Seattle Must End Single-Family Zoning to Create an Equitable Housing System

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West Woodland. (Photo by Doug Trumm)
Single-family homes in West Woodland. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

This morning the land use committee takes up Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda’s proposal to rename Seattle’s single-family zoning as “Neighborhood Residential.” It’s just a first step in breaking the hold of exclusionary zoning that is making it very hard for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and younger generations to find housing in the city that they can afford. Many more steps toward housing justice will need to follow, but this first step is still significant and it’s a long time coming.

We at The Urbanist urge you to reach out to your City Councilmembers in support or testify at the meeting this morning.

The move to rename single-family zoning builds off the racial equity toolkit on the City’s urban village growth strategy that Councilmember Mosqueda fought to get funded, completed, and released — albeit belatedly due to obstruction and slow-walking from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration.

The analysis conducted by research institute PolicyLink came to a damning conclusion on single-family zoning’s impact. The urban village strategy funnels the vast majority of the city’s growth into officially designated Urban Villages and Urban Centers, which consume about 10 square miles while leaving 30 square miles for single-family zoning virtually off limits to growth. Dedicating the majority of residential land to the most expensive housing product has limited opportunities for people of color to stay in the city or move into it.

“With 75 percent of residential land excluded from accommodating more affordable housing types, low-income BIPOC residents are left confined to certain sections of the city competing for limited affordable housing opportunities,” the PolicyLink report states. “Accordingly, despite the advent of the Race and Social Justice Initiative, and the good intentions behind the urban village strategy, the approach has not achieved its goals because it ultimately perpetuates the same housing insecurity of low-income BIPOC residents that has been in place for years.”

In fact, PolicyLink concluded that single-family zoning was incompatible with achieving the City’s desired racial equity outcomes and breaking the cycle of exclusion.

“Given its racist origins, single-family zoning makes it impossible to achieve equitable outcomes within a system specifically designed to exclude low-income people and people of color,” PolicyLink wrote. “In order to advance racial equity at the scale codified in Resolution 31577, the City must end the prevalence of single-family zoning. This will not only create much-needed additional housing opportunities in high opportunity neighborhoods for low-income residents, is also a reparative approach with the potential to create intergenerational economic mobility for BIPOC Seattleites.”

The Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) wrote a memo at the start of the report responding to the findings. The memo pledges to consider many of the report’s recommendations while not squarely addressing the elephant in the room: the core finding that the status quo zoning and land use policy is deeply inequitable, perpetuates past racial injustices, and needs a complete overhaul.

Even if it’s not clear what the City will do with it, the racial equity report is an opening, and housing advocates and urbanists would be wise to seize it. We do not have to accept the inequitable status quo: hyper wealth accumulation for some while many others are pushed out or increasingly rent-burdened as already sky-high rents continue to climb.

We know it’s not going to be easy. Back in 2015, the City’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee had toyed with the idea of recommending phasing out single family zoning. However, before they could decide, somebody leaked a draft copy of the report to Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, who panned the plan and kicked a firestorm of backlash. Rather than face this storm, Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council abandoned the idea of major changes to single-family zoning.

Instead, the City doubled down on the urban village strategy, but paired planned upzones of multifamily land with inclusionary Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements. It was a major step forward that was finally fully enacted in 2019. However, by avoiding the issue of single-family zoning, the move also exacerbated some underlying inequities. New homes in single-family zones were exempt from affordable housing contributions via the MHA program and continued to be exempt from design review, too. The lack of MHA fees or permitting red tape encouraged new single-family home construction over townhomes and apartments. This confluence of factors helps explain how high-profile sites like Talaris continue to be developed as luxury single-family homes rather than dense apartments and townhomes even though they’re well connected to Seattle job centers and frequent transit.

Luckily, Seattle has examples to follow when it comes to tackling exclusionary zoning. Locally, Olympia has already reformed its single-family zoning and Tacoma is well on its way to doing the same. Walla Walla voted to end single-family zoning in 2018 to surprisingly little fanfare or fuss. Nationally, Portland, Sacramento, and Minneapolis have passed single-family zoning overhauls. Those changes are new enough we haven’t yet had time to see them bear too much fruit — and hurdles and bottlenecks in the design approval process (as we’ve lamented in Seattle’s design review process) can slow and limit the benefit.

