Seattle is in a housing crisis, not a land crisis. We have plenty of land in this city. So much land we have the luxury of having more than 165,000 homes dedicated as single structures on a large lot. Single-family zoning takes up 30 square miles in this city, an area larger than Manhattan and nearly the size of Paris. Single-family zoning, a zoning type invented out of thin air to maintain economic and racial segregation, dominates our city’s landscape.

History of single-family zoning

Take a time machine back to when these kit homes showed up from national catalogues and John Wallingford mowed down a forest to build the neighborhood we see today. You will notice one critical thing is missing: zoning. Single-family homes, and triplexes, and sixplexes and small apartments, were legal to build anywhere and everywhere in Seattle when developers like Mr. Wallingford created neighborhoods. Back then, Seattle was short on restrictions, and big on building housing. Queen Anne, which got its start sooner, was able to build a rich neighborhood of diverse housing, housing that is no longer legal to build on many of the sites these buildings sit on today. 

A lot has changed since we named entire neighborhoods after the developers that clear cut forests, built houses, and sold them for profit. Today we have something called “single-family zoning”, an artificial suburban-style, restrictive land use invented 50 years after the founding of Seattle. Even the name is a misnomer, since nothing regulates more than one “single-family” from living on each lot. This zoning first showed up in the mid-1920s, ten years after John Wallingford’s death and thirty or so years after he hired those lumberjacks.

As recently as the 1970s, Seattle had far less single-family zoning than we do today. Over the course of a few decades, local advocates, community councils, and city planners grew this restrictive zoning classification aggressively, whether the lot was used for a single-family home or not, to its present 30 square-mile extent. For scale, this is 10 square miles larger than the entire island of Manhattan.

Seattle has the space, but not if single-family zoning dominates

Of its 84 total square miles of land, Seattle currently has just 40 square miles of land where housing is permitted to be built. Of that, only 10 square miles allow apartments and townhomes. Sure, our single-family zones now allow the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), but reform to encourage that option was passed only recently in 2019 and depends upon homeowners wanting build and finance an expensive project on top of their mortgage. To build a good-sized ADU could cost $400,000 and have a breakeven point in 2050 if we started construction tomorrow. We simply do not have the space for people to all live in single-family homes or detached accessory dwellings and must change the path we are on.

Every one of these can be a spacious three-bedroom home, but we can’t fit home on a large suburban lot. Our city must change. (Image by the author)
Every one of these can be a spacious three-bedroom home, but we can’t fit home on a large suburban lot. Our city must change. (Image by the author)

Mark Twain once said, “buy land, they’re not making anymore of it”. Our city’s planning department should have this carved on a gold plaque hung above the entrance and have every member read it as they entire the office — which we will return to shortly. Seattle’s population has outgrown single-family neighborhoods, and is still continuing to grow. Mark is right; Seattle is not getting any more land so we might as well use what we have. Unless we want to keep mowing down those forests just a few miles from our city, we need to look at growing from within. Seattle needs to allow something denser than a single-family home across the entire city. 

Since 2010, Seattle has bulldozed 3,000 single-family homes for new larger single-family homes. Had these been sixplexes, nearly a quarter of our population growth this decade could have been housed in these new homes. Hindsight is 20/20, but something tells me this would have relaxed the housing crisis as the city grew.

New construction is expensive, but density creates affordable options

The more units you build, the cheaper they can be. In most neighborhoods, the brand-new single-family home costs over twice as much as the rowhouses and townhomes being built within walking distance. The density is what makes those cost less. (Image by the author)
The more units you build, the cheaper they can be. In most neighborhoods, the brand-new single-family home costs over twice as much as the rowhouses and townhomes being built within walking distance. The density is what makes those cost less. (Image by the author) 

Most people are right when they say new housing is expensive. That’s usually how new things work, they cost more. Buy a brand-new car and you will lose $10,000 the moment you drive it off the lot. At that point, the recouped cost to pay the labor that built it, the innovation to design and plan it, and the salesperson to sell it, has already been awarded. This too is how new housing works. New construction needs to recoup the cost to acquire the land, build the space, and pay their team that designed and built it whether it’s a for-profit project or not. By building more homes on a single lot, this financial need is shared among multiple buyers, which is why new townhomes in Seattle cost less than new single-family homes, which increasingly cost north of $1 million. 

