Goodbye, Single-Family Zoning… Hello Neighborhood Residential Zoning?

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A single-family dwelling in Seattle's Central District. Seattle City Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Dan Strauss are proposing legislation to change the term "single-family" to "neighborhood residential" zoning in the city comprehensive plan. (Photo by author)

A proposed name change could kick off the fight to end exclusionary zoning in Seattle.

So, what’s exactly in a name? Juliet Capulet pondered this question of Romeo Montague in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. In the case of “single-family” zoning, the name brings to mind an image of detached residential buildings, each on an individual lot with a single nuclear family living inside.

But how accurate is that picture? And, more importantly, against the backdrop of a climate crisis, skyrocketing housing prices, and growing recognition of race-based inequities, does “single-family” zoning represent what we want our 21st century cities to look like?

Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda argues the term “single-family” zoning has always been a bit of a misnomer in a city where many desirable single-family zoned neighborhoods, like Wallingford and upper Queen Anne, include courtyard apartments, cornerstores, and other relics of the city’s early years. More restrictive zoning regulations were layered on top starting with the 1923 zoning plan that progressively stifled further development of mixed-use neighborhoods.

But the problem with single-family zoning goes deeper than being misrepresentative. Zoning decisions have real impacts on how cities grow, and single-family zoning has never been a neutral planning tool. It came into fashion alongside financial redlining and racist covenants that excluded people of color and lower-income households from living in large segments of American cities, including Seattle. Because single-family zoning was aimed at keeping out more affordable, multifamily housing as well as the neighborhood businesses that make it possible to live without access to a vehicle, many housing affordability advocates have taken to using the term “exclusionary” zoning in lieu of “single-family” zoning in order to highlight its real purpose and impact.

The video “The Case Against Single-Family Zoning” outlines the negative impacts this zoning designation has had on American cities. (Credit: City Beautiful and Curiosity Stream)

“Changing the zoning title can help reflect the diverse housing we need across our city to support community well-being, walkability and affordability in Seattle, and create a more equitable and inclusive Seattle to accurately reflect our diverse neighborhoods,” said Mosqueda in a press release that states her intent to formally introduce legislation for the name change in August as part of the annual Comprehensive Plan update.

Mosqueda’s proposal, co-sponsored by Councilmember Dan Strauss (District 6), comes at a time in which the preponderance of single-family zoned land in Seattle is increasingly coming under scrutiny. While the topic of abolishing single-family zoning in Seattle has long been a thorny one, with many neighborhood groups opposing pro-density housing policies such as Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) and backyard cottage reform, the tide seems to be turning as more local leaders express support for ending exclusionary zoning practices. At a recent Seattle mayoral forum sponsored by Seattle Subway, five out of seven candidates came out against single-family zoning. Additionally, at-large city council candidates Nikkita Oliver and Brianna Thomas have made ending exclusionary zoning part of their affordable housing platforms.

But what would a name change achieve?

“Language matters. ‘Single family’ zoning may seem to some as merely a planning term, but we know historically it has been used to further exclusionary practices and discriminatory policies of the past,” Mosqueda said. “If Seattle is going to be an equitable and just city, then we must also apply that same lens to our zoning code. After years of discussion, we are acting on what we know is right to undo the legacy of exclusion that exists within our planning documents — starting with how we talk about our neighborhoods.”

However, others have been less than convinced that the proposed name change goes beyond a symbolic gesture. “How exactly does changing the *name* of the zoning fix the *exclusionary nature* of the zoning? Are you actually changing the zoning policy?” asked C. Gidds in a response on Twitter.

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,”

Juliet Capulet in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet

“Really was hoping that name change was more reflective of the current zoning; ‘sprawl induction’, ‘low efficiency’, ‘one plex exclusive’ zones or something,” tweeted Char Q.

