The Single Family Zoning Conundrum

by Michael Maddux 

An issue that is a regular hot-button topic in Seattle is the question of zoning and land-use, particularly as it applies to so-called “single family zoning.” The amount of land in Seattle that is zoned this way is itself regularly in dispute. Some claim it is as little as 35%, some say more than 50%, and I have seen others argue as high as 70%. They all use different ways to calculate their figure, omitting some land and including others. The Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) report came down to 65%. For their calculations, they relied on land that is zoned to allow housing to be built (excluding, for instance, industrial zones), and included parks.

On that last point – including parks means that we are including a significant investment that is ostensibly designed for all Seattleites to enjoy. That the land around parks is limited to how many people can live there in turn limits which Seattleites are allowed to enjoy the parks that we all pay for. Accordingly, I’m going to go with the 65% figure.

Back in 2015, the HALA report made a recommendation supporting a change to historic single-family zoning, in order to allow more housing types (not to be confused with the proposal to change 6% of residential zoning to allow for multi-family housing). The two key components to this recommendation were allowing greater flexibility for backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments, as well as a pilot project allowing duplexes and triplexes to be built within the envelope of the existing zoning (meaning that the total square footage of all two or three units couldn’t be more than a single unit on the same space). I have previously written about this here, as part of a longer series detailing all 65 proposals in HALA.

Unfortunately, the city was unable to have a meaningful conversation about this proposal in 2015. After a HALA committee member leaked the draft recommendations, the Seattle Times went on a full-court press against even the slightest hint of changes to zoning policy in Seattle as it affected Single Family Zoning. Our then-mayor immediately walked back the suggestion, and in the midst of election season, there was (shockingly) very few politicians with the gestational fortitude to actually have a conversation about what the proposal meant.

Since then, Council Member Mike O’Brien has proposed making it easier to convert existing houses into duplexes and triplexes, and Council Member Rob Johnson appears to be moving in the direction of working with communities to begin the pilot project. Mayoral candidate Cary Moon has suggested that we need to dramatically decrease the amount of land zoned exclusively as Single Family, while Jenny Durkan has suggested loosening the restrictions around mother-in-law units and backyard cottages would be enough. City Council candidate Teresa Mosqueda has called for working with neighborhoods to bring more housing types throughout Seattle, and Council Member Lorena Gonzalez continues to support more options that allow young families the opportunity to purchase, and seniors the ability to downsize while staying in their community. In fact, the only candidates who have seemingly come out in opposition to more housing types throughout Seattle are Jon Grant and Pat Murakami.

But what does it actually mean? For one, if these zoning changes happen, it means not a whole lot. The reality of housing construction and costs necessarily limits construction in lower-density areas. In Eastlake, for instance, much (all?) of the neighborhood has been zoned LR-3 for decades, yet there are large swaths of detached single-family homes, courtyard and small apartment buildings, and duplexes and triplexes. Also, if the council were to follow the recommendations of the committee, not only would the initial change be limited to a few neighborhoods, but there would also be a limit as to the size. It wouldn’t be lot-line to lot-line construction of three monstrous homes, instead the structure is being limited to what would already be built for just one person.

Beyond that, such a change would mean more home-ownership opportunities for young families. Duplexes and triplexes are not just investment/rental units, but can also be made for individual purchase (much like townhomes). We have a dearth of affordable options in Seattle for young families, and while this would not immediately change that, having two $450,000 homes where currently the zoning would allow for one $750,000 home creates more options in our city.

It also creates the opportunity for seniors to age in their neighborhood. Once retired, folks may not want to care for a 3,000-square foot house, but would be just as comfortable in a smaller 1,000 square foot home attached to two others. Many of us are attached to our neighborhoods, which is wholly understandable. We should have an option to stay in our neighborhoods as long as we choose.

There is also the question of multi-generational family housing. This co-housing option ensures that young families can have their own door, while living on the same property as the kids’ grandparents. Strengthening family bonds, and ensuring our kids learn more about our family histories is a good thing – and much easier to accomplish when families are closer together. With the affordability crisis being what it is, this not only allows young families more opportunity to own, but also help ensure that seniors on fixed incomes have some additional support to stay in their homes.

Finally, this is a means to slow displacement and gentrification. The restrictive zoning in Seattle has led to more and more white people moving into historically black and brown neighborhoods because there aren’t affordable homeownership opportunities north of Ship Canal. Bringing in bougie $5 cupcakes and $15 cheeseburger shops, this not only displaces existing residents, but also prices out black-owned small businesses. By beginning this reformation of housing options north of Ship Canal, we can, in fact, create conditions that will discourage what we have been witnessing over the last decade.

Not everyone wants to own. But when looking at the actual recommendation by the HALA committee (for the City Council to consider), it’s not the radical change that some politicians like to throw around. Instead, consider the facts, and the actual implications of these changes. The facts are that housing prices are skyrocketing, and displacement of families and small businesses is occurring in South Seattle. The question to all of us: is it worth trying out? And, if so, should we start in neighborhoods north of Ship Canal?

Featured image is a Wiki Commons photo

9 thoughts on “The Single Family Zoning Conundrum”

  1. A couple of thoughts:

    1: I know of no one who supports converting our parklands to building lots. Therefore using the HALA 65% figure does not make sense, just as much of HALA does not make sense.