By building more new housing, the price of older housing stock doesn’t have to skyrocket each year, jumping nearly 10% in the last year and projected to keep going. Supply slows the growth of real estate in established homes that aren’t in need of recouping labor costs or profits unlike new builds. Let wealthy buyers bid for space in new homes so older homes can remain available and relatively affordable.

We have the space for all of us to be comfortably housed, but we do not have the space for everyone to have a car. On-site parking is often a request from homeowners who park on the street. (image by the author)
We have the space for all of us to be comfortably housed, but we do not have the space for everyone to have a car. On-site parking is often a request from homeowners who park on the street. (image by the author)

This brings me to parking requirements. Seattle currently requires on-site parking for new homes anywhere outside urban centers and urban villages. Parking requirements do nothing other than make housing more expensive and consume the precious land we cannot afford to waste. You cannot demand on-site parking for an apartment while complaining about how expensive the new homes cost. It’s a contradiction. A single-family home has the cheapest cost of constructing on-site parking because it only needs to provide one space and has plenty of land. As you get into the denser apartments, you cannot supply one spot per home unless you go underground, which is a tipping point that creates a financial anchor that kills projects. Not to mention, many cars parked on Seattle streets today are cars that belong to single-family home dwellers that bought more cars than parking spots.

Parking demands are less about neighborhood issues and more about creating financial anchors to kill developments. Affordable housing projects struggle to pencil with low budgets already, adding massive financial hits will only kill them entirely. (Image by the author)
Parking demands are less about neighborhood issues and more about creating financial anchors to kill developments. Affordable housing projects struggle to pencil with low budgets already, adding massive financial hits will only kill them entirely. (Image by the author)

To address affordability, we need to add more density and remove parking minimums. We already waive parking minimums in Downtown, South Lake Union, Ballard, the U District, and the other two dozen urban village neighborhoods citywide. So why bother with them everywhere else? Just get rid of them and let a developer or homeowner decide if it’s worth constructing on their lot.

Working with homeowners

What if we partnered with homeowners to stay in place, let a new sixplex be built, and give them a unit in the new building? This brings down costs for the developer, lets us add density where we desperately need it, lets homeowners stay where they are, and takes the burden of being a developer off the homeowner’s plate. I imagine more homeowners would be glad to participate in a developer partnership like that rather than building a detached unit in their backyard by themselves. Some homeowners in Wallingford are ready to do this if we allow density citywide. Maybe with healthy partnerships like these developers could cease being a boogeyman and scapegoat.

We also need to educate ourselves to the climate impacts of low-density zoning. Seattle is a progressive, left-leaning city, dotted with slogan signs in front yards everywhere. Would more homeowners be willing to develop density in place with a public or private development partner if they knew the scientific impacts single-family zoning does for climate change? And what about the racial and economic segregation associated with single-family zoning? Growing density in single-family neighborhoods touches every subject on those “in this house, we believe” signs.

Science is Real indeed. We need to educate our city’s homeowners on the scientific impacts of low-density zoning. Perhaps this sympathetic stance can encourage more housing in place with partnering with developers? (Image from Wallingford Resident who wishes to remain nameless)
Science is Real indeed. We need to educate our city’s homeowners on the scientific impacts of low-density zoning. Perhaps this sympathetic stance can encourage more housing in place with partnering with developers? (Image from Wallingford Resident who wishes to remain nameless)

We need more homes, less restriction, more variety, more opportunity

We do not know what Seattle’s population is going to do in 10, 20, or 50 years. All we can do is think about what Mark Twain said, that we need to think about the land we have because Seattle is not getting any more of it. If we let the entire city stock of single-family homes allow a sixplex, we have the potential to become a city of two million people. If we allow five-story apartments everywhere, that grows to four million. None of this is to say we will get to these population figures overnight, nor will this bulldoze our city in an instant. Change takes time, but we need actions in place or we will repeat the mistakes of this last decade’s housing crisis. The 3,000 homes demolished and replaced with new single-family homes this last decade was slow — about 300 homes per year — which is a whopping total of 1.8% of the entire single-family housing stock. What if in the next decade that same change occurs and this time we add 15,000 new homes we didn’t have before? This will relax pressures on older homes and let them remain more affordable.