Timing, however, may be crucial to the impact of a zoning name change. Seattle is in the process of preparing for a new city Comprehensive Plan, one that should be completed by 2024 and that will guide the next decade or more of the city’s growth. During the next two years, city agencies will undertake work that sets the stage for what the Comprehensive Plan will become. That’s one of the reasons why Mosqueda has been pushing for the City to release the results of a racial equity analysis of Seattle’s urban village growth strategy — a strategy which allows for residential density in designated urban centers and villages, but places greater restrictions on density outside of those zones. Along with the highlighting race and equity impacts of the current housing strategy, supporters argue that removing the term “single-family” zoning may represent a step forward in a process that eventually leads to undoing exclusionary zoning practices in Seattle.

“It is an important change that will serve as a foundation to inform the policy process considering alternatives to single-family zoning which will make it possible for the city to consider expanding the range and affordability of housing choices,” said Patience Malaba, Director of Government Relations and Policy at Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County, in a statement.

Even abolishing single-family zoning might not be enough on its own

While critics point out that merely changing the zoning name will achieve nothing, evidence indicates that even abolishing single-family zoning in Seattle on its own might not succeed in fostering greater residential density and affordability. When seeking to increase housing choices and affordability, additional factors such as parking requirements and building and lot sizes need to be taken into account as well.

In 2018, Minneapolis made big waves by allowing for triplexes to be built in all city neighborhoods, a move that was supposed to effectively abolish single-family zoning in the city. However, height and density limits were left intact — meaning that new multifamily buildings would need to fit into the same size limits as pre-existing single-family dwellings. Since Minneapolis has a lot of relatively small residential lots, the new rules make construction of triplexes impractical in many instances, leading Strong Towns to question, “What if they passed zoning reforms, and nobody came?”

The City of Portland is seeking to increase housing choices by increasing the number of smaller housing units across the city. However, critics fear that new size restrictions might hamper the development of affordable and desirable housing. (Credit: Residential Infill Project, Portland Oregon)

Portland may see mixed success in its zoning reform efforts as well. While its Residential Infill Project makes it easier to build duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes in residential areas, critics fear that building size restrictions on formerly single-family zoned lots will stymy new residential development. The policy goal was to facilitate the creation of more housing units by making them smaller, and also by including density bonuses for affordable units. But, due to decreased floor area ratio (FAR) requirements, the new multiplexes will need to fit into smaller buildings than allowed under the previous size restrictions for single-family dwellings, calling into question if new development will be cost-effective for developers and desirable for future residents.

For readers who wish to learn more and potentially weigh in on the proposed single-family zoning name change, more information can be found Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee website. A public hearing to receive input on the preliminary proposal will be held on Wednesday, July 28th at 9:30am.

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Natalie Bicknell is Senior Reporter at The Urbanist. She is a writer and community college instructor who lives in the Central District with her husband and two dogs. In her research and writing, she is always on the lookout for better ways of creating sustainable, diverse, and vibrant cities. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.

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Ryan DiRaimo

The irony of NIMBYism is they will suggest here that elimination of single family zoning is a “one size fits all” approach to adding housing. And, in turn, they will defend single family zoning, which is a national “one size fits all” approach that has been blanketed over most of the land in every single US city of every size (outside of Manhattan). Ironically enough, they even use the same beige coloration in every city for the designation.

So what is in a name change? A lot. And even more, we do need a one-size-fits-all approach to the actual zoning reform that should come in the next comprehensive plan update. Simply allowing a building to take up 50% of the lot, with the ability to indiscriminately create 6-8 units, and allow the building to be 3 or 4 stories, while reducing setback minimums to 2′ at the front and sides, will do monumental wonders to creating new homes with less restrictions. The units will all be large enough for families or roomates, which makes the city more affordable to all, and will do wonders for our current naturally occurring affordable housing staying that way.

More restrictions, nuance, and forced variations after endless “community input” will only exasperate the problems that got here in the first place.

This is a city.

Bryan

Great to see.

Small-scale residential zoning (with corner stores) has always been a part of Seattle’s heritage, and it never stopped being great for affordability, walkability, and neighborhood character.