Looking abroad we see examples of inclusive zoning in action, but also streamlined permitting processes and aggressive social housing building campaigns. Paris is a shining example, as Sightline expertly laid out this week. Paris went from a laggard with little new housing produced to leading the nation after the 2008 recession and in the process it’s greatly expanding its social housing stock geared at low-income residents. The city is on course to hit 25% social housing by 2025 and 30% by 2030. In addition to ample public investment, the reason this is possible is permissive zoning and quick approvals for new housing. We can follow in their footsteps.

The racial equity report has given policymakers a mandate for action. Seattle has the blueprint. City Hall just needs the courage and vision to implement it.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Sarajane Siegfriedt

Your argument as several blind spots. Seattle eliminated single-family zoning in 2019 when it allowed three units on almost all lots. So what’s this really about?

What is your definition of affordability? Certainly a $700,000 town house is not affordable to anyone at 50% of the Area Median Income, or about $25 an hour. Instead of town houses, we need a lot more social housing. The criteria for social housing includes close to frequent transit, which is the definition of Urban Hub/Villages. The City has committed to site investments such as libraries, community centers and senior centers near transit, where more people can access them and be less car-dependent. In fact, all good urban planning supports Seattle’s successful Urban Hub/Village policy. Spreading density into more remote neighborhoods is the opposite of efficient transit.

Any attack on single-family homeownership is racist because it harms the opportunity of BIPOC people to accumulate family wealth, currently 1/10th that of white families. We just upzoned all of Seattle. We have all the capacity we need for growth. Why do this now, other than political posturing? Where do you allow for choice in lifestyle and homeownership opportunities? Let’s not use Talaris as an example of anything except the City Council’s failure to act to zone it for multifamily.

Justin

Instead of town houses, we need a lot more social housing.

Why not both? Especially since there is currently no major drive or available money for social housing.

In fact, all good urban planning supports Seattle’s successful Urban Hub/Village policy. Spreading density into more remote neighborhoods is the opposite of efficient transit

I work as an urban planner and support ending SFH zoning. Furthermore, huge swaths of the city are covered by Very Frequent Transit, would you support zoning changes everywhere on that map?

Any attack on single-family homeownership is racist

Seattle homeownership rates by race:
White:66%; Hispanic: 44%; Black: 34%
Conclusion: In actuality, preserving single-family homeownership disproportionately helps white residents.

 …it harms the opportunity of BIPOC people to accumulate family wealth

You can build wealth with condos or townhomes, nothing special about SFH.

RossB

OK, so let me get this straight. We need a lot more social housing. So much that it pushes down the cost of market rate housing. Fair enough, we need thousands and thousands of new units, spread out across the city. But where? In the parks? Floating in the lakes? No, in privately held land — which means land currently zoned single family. There is simply not enough land zoned multi-family to make your social housing dream come true.

Oh, and don’t you think that our social housing dollars will go a lot further if we aren’t bidding on the same tiny plots of land as the apartment developers?

One way or another, we need to change the zoning.

RDPence

You didn’t finish your point, Ross~ “land currently zoned single family” that is already developed with SF houses which will necessarily be torn down.

Bryan

That’s why liberalizing lot sizes is so important. Thanks to legacy lot size rules, our neighbor’s (old) house remains on 1,500 sf. Our (much larger, new) house is on a split off lot of 2,500. No need to to tear down the existing houses if we can free the land for net new homes.

Last edited 1 month ago by Bryan
RossB

Agreed.

RossB

I thought it was pretty clear. Even if we had the money, we can’t possibly build enough social housing unless we change the zoning. Yes, that often means tearing down old houses. But guess what — they are being torn down right now. The most common type of development in this city — by far — is a new house. Not an apartment, not a duplex or a row house, but a big house on a single-family lot.

What I’m suggesting is that instead of building all of these new big houses on their big lots, we build a lot more housing (a mix of small lot houses, row houses, multi-plexes and short apartments). There will still be the handful of big apartments (on the handful of land where it is allowed) but on the vast majority of land (that is currently zoned single-family) you would have a variety of housing types (more in keeping with the traditional development pattern, before zoning became common).