Let’s finally admit what we are, a city. We need to address the problems of housing and affordability by leveraging the space we have. We cannot stop people from moving to this great city. If we do, it will only exasperate more sprawl and deforestation. We cannot continue the path of pretending we are a low-density suburb disguised as a major city. We need to move forward and add more housing, that’s what John Wallingford did and he got himself elected twice to Seattle City Council.

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Ryan DiRaimo is a resident of the Aurora Licton-Springs Urban Village and board member of the neighborhood group ALUV. He works at an architecture firm downtown and seeks to leave a positive urban impact on Seattle and the surrounding metro. He advocates for more housing, safer streets, and mass transit infrastructure and hopes to see a city someday that is less reliant on the car.

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Gordy Pearcy

Ryan I am not opposed to some rezoning but here is my experience We live in the Crown hill urban village and recently our side of the street was zoned L-1 the other side was zoned L-2. Within the last year 6 homes were sold all to developers and the families that sold all did so to profit and move to a new location of single family homes. So in 1 sense I agree with you that all areas could be rezoned and then muti units could be built but it seems that
our city is willing to spare places like Blue Ridge, Olympic Manor, Sunset hill, so upward mobility and being able to afford to move away from urban sprawl is a real factor in this. Would appreciate your take on this.

Gordy Pearcy

Doe’s Ryan live in a multiplex brutalist housing unit. If not then he is a hypocrite.

Gregf

It appears that Ryan overlooks the argument made by many who support making housing more affordable, but feel that MHA bungles the job because it incentivizes deep-pocket Wall Street money into the market and crowds out those wishing to buy a home to live in it rather than tear it down and build five townhouses selling at $800k each…

Ryan does not address the cost of using existing housing that is repurposed for multi-family or is used as shared housing by a group of folks (much as many of us did when we were starting out). New will pretty much ALWAYS be more expensive than reuse and repurposing existing.

It appears that MHA is not working as City Council expected. Years later, and our area remains a national leader in the extreme cost of housing. Check out Chicago, where they are running into similar adverse repercussions from poorly thought-out policy. Many places are now proposing to require up to 100% affordable housing to offset gentrification, rather than allowing opting out and contributing pennies to a fund.

Not a fan of using market forces (profit motive) to drive Wall Street RE investment money and Section 1035 exchanges into our market. Policy should favor sale to folks that plan to live there rather than speculators.

Art Lewellan

The Marxist denizens of Seattle are not alone confusing the new urbanist mantra “complementary mixed-use, transit-oriented, infill development” with the conveniently less definitive term “density” preferred by landlords, flush with Trump tax cut cash to invest in “master planned” construction projects unhampered by the pandemic. The term “diversity” is a more apt prescription, as in an “economically diverse” mix of uses in new development. Moreover, central Seattle in land area is a small portion of the metropolitan region where other places could use even more development to achieve a complementary mix of uses. Adding housing to an already economically diverse central city economy, removes space that should be dedicated to other uses.

Wotan13

In addition to my other comment comment below, I’ve seen some of the higher density buildings recently completed – the paint faded in one year. It is also true that many houses sold for more than 800k won’t fetch 150k elsewhere. I really don’t understand why someone would pay so much for a mildew smelling, rotten old house in dire need of a complete remodel.

I totally agree with the necessity of building at a higher density, I just want to see the quality, too.

Donn

I didn’t give you the down vote I see, but if that first sentence wasn’t completely ironic, you deserved it.

I’m not well versed in the difference, so can’t be sure it’s regulatory, or socioeconomic change or something, but townhomes on our block built before 2010 are enormously better. If that hadn’t changed so much, there’d be less of a fight over low rise zoning. Not that it has mattered so far, but if city hall’s drawing the line at wholesale low rise rezones, you can blame the industry in part.

Donn

Now I see what you mean by “quality.” It isn’t what everyone means, and the other factors you’re ignoring are also not met by city regulation – as readily apparent from comparing townhomes from before and after 2010.

