City Report Proposes Single-Family Zoning Changes to Ease Affordability

According to an article published by Seattle Times, “The single-family zones that make up about 75 percent of Seattle’s residential land have accommodated just 5 percent of al new housing added in the city this decade,” this courtesy of a report recently released by the planning commission. The advisory report, which was eighteen months in the making, says mild changes could be made in areas that are predominantly single-family homes right now, which includes “more duplexes near schools, expanding the boundaries of urban villages by a few blocks and reducing lot sizes to squeeze more homes into streets.”

Given historic population growth and home value appreciation in our area, Seattle has already given developers the green light to build taller buildings in dense areas that are close to public transit — however single-family neighborhoods have remained nearly unchanged. As the Times writes, “residents in those areas dominate the electorate and many have been fiercely protective of keeping their neighborhoods the same, making any proposed changes there radioactive.”

Amidst public feedback on the report, Tim Parham, chair of the commission, said in a statement, “we recognize totally that this is a challenging issue for many in Seattle and this is controversial, and could cause some anxiety for folks. One of the roles of this paper is just to put the idea out there, so that people can have a common starting point.”

Key Findings

Single-Family Neighborhood Demographics

As the cost of homeownership has soared, the demographics in many single-family neighborhoods have shifted mainly to high-income, white residents. It has become even tougher for those with modest incomes to attain homeownership. Consider that “the household income gap between renters and homeowners has grown from $43,000 a decade ago to $65,000 now.”

Growth Pattern

Because of current zoning, growth across the city has been distributed in a highly unequal manner. “Of Seattle’s 135 Census tracts, 31 have actually lost population since 1970 despite the city adding 180,000 people in that time frame. Almost all of the areas that lost residents were in single-family neighborhoods, often in upper-income areas close to the water where housing has not been added.”

Land Use

As has been the case with growth patterns, land use is also unequal. While previous reports had put single-family homes as taking up approximately two-thirds of the city’s land, new findings suggest that number is much higher, at 75 percent. Further, “when looking at all land in the city — including parks, streets, schools and businesses — 35 percent is used for single-family lots, compared to 12 percent for other types of housing.”

Neighborhood Character

While many conversations about zoning have centered around the aesthetic or character of a neighborhood, the report finds that many of these single-family neighborhoods are in fact experiencing makeovers anyway, in the form of “McMansions.” To be sure, the average size of a home in Seattle has grown 31 percent since 1990, from 2,660 square feet to 3,487 square feet.

The Missing Middle

A look at the housing stock in Seattle reveals either extremely dense or very sparse options. This means there is a “missing middle” of opportunities that fall outside condominium/apartment or single-family living, such as row houses, duplexes and boutique apartment buildings, which make up only 18 percent of housing units.

The Future

The planning commission, which consisted of sixteen members from the “land-use world” (ranging from architects and urban planners to affordable-housing builders) said they will hold a series of workshops around the city to discuss the report’s findings. They also intend to work with city leaders and sharpen recommendations, which were intentionally left vague in the report.

In all, “the commission advocates for extending ‘urban villages’ — places near transit where more development is allowed — an extra quarter mile or so, which would allow more density on the edges of single-family zones.” It also calls for the aforementioned “missing middle” to be alleviated with one-story apartments, duplexes, row houses, etc. Finally, it recommends doing away with McMansions, similar to what Mercer Island did in recent rezone rules.

At the end of the day, it is clear that Mayor Jenny Durkan must work together with Seattle neighborhoods to mediate growth and improve affordability. As a recent Seattle Times editorial column outlines, Mayor Durkan needs to “pursue consensus rather than divisive, ideological policies” of the past.