Since 2010, Seattle has added more than 100,000 new residents — but you may not be able to tell by looking around at the housing stock in most of the city.
According to a report from the Seattle Planning Commission released this week, nearly all of those residents have been absorbed into areas zoned for multifamily living, including the mixed-use “Urban Villages” that the city has targeted for increased density over the past few years. Meanwhile, areas zoned for single-family living, which cover the vast majority of land in Seattle, have welcomed hardly any additional residents during this growth phase.
In fact, according to the planning commission report, some single-family neighborhoods have even lost population over the last few years. As a result, the report notes, the benefits and burdens of growth have been unequally distributed, and the city won’t be able to address that imbalance without making changes to the ways that housing is regulated in single-family neighborhoods.
As affordability challenges have become more pitched across the country, many advocates have pushed cities to upzone land and create more space for multifamily living, in hopes that a greater supply of housing will bring rents down. But the Seattle Planning Commission’s report, “Neighborhoods for All: Expanding Housing Opportunity in Seattle’s Single-Family Zones,” takes a slightly different focus.
Rather than rezoning single-family areas to create apartment towers, the report focuses on a range of strategies to permit more people in the many neighborhoods that are currently built out with two- and three-story homes without drastically altering the built form of those neighborhoods. And, as so much opposition to densification is based on “neighborhood character,” the report notes that the character of many single-family neighborhoods is already changing: Homes are getting larger, even as household sizes are shrinking.
“Change is inevitable and change is happening,” says Tim Parham, chair of the Seattle Planning Commission. “People are building three-story, single-family houses right now next to the cute 1940s and ‘50s Craftsman, but only one family is living [in the larger homes]. We’re saying: Wouldn’t it be great if that big modern box of three stories at least accommodated three families instead of just one so that more people could have access to all the reasons why you like your neighborhood?”
The report notes that housing in single-family zones is becoming more expensive across the city, that the range of housing types is constrained in those areas, that single-family zoning doesn’t work for residents of certain ages, and that the city’s current zoning doesn’t promote equity along the lines of race and income. Additionally, it says, many of the city’s best-loved single-family neighborhoods were built in the early part of the 20th century, before many of the modern regulations related to minimum lot sizes and commercial uses went into place.
Many of the strategies recommended in the report are intended to recreate the environment that allowed those neighborhoods to develop in the first place. Among them: Allowing more units per building on corner lots and at the edges of single-family zones, removing the limits on unrelated people living together in single-family areas, and allowing more compact development and a greater range of housing types. To reflect a different approach, the report also recommends changing the name from “single-family” to “neighborhood residential” zoning.
It’s not the first time the city has tried to push changes to its single-family zoning regulations. In 2015, the city was wrapping up an effort to create a Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda that included, among 64 other recommendations, changes to citywide zoning regulations in residential areas like those included in the report released earlier this week. A copy of the draft agenda was leaked to a Seattle Times columnist, who ran a story suggesting that the city was planning to “get rid of single-family zoning.” That leak created a backlash in Seattle neighborhoods, and then-Mayor Ed Murray quickly backed off that part of the agenda. Parham says that leak stalled the conversation about these changes, and that the Planning Commission is now trying to kickstart them again.
“I was thrilled to hear that [the Planning Commission] had taken up this issue,” says Faith Li Pettis, a lawyer who served as co-chair of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda task force and is now a member of the group Seattle for Everyone. “It was one of the unsung recommendations of [the agenda] that didn’t go anywhere, and I think personally it’s one of the most important recommendations.”
One of the most controversial elements of the recommendations of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda was that they framed single-family zoning as an outgrowth of racially exclusionary policies of the past, from redlining to further changes in the mid-20th century, Pettis says. Some people in single-family neighborhoods felt they were being labeled racists because of where they chose to live, both Pettis and Parham say. But even though the city didn’t move forward on those zoning changes after the agenda came out, Pettis says they sparked an important conversation.
“I think that [the agenda] did a huge service to the city by touching that third rail of single-family zones and not getting completely electrocuted,” Pettis says.
In any event, Parham agrees that many of the regulations in single-family zoning grew out of segregationist policies, and serve to perpetuate segregation today.
The Seattle Planning Commission doesn’t have the power to formally introduce legislation or approve zoning changes, but Parham says that’s sometimes an advantage. In this instance, for example, the commission is able to release a report pushing for changes it sees as important without making sure it’s approved at every political level first. When the single-family recommendations were leaked as part of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the city was back-footed, Parham says. He hopes the new report can serve as a better reference for policy conversations from now on.
“The way we have the city is zoned now is perpetuating racial inequity as well as income inequity,” Parham says. “We have a lot of data to back that up.”
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.