Wotan13

Paint does fade – in five years or more. Not one. I’m not talking about structural energy/improvements in the code. I looked at several recently built townhomes and what I see is poor asphalt restoration, crooked plumbing, cheap paint, little insulation, no soundproofing, uneven subfloor, undersized electric main/panel

It is definitively better than the old construction it replaced, though.

Wotan13

These urban planners you mention are doing a poor job. The 700 sqf apartments (you seem to advocate for) only look great after you move out of the campus dorm. 1200 sqf is reasonable for a childless couple and clever interior design (which most apartments I saw don’t have).

An apartment around 2000 sqf would be reasonably sized for a family of 4.

Also, starring through the window (at my neighbor) is exciting a couple times, then it gets old. I need more privacy than the current build quality offers.

Bill

and when your small kids become teens?…..

So you are suggesting that cities aren’t for families with older kids?

not sure what you are arguing here other than we don’t need larger apartments?

(and can you provide a citation to support your assertion that “most are 1200 sq ft or smaller” – thanks)

Bryan

This new “1,000 square feet is too small for families” is kind of a jump-the-shark talking point. I mean, so, here in Wallingford our community council is advocating for historic preservation of 1,000 – 1,500 square foot small lot houses that already (1) are made economically un-viable from being built new by large lot zoning in lots of the neighborhood the same group defends, (2) cost between $780k – $950k already, and, now–apparently we’re supposed to believe–(3) are too small for families to live in!

Sounds great :/

smallhouses.jpg
Samuel J

So let me get this straight…

An article advocating for large scale office, residential, retail and mixed use projects, by a “Guest Contributor” who has made a career on designing “large scale office, residential, retail and mixed use projects”, and currently works on projects solicited by the largest developer of high density commercial and residential in the greater Seattle area.

Conflict of interest much? And not even a single disclosure of any of these relationships anywhere in the article.

djw

Many of the people who advocate for retaining exclusionary single family-only zoning are, in fact, homeowners, who benefit financially by the housing shortage. Indeed, homeowners have collectively reaped far more in passive, unearned wealth gains than developers and architects could ever hope for.

If we’re going to discount Mr. DiRaimo’s views on zoning on conflict of interest grounds, we should do the same for Seattle homeowners.

Emmett

Agreed it makes sense to follow the money and incentives. Everyone who engages in this conversation has their motivations, and the author having their livelihood depend on the development they are promoting is certainly valid to highlight.

And of course homeowners have a stake in the biggest investment they make in their lives.

But by all means let’s call out and denigrate the evil homeowners who have reaped unearned passive wealth! Let’s burn them in effigy along with those with inherited wealth and anyone who has ever received a dividend, interest payment, or capital gains distribution. Eat the rich!! /s (I am really just sick of the dog-whistle language of “decry the unearned wealth! capitalism is the root of all evil!”)

Donn

This is really mythical. The last time I looked, rents were down, condoization had been under way for a while – and single family was up. The more single family gets torn down, the few intact tree-lined single family neighborhoods, the higher it will climb, because that stuff is extremely desirable on the west coast. I get unsolicited letters weekly from real estate agents who noticed that I have an LR1 lot. Few of us have any intention to capitalize on this, or really any way to do so without moving to Eastern Washington. To compare our slender, ambiguous economic motivation with DiRaimo’s is the height of absurdity.

Bryan

“or really any way to do so without moving to Eastern Washington.”

If Seattle allowed split lots as right everywhere – like you can do in a few areas of Wallingford where there are many legacy small lots – and homeowners would have an easy way to turn some equity into cash if they need it to age securely in place, without moving an inch.

Moreover the new single family homes (or apartments, if allowed) built on small lots would be more affordable than those built on large, and net new rather than requiring a teardown of older cheaper existing homes.

Last edited 8 months ago by Bryan
Donn

QED: home owners have no financial stake in restricting zoning to maintain a housing shortage.

Douglas Trumm

QED!? lmao. Seattle homeowners have hit the jackpot either way. Restrictive zoning is a way to have your cake and eat it too, enforcing a cultural preference for one-class neighborhoods, single family homes/aesthetics, and private gardens/green space on an entire community to the detriment of poor and working class folks.

Is it possible a homeowner would be even richer if they redeveloped their home as a sixplex? Maybe, but they’d have to take on risk, share their land, and lose their status symbol: a detached single family home all too themselves away from the poor.