Looking forward to its universal restoration!

NRES.jpg
Last edited 22 days ago by Bryan
Bryan

Win-win-win!

nhoodres.jpg
A Joy

I am against the full scale elimination of single family housing/zoning, but I am for major land use reform. I feel we need to move away from the failed “urban village” concept and create a larger, denser and higher “downtown core”. Just letting skyscrapers sprawl willy nilly all over the city isn’t really going to solve anything. We need to cluster our large buildings, be they residential or commercial, into a single cluster. This will also provide the density to justify subways/light rail lines for transit, as there will be enough people in a single area to require multiple lines. A sudden and total removal of SFH will just increase displacement and not impact certain mainly white neighborhoods that can just fight to get entire blocks declared historical preservation zones (I’m looking at you, Queen Anne). But by phasing in denser housing alternatives and slowly pushing more SFH to the outskirts of the city, we can allow for communities to integrate into the higher density over time, and even allow neighborhoods to decide what they’re going to look like in the future.

Do we need more density and more housing? Absolutely. But we need to be smart about how we do it, or we risk making bad problems worse. Eliminating all SFH would only make the homeless population rise, as developers would only build expensive units and ignore the 0%, 30%, and 80% AMI housing we so desperately need.

Last edited 22 days ago by A Joy
Ryan DiRaimo

“Do we need more housing? Absolutely. But”

This is so tiring. We don’t need your approval of what can be built next door to you on someone else’s lot. If people don’t like the way the city is changing (as has been the case of well documented gripes here since 1889) then they can move.

Building in more nuance to force affordability is also just more red tape to prevent development. It’s a poison pill most NIMBYs know will kill a project from even getting proposed.

Build more housing. Absolutely. No “But”.

A Joy

Wow, did you miss the point. You must be tired indeed. Intra city sprawl is and can be a problem. We just saw the results here in Seattle with the attempt at “urban villages”. I’d prefer we try to heal some of that damage done.

This has nothing to do with what can or can’t be built next to me. I’m one of the sub 30% AMI displaced disabled. With the joke that is the SHA, I am never going to have the option or opportunity to live inside Seattle ever again. And I live one block away from relatively high density LIH at present, with no issue about doing so.

“Building in more nuance to force affordability is also just more red tape to prevent development.” This here is what gives you away. You just want only high income units built to profit off the real estate boom for as long as possible. You neither care about the city, nor its citizens, nor anyone less well off than yourself. The displaced? Good riddance! There are likely over a hundred thousand citizens of Seattle that would directly benefit from what you write off as mere nuance, and who knows how many people like me.

This type of “Build, baby. Build” attitude exposes PNW “urbanism” for what it really is. A modern dog whistle equivalent of “Are there no prisons? No workhouses?”

RossB

So you think the urban village concept has failed, and in its place you simply want one big urban village, known as the “downtown core”.

That is not the only nonsensical contradiction found within your proposal. You are worried about displacement from single family neighborhoods (even though most of the people who live in single family houses own them) but you don’t think that will happen with your “downtown core”, even though it contains a very high percentage of renters.

Everything about your proposal is backwards, as you seek to double down on the failed policies of the last few years. Apartment developers build where they are allowed to build. If they are only allowed to build in an area with small apartments, then small apartments are torn down for big ones. This not only leads to displacement, but high rents. An old apartment — even with cheap rents — is worth a lot more money than an old house. This means that adding apartments in that environment only occurs when rents are really high.

Speaking of which, down the street an old house on a big lot is up for sale. The developer would love to put in apartments there (the land is much cheaper) but the city won’t allow it. So instead they will build a brand new McMansion. Same number of places to live, which means prices remain really high. Your proposal would only make things worse.

The only way that prices will come down is if we take the same approach that similar cities have taken around the world, and allow more land to be developed.