Yes, Seattle needs more subsidized housing. But where does money to subsidize housing come from? Currently, the biggest source of funding is the MHA bonuses that are paid for as development fees to add density to market rate projects, and with most of the city still zoned for single family residences, the only places in Seattle other than the urban core in which to build both subsidized housing and the market rate housing that can pay for it are the urban villages.

So your position is really posturing … you are pretending to advocate for social housing while, at the same time, opposing the zoning changes that could actually provide both building sites and funding.

On paper, there appears to be a lot of development capacity left in Seattle with its current zoning. But as a practical matter, what you can build on a given site depends on what’s already in place. In single family zones, most lot sizes are too small to be practical for high density projects, given the setbacks required by law. On small parcels, it is also impractical to provide off-street parking, which the market still demands (the buyers, that is), even though zoning requirements for on-site parking have been relaxed. Acquiring several contiguous lots is often impossible.

For a project to pencil out, the net present value in building new structures must exceed the potential from existing structures, including through renovation and rehabilitation. Seattle’s existing zoning makes it impractical to demolish and rebuild at most single family sites. Redevelopment is possible only when the value of existing structures is low and the size of parcels is large.

If single family zoning were abolished, developers would focus on acquiring run-down properties in poor and middle class neighborhoods on or near busy streets with public transportation in place. High end neighborhoods such as Laurelhurst would be largely unaffected because the cost of acquiring and demolishing existing homes would be too high.

Recent development has often come from finding such sites in Seattle’s urban villages, but the supply is limited.

Seattle actually has many such properties outside urban villages, but they are fragmented and scattered throughout the city. Single family zoning means that the only practical thing to do, when such a site is available, is to demolish and build a larger single family home.

The urban village concept, in which denser development is concentrated only in urban villages, simply protects single family homeowners from competition from others who want to own housing in Seattle. (And stop blaming the developer for this … property development is the transformation of land from one use to another, and somebody has to have an incentive to take the risk.)

Why should Seattle zoning continue to protect single family homeowners, giving them special privileges and forcing others to bear the burden of the shortage of housing, both market rate and subsidized?

Jonathan Ursin

I hope we see the Neighborhood Residential change. AND upzone the current Urban Villages. L3 zoned apartments should be upzoned to 75 feet with higher FARs etc.

RDPence

More zoning as magic pill, which won’t overcome the basic formula: expensive dirt+expensive building materials +expensive labor=expensive market-rate housing affordable only to those at the top of the economic ladder.

Ryan DiRaimo

Yeah more density spreads those costs out and allows you to sell homes for less. It’s why a new single family home costs $1.7 million and a block away on denser zoning can sell 4 townhomes for $700,000.

Also, new housing is supposed to cost more. Just like a new car or new iphone. The used models cost less, unless there’s so little new models you’re forced to overpay for old ones (have you ever seen how much rare classic cars cost?)

Douglas Trumm

OK but what solution are you offering low-income and working class folks if you don’t believe in building new housing?

Even if you don’t believe in market-rate housing and prefer social housing instead, where will it all go if it’s illegal in most of the city?

RDPence

So all the MF and mixed-use zoned land is now filled up and unavailable for construction? The only land left for more townhouses is SF zoned? Really?

RossB

Yeah, pretty much. By that I mean, the folks who own it aren’t selling. Everything else has been developed. That is why there aren’t more places being built. Of course that isn’t entirely true — there are still a few places here and there being sold, but not that many.

What is selling is homes on lots. Lots and lots of single family homes, which means lots and lots of lots. In many instances, it is all about the lot. Tear down the house, build a new one. Quite often, the lot is so big it can be subdivided. It just can’t be subdivided to tiny lots — in my neighborhood each lot has to be at least 7,200 square feet. So if you split up a 20,000 square foot lot, you get two lots. Huge lots with houses (which inevitably end up being huge). This is how most of the land in the city is. The numbers can be viewed in various ways, but what is clear is that the amount of land available for anything but a single-family home is really tiny.

RDPence

You make good point here. Let’s lower the minimum lot sizes, down to maybe 4000 SF. Many neighborhoods were developed with 40×100′ lots; 10 units/acre.

RossB

We could do that, or we could simply do away with the limits. You want to carve out a lot that is 1,000 feet, go ahead. Your neighbor will live in an apartment, or a duplex. The only limits will be on height.