Gregf

Project near me tore down an existing 1800 sq ft single family home that was in fine shape and over 100 years old, purchased for $800k, and built five condo townhouses selling for an average of $800k each.

Seems the only “benefit” to affordable housing over repurposing or remodel is poorer quality of construction, same cost, less living area, loss of canopy, increased “heat island”, no open space, no garden space, no connection to the surrounding neighborhood, and a huge profit to Wall Street.

Council policy should have included steps to protect young prospective homeowners who wish to actually live in a home from the inflationary pressure Council CREATED by incentivizing Wall Street money to park here in Seattle. Those 10% to 15% returns by Wall Street REITs come from someplace…

Bryan

The benefit is four additional household who would otherwise not have the chance get to live in a desirable place get to do that at no greater cost than the one who would have otherwise crowded them out of finite urban land near jobs, transit, and amenities.

Last edited 8 months ago by Bryan
Eric

Few of us have any intention to capitalize on this, or really any way to do so without moving to Eastern Washington.

This bolded bit is simply false, especially in a LR zone where there’s a lot more development flexibility than single-family zones. There are plenty of ways to capitalize on the unrealized gain from your property while also remaining in Seattle. You could sell your back yard for development. You could sell your whole house and move to a condo or townhome. You could finish your basement as an ADU. These are all things you can do. You may not wish to do them for one reason or another, but don’t claim that the only way to tap into your real estate wealth is to move to a different area code.

Donn

Sure, “one way or another” covers a lot of ground, but we’re talking real world here, where supposedly there’s a faction of homeowners trying to prevent upzones for financial reasons. Homeowners opposed to upzones exist, but not for that reason – and they’re exactly the last people who would want to move out of Seattle or move into a townhome.

Eric

I said nothing about people trying to prevent upzones for financial reasons. I was responding specifically to your assertion that you would have no way to capitalize on your valuable land without moving to Eastern Washington. That is false, regardless of your opinion on zoning changes. I’m tired of seeing folks say that the massive increase in their home equity over the years doesn’t count as real wealth because they can’t possibly imagine a way to cash in on that wealth without leaving town.

You don’t want to live in a condo, or let other people live in condos in the immediate vicinity of your property. I get it. You prefer to keep your single-family detached house rather than move into a cheaper home on less land. It’s a valid preference, but don’t pretend that the other options don’t exist just because you prefer not to avail yourself of them.

Donn

What is the point, if I may ask, of the “real wealth” question that you’re so concerned about? In the context here, the point was that it led to a financial motivation for policy advocacy. You don’t care about that? What is the issue, then? Are you concerned about people in financial trouble because they can’t resolve this situation?

If we’re just sort of looking at it in the abstract aggregate, it becomes a lot less meaningful. Until there’s a satisfactory replacement for your home, or you’re desperate enough to split your money with financial institutions and take out loans on it, your “wealth” is just an expense at property tax time. I’m not saying it isn’t a good thing, but how good of a thing it is, is context dependent.

Sarajane Siegfriedt

Interesting, but very one-sided in favor of the builders. What’swalk zone.
–An acknowlement that Seattle eliminated single-family zoning in 2019.
–There are no more single-family lots, since the 2019 ADU ordinance allows three units per lot. The City estimated 250 per year, but has no program to incentivize them.
–The illustration shows a DADU, detached. The cost of an attached unit (ADU) is about 20% of a $400k DADU.
–Neither an ADU nor a DADU requires on-site parking, so the cost is the same as the single-family space.
–The building capacity of multifamily is not calculated, but it is many times (5x, 12x, even 100x) higher than the capacity of the 30 square miles, 33,000 acres zoned SF. Without a post-MHA building capacity report, compared with an updated growth forecast, there is no evidence that we have a shortage of buildable land. You must prove your case before you force people with yards to move into condos.
–Seattle has more dogs than children. Yards are important. Every urban village needs a dog park within its walkzone.
-It is imperative that density be concentrated within the walkzone of frequent transit, if we have a hope of weaning people away from their vehicles. Please acknowledge the value of transit-oriented development.
–Seattle prohibits building low-income, senior or workforce housing above libraries and community centers. Why aren’t we taking advantage of this asset capacity?
–Half of Seattle lives in homes they own. Homeownership is the primary source of family wealth, the lack of which is the main cause of racial income inequality. Shouldn’t we be encouraging BIPOC homeownership?
–Corner stores aren’t economically viable without gas pumps.
–What happened to lifestyle choice?