A Joy

A downtown is much more than a single urban village. It also has the density/size ratio you yourself support to justify multiple subway/light rail lines RossB. While nothing else you wrote surprises me, your opposition to a UW->ID sized downtown does. You generally seem very pro density, so I thought you’d support density.

I am worried about displacement of racial minorities, mainly in South Seattle. While I don’t have the numbers, the POC NPOs I work with seem to think that the minorities there rent their SFHs more than they own them. The North Seattle SFHs my plan would result in have much more to do with NIMBY appeasement, as they are Seattle citizens and therefore deserve some representation and hold a greater chunk of the money/power in the city and therefore are more able to lock any pro density/SFH eliminating legislation up in the court systems for years or more.

“Apartment developers build where they are allowed to build. If they are only allowed to build in an area with small apartments, then small apartments are torn down for big ones.”

Umm, how? They can only build small apartments under your forced example. They can’t by definition build the big apartments you seem to think they will. And you accuse me of being backwards?.

“Speaking of which, down the street an old house on a big lot is up for sale.”

The plural of anecdote is not data. You know better than this.

“The only way that prices will come down is if we take the same approach that similar cities have taken around the world, and allow more land to be developed.”

I agree. I want to allow more land to be developed. A lot more land. I just want development to be smarter, not harder. I’m for over 75% of SFH zones being eliminated. I just want a phased approach over like 15 years or so, centered on building a bigger urban core so we can justify centralizing mass transit resources.

You seem angry with me only because I don’t agree with eliminating all SFH zoning in one fell swoop. Which says more about you than it does about me.

Last edited 20 days ago by A Joy
cascadian12

My observation over the past 50 years is that the only way housing prices will come down in the real world is through recession in a major employment sector (remember “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?” as urged in a billboard in 1971), or “white flight” from cities in response to massive infrastructure development, as we had with the interstate highway system (40,000 miles built between ~1960-1980) that opened up thousands of square miles of land for “suburbs.” Truly efficient ultra high-speed rail transportation could also “increase” buildable land supply along its route.

But to think that getting rid of single-family zoning will effectuate massive urban renewal a la Haussmann in Paris (a singular fabulous result, except for those who were displaced) will never happen. Single-family neighborhoods are here to stay. Sure, there will be some infill and some densification in a few places, but not enough to make a significant price difference.

RossB

There are plenty of cities around the world that have low housing prices without a recession. Basically they just built enough housing.

RossB

I’m for over 75% of SFH zones being eliminated.

That’s a lot more than a “downtown core”. The point being that we need to change all of the single family zoning.

“Speaking of which, down the street an old house on a big lot is up for sale.”

The plural of anecdote is not data.

The anecdotes are merely to explain the economic realities that exist because of zoning. It is microeconomics to explain macroeconomics, if you will. The point being this is not an isolated case. It is what is happening in all of Seattle, and it is only because of the zoning. It explains why housing is expensive, despite the huge amount of construction that has occurred in this city.

Let me give you a real world example. This house sold for over $1.4 million. It is brand new, and sits on a 9,100 square foot lot. There are two other houses next to it, that sold for a little less. They are all brand new. Before the new houses, there was an old house sitting on a lot that was about 25,000 square feet. The neighborhood is zoned single family, with maximum lot sizes of 7,200. Thus they subdivided the original lot into as many lots as they could. But it is still only three lots. Three lots and three houses that got around five million for the developer (gross).

Now imagine they allowed apartments there, and everywhere else in the city. To make the math simpler, imagine they are condos. You can easily fit 40 condos there. Thus they could sell those condos for $200K, and still gross 8 million, or 3 million more than the houses! Obviously that is better for the developer. Now imagine this is happening in all of the places where houses have been torn down, and replaced by bigger houses. Housing would obviously be a lot cheaper. Are there a lot of those? Yes! It is the dominant form of construction in Seattle.

