Maps depicting zoning and displacement risk from different time periods

Seattle Renames ‘Single-Family’ Zoning Designation to Emphasize Neighborhood Diversity

by Ben Adlin

In a change meant to recognize the many ways that people interact with residential neighborhoods, the Seattle City Council on Monday, Oct. 4, voted to do away with the city’s “single-family” zoning designation and instead refer to the areas as “neighborhood residential zones.”

The new label is both more inclusive and more accurate, said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who sponsored the ordinance along with Councilmember Dan Strauss. It’s also meant to reflect a more holistic view of neighborhood development as the City prepares a forthcoming 2024 update to its comprehensive plan.

“It’s past time to move forward with a name change to update our language so that our planning documents reflect the true character of Seattle neighborhoods,” Mosqueda said, which include “diverse housing, small businesses, and many different types of households.”

Future updates to the city’s comprehensive plan are expected to clear a path to denser development, more housing, and more mixed-use areas. The zoning name change “will touch many elements” of the plan, Mosqueda’s office said in a statement, including the city’s future land-use map, 17 different individual neighborhood plans, and planning provisions around housing, parks, and open space.

Single-family zones, which as of next month will be known as neighborhood residential zones, comprise nearly half of all developable land within Seattle’s boundaries, and nearly three-quarters of residential areas. Generally speaking, homes in the zones are freestanding, with yards and at least one parking space per dwelling, according to a city zoning summary.

City of Seattle Generalized Zoning Map. Sourced from the City of Seattle.

The Seattle Planning Commission has called for changing the label to “neighborhood residential” since its 2018 Neighborhoods for All report. The commission pointed out that the existing “single family” designation has been a misnomer since at least 1994, when the City passed legislation allowing the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) that made it easier for multiple households to live on a single parcel.

The reference to single families “is also linked to Seattle’s former use of race-based zoning as an exclusionary practice,” the planning commission has said, pointing to the City’s historical use of racially discriminatory redlining policies that continue to impact predominantly BIPOC communities today.

Changing the name of zones to emphasize neighborhoods as a whole rather than individual families “brings us one step closer to a more inclusive Seattle,” Mosqueda said in a statement after Monday’s council vote on the legislation

Strauss, who chairs the council’s Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee, added that the name change better characterizes existing neighborhoods — including those home to buildings that couldn’t be built under current zoning rules.

“Some of the most vibrant places in ‘single-family’ zones have legacy duplexes, triplexes, and corner-stores, all of which are currently not allowed,” the councilmember said. He acknowledged that the newly adopted legislation “does not change zoning, it only changes the name we call these areas.”

Some who spoke during the public comment portion of Monday’s City Council meeting urged more concrete changes, such as lifting restrictions on the allowable heights of new residential buildings across the city. But housing and development advocates have cheered the new zoning label as a sign of the City’s commitment to encouraging denser housing and a broader mix of land-use and transit options.

“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 for the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle–King County.

Kate Rubin, a Columbia City renter and the director of Be:Seattle, a nonprofit that advocates for renters and unhoused people, told the City Council that the change makes room for “households of all shapes and sizes.”

“As a millennial who faced two recessions as I entered the workforce, I’ve been forced to create households with many other people in similar situations,” Ruben said. “This name accurately reflects many people like me who are struggling to find their place in Seattle but are still building community and contributing to the neighborhood.”

Few at Monday’s council meeting spoke critically of the name change, although one commenter, Lake City resident Sarajane Siegfriedt, said she was worried that increased density in Seattle could threaten what she described as “neighborhood character.”

“I’m all for adding density, but with consideration for tree canopy and for neighborhood character,” she said, arguing that rules limiting building heights and curb setbacks help keep neighborhoods “walkable and attractive.”

“Neighborhood character I know is a no-no to mention, but it’s true,” Siegfiet concluded. She asked councilmembers to hold off on future upzoning unless the changes were “based on data” about housing capacity.

Many who support upzoning see such concerns as based on established residents’ fear of change, particularly in wealthy, mostly white enclaves — the kind of exclusivity that once propped up the city’s redlining policies and continues to disadvantage BIPOC populations. For them, “neighborhood character” is a codeword for gatekeeping that perpetuates structural racism.

Amid a steep increase in housing prices in and around Seattle over the past two decades, as the region’s tech sector has boomed, many of the area’s most vulnerable residents have been displaced. BIPOC communities that had been centered in Seattle for decades have been forced south, straining community ties and uprooting longtime cultural hubs.

While city leaders have pushed construction of more affordable housing as a way to reduce housing prices and curb displacement, many housing advocates have called for a more sweeping approach, upping housing density across the city. Even construction of more market-rate housing, they say, would have the effect of reducing rents and making it easier to find housing. It’s an issue likely to dominate much of the mayoral race ahead of next month’s election.

At the state level, lawmakers who represent the Seattle area cheered the City Council move as progress toward a more equitable and environmentally responsible approach to city planning.

“Seattle needs a zoning code that permits a wide range of housing types already existing in many single-family only areas,” said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-37), whose district includes Burien, White Center, and West Seattle. “Legalizing more diverse housing options is the best step forward for livability, walkability, affordability, and the climate.”

Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), whose district stretches from Capitol Hill north to Green Lake, said single-family zoning has expanded in the city since its introduction in the 1920s to include areas with apartment buildings, duplexes, and other higher-density housing.

“‘Single-family’ zoning was designed to exclude and continues to hurt families and communities struggling with a status quo that doesn’t meet their housing needs — but the multifamily holdovers from the past remind us the status quo can be changed,” Macri said. “Let’s use language that better reflects our values and vision for a zoning system that works for all.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: Screenshot from the Seattle Planning Commission’s Neighborhoods for All Discussion Guide.

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