Douglas Trumm

A very one-sided comment in favor of single family preservationists.
-Ryan acknowledged ADU reform passed. It did not end single family zoning.
-The city has incentivized ADUs via its ADUniverse site, as we covered. Also not requiring parking is another incentive.
-Attached ADUs can be cheaper to build, but not as much as you say. Retrofitting an existing home can still be very expensive.
-70% of Seattle’s population lives within a 10 minute walk of frequent transit in 2019.
-If Seattle blocks growth, it will go to suburbs where transit and walkability is worse.
-Nobody is forcing homeowners to give up their home/yards. They own their property and sell when they want.
-You seem to fear housing abundance. Why cordon off 30 square miles of the city to growth? Why flirt with housing scarcity?
-Social housing atop libraries and community centers is a fine idea, but it’s a fraction of our total need. A red herring.
-How does discouraging rowhouses and condos promote BIPOC homeownership?

Donn

“If Seattle blocks growth” … ha ha. Seattle’s building growth has been bumping up against fundamental resource limits – materials, labor, equipment, presumably capital. The city reports escalated costs for their own construction projects. What’s really going to start “blocking” building growth, if it hasn’t already, is fear of a bubble, like the one 10 years ago. She’s right, without some data to the contrary, we have every reason to think there’s plenty of land already available under current zoning, just as there was when it was surveyed prior to adoption of the current comprehensive plan.

The last thing we need is builders dispersing your cherished “density” into far flung single family areas where it really is density no more. That urbanists would want that, is to me more evidence that real estate developers own the urbanist scene. Do you want people to be walking to the grocery store, etc.? How far away do you think they can be, and still see that as an attractive option vs. the automobile? There’s a reason why higher density development has been focused by zoning into “urban villages” etc., and it’s amazing that Sarajane has to come here to inform you guys about that.

As for rowhouses and home ownership as an investment … I wonder if there’s some confusion resulting from the use of this word “rowhouse” here, for people who have some familiarity with the housing that goes by that name in east coast cities. Let’s bear in mind that here, it’s just post-2010 townhomes that share common walls, around a vehicle access courtyard. My house is 120 years old, and barring some catastrophe it could probably go another 100 – not because such house construction is invincible, but because it’s a type of construction that can be maintained and is worth maintaining. Where will those “rowhouses” be in 100 years, or even 50 years? Landfill, that’s what I think. There’s one up the street here that had a corner damaged in its first month, and it hasn’t been fixed in several years. I wonder if the idea that a rowhouse is a vehicle for home ownership is just another way to bleed money out of the unwary – pay $800K for something with a very limited investment horizon.

Donn

You could have saved a lot of time, then, and skipped over all that flawed logic and just stated your article of faith as such.

Sarajane Siegfriedt

Give it up. We don'[t have any single-family zoning in Seattle, since they changed the Accessory Dwelling Unit law in 2019 to allow three units per lot.

Bryan

 We don'[t have any single-family zoning in Seattle,”

The city of Seattle regs disagree.

You can build these separate living spaces in a single-family or lowrise zone, and in some cases in neighborhood or commercial zones. Our codes limit the size and placement of your AADU or DADU.
Requirements for any accessory dwelling units:

  • In SF5000, SF7200, and SF900 zones, up to two ADUs may be constructed. This can be either two AADUs or one AADU and one DADU. The second unit must meet specific criteria to either 1) meet green building standards or 2) be an affordable unit reserved for income-eligible households. In RSL and multifamily lowrise zones, only one accessory dwelling unit is permitted in each single-family, rowhouse, or townhouse unit. ADUs are not allowed in apartments.

https://www.seattle.gov/sdci/permits/common-projects/accessory-dwelling-units

Eric

It’s still called single-family zoning, and for good reason. Only one family of significant size is allowed to live there.