But that only applies to new construction. It is by no means the only way to add density. The only way to get cheap market rate housing is you can get cheap new construction. Replacing an old dilapidated house on a big lot with an apartment will only work in a limited numbers of circumstances. It won’t work for a nice, big house. With a big house, the cheapest way to add density is to covert it to an apartment. Why aren’t we doing that in Seattle? Zoning.

In short, we outlaw inexpensive housing. The multi-family areas are so tiny that it is nowhere near enough to handle the demand. Instead of leap-frogging development (replacing an old house on a big lot with an apartment) you have incremental density improvement (replacing an apartment with a bigger apartment). This only makes economic sense if rent is really high, which means that prices are extremely high (one way or another).

This is all basic economics. You can’t sell lemonade for less than the cost of lemons. The only way to get prices down is by dramatically increasing the amount of land that can be developed. By “developed”, I mean where we can add density. In many cases, that means tearing down the house, and replacing it with an apartment or row house. In other cases — many other cases — it means converting a house to an apartment. The latter makes sense even as prices plummet. That is the point. Eventually you do get a saturated market, as there are only so many people who want to live in Seattle. At that point, tearing down a perfectly good house to build an apartment sounds crazy — it is just too expensive. But converting it into an apartment could still make sense, because it is a cheap way to provide housing for more people.

A Joy

Yes, eliminating over 75% of SFH is more than just building a denser downtown core. I’m not advocating only doing that. It’s a part of a bigger overall process. I’m for building up all the urban villages, allowing the downtown core to eventually get much bigger than say, an ID-Madison-UW size. I expect people will not stop moving to the region, and that the population growth will only increase as global climate change worsens.

That said, I really don’t think rowhouses are a good idea. You’ve heard most of my arguments against them, but The Urbanist has recently given me more ammunition against them. They make things like our recent record breaking heatwave worse. Japanese style separated townhouses are much better for the overall ground heating dynamic, and we can help that even more by turning the totally paved over parks back into green, grassy, natural locations. This also means not turning golf courses into housing, but planting trees on them and turning them into Ravenna Park style heavily wooded expanses.

But rather than rehash arguments the two of us have had over multiple news threads and web sites now, I’d like to ask you an honest question. How does turning a single big house into a single big apartment add density? Same with tearing down an old, dilapidated house and building a newer, larger apartment on the same lot. I really don’t get that, and rather than getting snark about it from you I am hoping for an explanation.

I’d think that changing the law to allow for larger lot sized MFH that combines multiple SFH lots would be the preferable solution, and one that allows for both density *and* height. Because while I agree that density is critical for solving our housing issues, I do not think it will be sufficient on its own to fill future demand. Current demand, maybe. But I’d rather we plan for tomorrow today, so that we don’t have to go through this onerous process in the future.

Liam

I completely agree that language is powerful in the kinds of connotations/overtones it produces, especially when the connotations are more commonly thought of than the definitions. This is why I’m not a fan of the name “Neighborhood Residential”.

(When I say high density in the next couple paragraphs, I’m referring to midrise buildings).

It seems like ‘Neighborhood Residential’ refers to ‘missing middle’ housing types (which I think needs a different name as well because of the connotations it produces), but the connotation I get from ‘Neighborhood Residential’ is that missing middle housing types are what make a neighborhood, as if higher-than-missing-middle density neighborhoods don’t qualify as neighborhoods. I think is the wrong way to approach urban planning, especially at a time when high density needs to be marketed as a positive thing for cities when many still see it as a negative.

For most people who aren’t familiar with urban planning lingo, the word ‘neighborhood’ has a (slightly more positive) connotation of a quiet, residential area, with small buildings, as opposed to a ‘city’ which has a (slightly more negative) connotation of a more dense area with taller buildings (even if both exist within the same municipality). My guess is that this is mostly due to 70 years of romanticizing the suburbs and denigrating urban places. Unfortunately, when trying to transition out of that era, the connotations of ‘neighborhood’ and ‘city’ have to be worked around. If ‘neighborhood’ is applied to only missing middle or any density lower than high density, the ‘city’ or non-‘neighborhood’ connotation of dense areas remain. Again, this would not be a good strategy for anyone who believes that cities need to densify.

