history with that topic that I enjoy talking about.

          • “The reality is upzoning to 3-flats will NOT prevent any of those “rich people” from continuing to build luxury SF houses, if that’s what they chose to do”

            No, but the purchasing power of multiple households will be an effective competitor. The mix of ‘plexes alongside single family housing that exists pre-exclusionary zoning didn’t require mandates. Just allowing multiple household to gang up to compete with one rich one for a lot.

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