In a multi-family zone you can build a 4,000 square foot building split into two equal-sized 2,000 square foot homes: a real duplex for two real families. You can have a family of five living in each unit. You can design it so each family has a front door of their own rather than making one walk all the way around to the back to enter.

In a single-family zone you can’t do this. You can still build a 4,000 square foot building, and you can still divide it into two units, but that’s about where the similarity ends. You can’t split it two ways equally (the second unit can only be 1,000 square feet maximum). You can’t have ten people living inside (maximum of eight total unless they’re all related — a single family). You can’t have two street-facing entrances. It’s still a single-family house, just with a subordinate apartment attached.

Sarajane Siegfriedt

Yes, a one-sided comment to balance the author’s one-side arguments.
–Ryan did not acknowledge that the effect of ADU reform is that three units are allowed on each so-called single-family lot. Seattle was ahead of Minneapolis in abolishing single-family zoning. Why don’t we change it to Neighborhood Residential Zoning? Why don’t New Urbanists get off this worn-out issue?
–The City site only has a program for DADUs, as opposed to much cheaper in-law apartments. ADUs are indeed a fraction of the cost because there is no sewer run, no site study, no change in the foundation or exterior envelope.
–Unless you have just built an ADU under existing code, as I have, I am an expert and you aren’t. Yes, the cost of rehabbing your basement is under 20% of the cost of building a $400,000 ADU in your backyard. The biggest cost is creating 1-hr firewall in the walls and ceiling to separate it from the rest of my house. This is excessive, since it was legal to rent it as a room without the extra drywalling. (Someone should evaluate the cost-benefit.) Second was the $10,000 for a second heat pump since the City requires individual thermostats for each unit. Third was the $5,000 cost of rewiring everything to separate the electrical service for the unit from my upstairs. (again, unnecessary).
–I am pro ADU and pro density. The question is where should fit within the City. For environmentalists, good access to transit is the key.
–Ryan’s plan proposes condos to replace SF homes. They don’t have yards. Seattle has more dogs than kids. Where will the dogs go? Where will the gardeners live? Where will the tree canopy go? Where will the birds and bees go?
–I don’t “fear” housing abundance. Trickle-down housing doesn’t work. Look around, for God’s sake. It’s a broken model.
–I’m not “flirting” with housing scarcity; I’m trying to solve it. The demonstrable need is for subsidized housing. A criterion for subsidized multifamily housing is good access to transit.
–Rowhousing at $700k does nothing for first-time homeowners who earn 50% of AMI. Neither does a $600k condo in Lake City. They are exclusionary to the extent that well-paying jobs are exclusionary and inherited wealth is exclusionary. We need more homeownership opportunities such as Habitat for Humanity, more land trusts and other targeted financing to help Black families whose homeownership cratered after the Recession.

Douglas Trumm

Where is the subsidized housing going to go if we have only 10 square miles set aside for multifamily compared to 30 miles for single family homes? Most social housing providers want to build medium and large-sized buildings not single family homes. Habitat for Humanity is an outlier and there isn’t much opportunity to scale it since empty lots are rare in Seattle.

It’s great that you’ve been able to make your basement apartment work for less than $80,000 in cost but not every Seattle homeowner has a basement that will work like yours did. You certainly are the expert on your own home, but I’m not sure your experience is as generalizable as you suggest.

I’d welcome having the City as the primary developer like Vienna does and not relying on the whims of the market. As you know, I/we have written about this. I’m also under no illusions that it will be expensive and we don’t have the funding lined up yet. It will only punish tenants to throttle down market-rate development before we have social housing creation machine humming along at scale. And permissive zoning is what the City will need too to realize its social housing dreams. https://www.theurbanist.org/2021/02/22/growing-social-housing-in-seattle/

I’m not a New Urbanist. Just a regular urbanist.

Gregf

Where is the subsidized housing going to go if we have only 10 square miles set aside for multifamily compared to 30 miles for single family homes? “

Yet that 1/4 of the City zoned for large multi-family (as opposed to the three living units allowed in SF zones) can accommodate 20 to 200 times as many units as a SF lot.

We did not actually NEED to upzone under MHA. There was already plenty of land zoned MF to accommodate projected growth. The upzone was a gift to developers that will ultimately be doomed to failure (as far as affordability).