My suggestion is “Medium Density Zone”. I removed ‘residential’ because I think the point of a zone name should be to define the density of an area in the name rather than the land use. No zone that includes any housing, commercial spaces, or offices should be limited to a single land use anyway. If the word ‘neighborhood’ needs to be included, I would make it interchangeable with ‘zone’, and make sure only one of the two are used across all zone names.

Last edited 22 days ago by Liam
AJ M

Tacoma’s framework of “low-scale” and “mid-scale” seems to work well. To me, medium density = ‘mid-scale,’ which is clearly not just a relabeled single family zone. I think there are two steps here, 1) renaming SF zones into “low-scale” and 2) re-zoning some or all low-scale zones into mid-scale. Tacoma is doing both in their FLUM update, but here it looks like Seattle is only tackling step 1?

RossB

Exactly. The zoning should be about height and use. That’s it. There should be no regulations about density (other than for the health and safety of residents). If my neighbor wants to build a large house, it makes no difference if the house contains a dozen units or just one. What matters is the height.

pat simon

I just emailed this to Dan Strauss and to the comment section for the proposed legistlation.
I am COMPLETELY OPPOSED TO THIS CHANGE! I know that some wish to abolish single family zoning in Seattle, but I am not one of them. This name change appears to be a stealth tactic in that direction and I oppose it. Already developers are destroying our beautiful neighborhoods with tacky, cheaply built junk that is sold for high prices. This is not affordable housing and does nothing to get people off the streets as a drive almost anywhere in the city can attest.

I am sick of you folks pandering to the developers at the expense of taxpayer homeowners. Increased density brings increased crime, increased conflict, increased garbage, increased everything,and environmental degradation, and current taxpayers are gouged for the bills. We don’t have sufficient infrastructure in good condition able to handle the increases, and the social impacts of crowding are well know. If people wanted to live in those kinds of conditions, they already have plenty of opportunity.

To call this “exclusionary,” with that term’s subtext of racism is unfair to everyone. It is another virtue signal to those who will buy into that nonsense. There are other reasons, as above, why some neighborhoods are restricted to single family zoning. If there should be free choice for all, which I believe there should, eliminating single family zoning deprives a great many of us who prefer it without any options.

I can imagine developers salivating at the chance this change could bring, and I can imagine the contributions to political campaigns they are making, and I find it sickening.

I oppose this change.

Ryan DiRaimo

“the developers!”

John Wallingford was a developer. He was so beloved after developing all over the place he was the name sake for Wallingford and elected twice to city council.

You vilify the people who built the stuff you now defend. This whole city was built and shaped by developers, speculators, and real estate moguls.

Our infrastructure is fine. Our sewers handle the capacity with on site mitigation. Our buses could easily carry the load of a city with 3 million people, and despite all the growth in buildings and customer base over the last decade, SCL has not generated more power because our new construction is so efficient.

I get so tired having to argue about the infrastructure with people completely clueless to the topic. Our infrastructure is perfectly fine handling everything.

A Joy

Umm, our bridges have been crumbling out from underneath of us for literally decades due to deferred maintenance. I feel that infrastructure needs shouldn’t delay housing density, but “Our infrastructure is perfectly fine handling everything.” is just a bald faced lie.

Eric

Keeping single-family zoning intact won’t make any significant difference in the speed at which bridges wear out. Increasing density (and thereby decreasing the number of bridges per capita) will help raise the revenue needed to address the maintenance backlog.

RossB

You are missing the point. The cost per person (for bridges) actually goes down as density increases. More people take transit, or ride their bike. As the city grows, it does put more pressure on bridges (and other systems) but *per person* it is actually less, which means that it is easier to afford. The same goes for water use (fewer lawns) and pretty much all utilities. It is an economy of scale.

