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