Since MHA was passed by City Council (who promptly quit because they understood that they were not representing their constituents and would lose reelection), there has been little change along arterial that are zoned NC and can accommodate residential units, but remain one-story due to “old money” that owns much of the developable MF land.

However, five-story dead end SEDU projects are proposed next to the modest architecture of Craftsman homes in the former SF areas. SEDU is the highest rent per sq ft of any housing type, but is also the least efficient use of space, and is a dead-end housing form because it can only be used for a single purpose.

Eric

We did not actually NEED to upzone under MHA. There was already plenty of land zoned MF to accommodate projected growth.

…there has been little change along arterial that are zoned NC and can accommodate residential units, but remain one-story due to “old money” that owns much of the developable MF land.

You contradict yourself. For the existing multi-family land to absorb all the growth, the land owners need to actually be willing to redevelop their properties. If many of them aren’t, what then?

Last edited 8 months ago by Eric
ETSH

Ah, yes, Vienna. Pick the one city that represents the epitome of ‘whiteness’ in culture to defend an idea which creates misery wherever its applied-‘social’ housing (socialism applied to housing). ‘Whims of the market’ is individual choice, and industrial competition/innovation. Not respecting that is the same kind of thinking that creates the problem of housing shortages in the first place. ‘We don’t have the funding lined up’ sounds like code for ‘we haven’t had the money taken from working people’s paychecks whether or not they’ve consented to it, including minorities’.

Sarajane Siegfriedt

If the City sincerely wanted more in-law apartments, as opposed to backyard cottages, they’d create an incentive program for homeowners who want/need to develop another income stream. There would be a dedicated Navigator at the Permitting Department who actually did outreach and had a numerical goal of 250 in-law apartments a year. There would be very low-interest loans in exchange for setting rents at <80% of market, for the life of the loan, with homeowner occupancy. Then we would have a form of rent stabilization.

Sarajane Siegfriedt

Ryan, Ryan, Ryan! it’s not the acreage of the zoning, it’s the building capacity. Obviously, since half of Seattle are renters, there’s a choice that half Seattleites have made.

Douglas Trumm

For rich people, renting is a choice. For poor people, renting is a necessity not a choice.

If you continue to distort the facts and pepper our comment board, our moderators will step in.

Jules James

Not one mention of kids. People need to have housing that is child-compatible. Child-compatible is also elder-compatible. To attract families, housing needs predictable parking for private transportation. The financial math of Lowrise development currently heavily favors 1BR/1BA. City Hall needs to work up incentives to build 3BR/2BA w/ parking in Lowrise zoning, or all we got is block-by-block zoning fights after fight after fight. Change the game citywide: incentivize child-compatible housing stock in Lowrise zoning.

E C

Really interesting article, thanks for it! I especially appreciated your breakdown of potential population by density – I have tried to come up with a way of explaining this myself, and your example is perfect.

Seattle needs to end single family zoning, not only due to its racist/classist history, but also to provide housing options for everyone. Speaking for myself, I am currently a renter and would love to buy housing in Seattle, to put down roots, however I can’t afford any of the new builds (townhomes) and the existing single family homes are far too expensive. I say all of this as a well-educated, well-privileged person – folks who are neither of those are at an even worse disadvantage.

If Seattle is truly a progressive city, we must work to allow housing opportunities in the city that are honestly affordable to everyone, not just tech workers and those lucky enough to have bought here before 2010.

Spandau Ballet

You could do what I did and try saving up for 20 years.

Bill

Seattle is not “an actual city”? That’s a surprising and rhetorically-challenged assertion.

So what I gather is that you are arguing for a new city of renters, with 5 units paying rent to their landlords (you, after you build your 6 plex)?

Donn

Not enough coming in from real estate developers? What a cheap bunch!

Gregf

Not convinced that a “city of renters” is a desirable goal or something to be proud of. The number one factor to assist family economic advancement across generations frequently begins with home ownership.

Council’s past actions incentivized the creation of evermore rental units and the destruction of our city’s most affordable ownership opportunities. The recent report that Seattle remains #2 in price escalation in housing nationally seems to indicate that MHA has done little to stem the flood of outside money and disenfranchises many potential new homeowners from the market.