Bryan

We could do that, or we could simply do away with the limits. You want to carve out a lot that is 1,000 feet, go ahead.”

Yeah, not an architect, so I don’t know how low you can go within the limits of health and safety, but our neighbor’s single family house is on 1,500sf and and they voluntarily bought it, and they’re fine. We’re fine. If they popped the top it could be a two- or three-flat. I think everybody would still be fine.

RDPence

If we abolish SF zoning, it won’t change the rich neighborhoods like Laurelhurst. Developers won’t be tearing down multi-million-dollar houses to build a few townhouses, and very few homeowners there would sell for that purpose. No, it will only happen in middle- and lower-middle-class neighborhoods.

RossB

So what?

RDPence

An elitist attitude~ adopting policy knowing it will have little or no effect on the rich, only effecting lower- and middle-class neighborhoods.

RossB

Oh come on. Opposition to redlining isn’t elitist, even though folks knew that rich people would still live in rich neighborhoods. Similarly, trying to create a more just housing policy that will enable middle and low income to afford a place to live isn’t elitist. Folks who want to end hunger aren’t freaking out over the fact that some people buy caviar.

Not everything has to be viewed like a Marxist revolution. Besides, if that is your goal, there is no way things will change with a local policy. People in this state will own yachts, comrade … for now.

RossB

Typical dirt + building material + labor is not that expensive. The only reason it is so costly is because the dirt that allows multi-family housing is so expensive. It is expensive because it is rare.

I’ll give you an example. Here is a brand new house that sold for $1.4 million. It used to sit on a lot that was about 25,000 square feet. The lot was split into thirds, and three houses were added onto it. The developers grossed $5 million.

On the same lot, you could have built about two dozen row houses. You could also have built a 3 story apartment with 50 units (a mix of one and two bedroom places). You could sell the row houses for $250,000 and gross 6 million, easily enough to cover the additional cost of development. Likewise, you could sell condos for $150,000, and gross $7.5 million — again, more than enough to cover the additional cost of development.

Thus the price for a new place can drop fairly low, and it will still make sense to build apartments and row houses instead of McMansions. The price wouldn’t drop to those levels right away, but eventually it would, as the vast majority of land in the city becomes available for increased density.

ballardite

Is it needed right now? 72,000 vacant apartments are available in greater seattle area. This reported by Crosscut just last week. And at least 1,000 being built in Ballard/Greenwood with probably 50 townhomes also permitted. The same is most likely happening in every neighborhood. Why is it urgent to upzone again now?

Eric

Why not? Single-family zoning does plenty of harm, by excluding people who can’t afford big plots of land from living in most of the city. Whether there’s an urgent need to construct more housing is immaterial. Given the number of tents I see around town I’d say the need is a bit greater than you give it credit for.

Maybe there is a glut of vacant housing right now and a zoning change wouldn’t lead to much additional building, in which case why not do it? Maybe there isn’t, and a zoning change will see the construction of many homes priced lower than what we see built under the current rules. Either way it’s a fine result in my book.

Matt Higgins

The primary argument of the article is where the new builds are allowed to go. Presently, we cannot build in areas that have better transit than Ballard/Greenweed, such as the Talaris site.

Ryan DiRaimo

Yes. It is needed right now. Every new townhome built is sold before they’re even done with construction. Stop telling people to go live in an apartment if they don’t want to.

This is about freedom of choice and having 30 square miles (75% of the city’s land that allows for housing) dedicated to low density suburban sprawl is not freedom of choice.

Bryan

When choice is legal, we get more choice (including single family detached houses right alongside in the mix of options)!

Choice is good!

choice2.jpg
RDPence

I always chuckle when folks illustrate their vision of the future with photos of old structures which will never be replicated. Realistic photos in the future please, the square Hardi-board boxes we have come to know and love.

Bryan

Homes built by era look different. Those built in the 1910s versus the 1950s, 1950s versus 1980s, 1980s versus 2000s. Always true, always will be.

Tim in Seattle

let’s start in Mosqueda’s neighborhood and see how it goes

Matt Higgins

She lives in a townhome in Queen Anne, the same type of housing she wants in all areas currently zoned as single family.