    2: I have no objections to ADU’s and mother-in-law units in SF neighborhoods. That said, I cannot see why SF owners are being demonized as selfish, racist, etc. The intense construction going on purportedly is to meet demand for dense urban living spaces. Presumably at least some young families are among those demanding such spaces. SF neighborhoods are neither dense nor urban, at least for the moment, and that demonstrably is the preference of those who live in them. Those folks have significant, and often lifelong investments in their neighborhoods that should be respected. Why does it make sense to convert SF neighborhoods to dense urban areas when there is at least the beginnings of a glut of tall boxes being built just to serve that demand? Something just doesn’t add up in this picture.

    I submit that one piece being ignored is stagnant wages since the 70’s, which now is affecting in particular young families who hope to invest in homes. More attention should be focused on this piece of the picture when the issue is affordability in SF neighborhoods. Young working people have greater voices and choices in their employment than ever before. Maybe they should be raising this issue instead of, or along with, the housing affordability conversation. Otherwise, I suggest they could demonstrate the truth that the demand is not for SF homes, but for dense urban living by moving into the tall buildings going up everywhere.

  2. Can some focus be on north of Ship Canal in NE Seattle, rather than Ballard? There seems to be a mark on Ballard’s head that we somehow haven’t had enough growth/change in the past 5-10 years, despite stratospheric growth/change (and no affordable housing) and continued rapid development in and near our core. Crown Hill in north Ballard also has good plans for its urban village growth now. Just north of us in Bitter Lake there’s been good changes toward diversity and density. Yet it feels like there are big swaths of NE Seattle, higher income and more conservative than Ballard traditionally has been, which manage to skate by without being a focus of rezoning or urbanist political venom. Ballard needs a short reprieve on infrastructure and community building with our many thousands of new residents — and we won’t get light rail till 2035. Thanks for the article.

    1. I’m sorry. I completely disagree. Ballard has *not* done enough. As an area that has high amenities and very low chances for displacement, we need to do *more* than our share to build housing and densify in order to relieve the housing pressures bearing down on neighborhoods such as the Central District, the Chinatown-ID, Columbia City and others on the southern end of the city. It is precisely because predominantly white and well-off neighborhoods such as Ballard, Wallingford, Laurelhurst, Magnolia and others have been able to resist development and flexed entitled political will that much of the displacement pressures have been able to bubble and fester in less powerful areas of the city. Enough is enough. The Great White North needs to walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to taking on gentle infill development across the entire spectrum of residential land use zoning. Let’s legalize housing because it takes ALL KINDS of housing to make affordability possible. This fear-based resistance to change really needs to change.

      P.S. If you use up-to-date GIS technology, the amount of land tied up as residential is actually 83%. This can no longer be allowed. It’s not moral or ethical…

  3. Why “north of the ship canal?” What about Broadmoor? Madison Park? North Capital Hill? Magnolia? Denny-Blaine? Madrona? Mt Baker? Queen Anne? Why are you singling out “north of the ship canal?”

  4. “a longer series detailing all 65 proposals in HALA. / Unfortunately, the city was unable to have a meaningful conversation about this proposal in 2015.”

    How could a “meaningful conversation” happen when the HALA committee was made up largely of people in the profit and non-profit development communities?

    Only the proposals to shift public money away from short term fixes like the MFTE to long term ownership and conservation of existing housing owned by low income people will slow displacement. Some of the proposals you list seem to move in that direction. Good for that because it is a fantasy to think more up zoning (remember the low rise MF zoning changes in 2010?), giveaways to developers (SLU subsidies, no impact fees, low MHA rates), and building market rate housing to accommodate the influx of well paid tech industry employees will result in a more affordable city.

  5. Hey, buckywunder, angry much? The “Great White North” includes many areas that are above the city average POC percentage. The desire for green space is not exclusive to “predominantly white and well-off neighborhoods.”

    Through most of the Twentieth Century the Central District had a large rate of POC SF home ownership, as do Beacon Hill and Southeast today. But once the proximity of the once redlined CD to a growing downtown became obvious, the area was gentrified starting c. 40 years ago, with a majority of the African American community driven out (“displaced”) by gentrification by the time of the 2010 Census.

    Rezoning SF on 4,000 sq ft lots to LR 3 is not “gentle infill development.” Changing LR1 from family sized housing units to FAR (more tiny SEDUs) is not “gentle infill development.” Housing pressures are “bearing down” on residential communities in many areas, not just in the south end. And comparing Ballard and Wallingford to Laurelhurst is absurd; the former contain numerous households of middle and lower income people who will be displaced if the City’s current MHA proposals are adopted. Do you think it’s OK for people to be displaced as long they are “predominantly white”?

  6. Am I right, the one traceable evidence of this movement towards turning single family zones into a triplex zone, is O’Brien’s two year old amendment to the council’s HALA work plan – an amendment that was not adopted? It seems to me like you’re trying to portray a momentum that doesn’t exist.

    It also seems a little silly to blame the Seattle Times for the reaction to SF.2. They didn’t tell readers anything but the reality of what was in that HALA draft, and in fact what was eventually published.