RossB

Already developers are destroying our beautiful neighborhoods with tacky, cheaply built junk … This is not affordable housing

So you are saying that really expensive housing is more affordable than cheap housing. Interesting.

To call this “exclusionary,” with that term’s subtext of racism is unfair to everyone.  … Increased density brings increased crime, increased conflict, increased garbage …

Let me see if I got this right. It isn’t about “those people” meaning people of color. It is “those people” meaning those that can’t afford to buy a house for 800 grand. Pardon my confusion, since it sounds rather similar. I get it though. You aren’t racist, you are just classist. If a black person somehow got lucky and managed to have the money to buy a house in your neighborhood, they are welcome. But if a black person was denied generation wealth because of Jim Crow laws and can only afford an apartment or condo, tough luck. It isn’t about race, it is about wealth. You don’t want poor people in your neighborhood, since they bring increased crime, conflict, garbage …

If there should be free choice for all, which I believe there should, eliminating single family zoning deprives a great many of us who prefer it without any options.

So free choice is about not having a choice. I own a house in a single family zoned area. The fact that I can’t turn it into an apartment or condo means I have more choice. Sort of like how customers at Baskin-Robbins would have more choice if they only had one flavor.

Eric

However, others have been less than convinced that the proposed name change goes beyond a symbolic gesture. “How exactly does changing the *name* of the zoning fix the *exclusionary nature* of the zoning? Are you actually changing the zoning policy?” asked C. Gidds in a response on Twitter.

Well, no. We changed the zoning policy a couple of years ago. Now there are three units allowed per lot and the “single-family” label is arguably inaccurate already.

However because the “single-family” designation still applies, those second and third units (ADUs) have some restrictions applied to them that aren’t present in other zones. The ADUs are limited to 1,000 square feet in size (regardless of the overall size of the building), they can’t have front doors on the same wall as the main unit, and the number of people living in one unit affects the number of people who can legally occupy the others. All these things are designed to ensure the primacy of the main unit and not make the building look too much like a triplex (as if that’s a bad thing).

Maybe the elimination of the “single-family” name can help pave the way toward further reforms. If you can build a 4,500 square foot three-unit building anyway, why not allow each unit to be an equal 1,500 square feet, rather than requiring a very large 2,500 square foot unit and two of 1,000 square feet? And if we no longer care about enforcing the “single-family” character of the neighborhood, why require the ADU residents to walk around back to access their homes? Give them a real front door.

Portland may see mixed success in its zoning reform efforts as well. While its Residential Infill Project makes it easier to build duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes in residential areas, critics fear that building size restrictions on formerly single-family zoned lots will stymy new residential development. The policy goal was to facilitate the creation of more housing units by making them smaller, and also by including density bonuses for affordable units. But, due to decreased floor area ratios (FAR) requirements, the new multiplexes will need to fit into smaller buildings than allowed under the previous size restrictions for single-family dwellings, calling into question if new development will be cost-effective for developers and desirable for future residents.

We did exactly this in Seattle when we passed the ADU reform. Where before the maximum size of a building in single-family zones was only limited by the lot coverage and setback limits, the ADU reform also introduced a FAR requirement that significantly reduced the allowed building size on most single-family zoned lots.

My understanding was that some people behind the ADU reform thought that this was a necessary component to spurring more ADU construction, that allowing more units wasn’t enough on its own, that to create a sufficient incentive to build ADUs it was also necessary to limit the size of the primary unit. That may be true in certain circumstances, but I always had concerns that it was a shortsighted maneuver. Now that we’re in a place where we want to eliminate the “single-family” name (and presumably pave the way toward further reforms to allow more units in the existing building envelope), it’s unfortunate that we made the existing building envelope smaller just a few years ago.

Ryan DiRaimo

“we already eliminated single family zoning with ADU reforms”. I see it all over the place with the who’s who of nimbyism that fought MHA and lost twice.

Last edited 21 days ago by Ryan DiRaimo