Seattle, WA

Seattle Must End Single-Family Zoning to Create an Equitable Housing System

The Urbanist

By Doug Trumm

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Single-family homes in West Woodland. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

This morning the Seattle City Council's land use committee took up Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda’s proposal to rename Seattle’s single-family zoning as “Neighborhood Residential.” It’s just a first step in breaking the hold of exclusionary zoning that is making it very hard for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and younger generations to find housing in the city that they can afford. Many more steps toward housing justice will need to follow, but this first step is still significant and it’s a long time coming.

The move to rename single-family zoning builds off the racial equity toolkit on the City’s urban village growth strategy that Councilmember Mosqueda fought to get funded, completed, and released — albeit belatedly due to obstruction and slow-walking from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration.

The analysis conducted by research institute PolicyLink came to a damning conclusion on single-family zoning’s impact. The urban village strategy funnels the vast majority of the city’s growth into officially designated Urban Villages and Urban Centers, which consume about 10 square miles while leaving 30 square miles for single-family zoning virtually off limits to growth. Dedicating the majority of residential land to the most expensive housing product has limited opportunities for people of color to stay in the city or move into it.

“With 75 percent of residential land excluded from accommodating more affordable housing types, low-income BIPOC residents are left confined to certain sections of the city competing for limited affordable housing opportunities,” the PolicyLink report states. “Accordingly, despite the advent of the Race and Social Justice Initiative, and the good intentions behind the urban village strategy, the approach has not achieved its goals because it ultimately perpetuates the same housing insecurity of low-income BIPOC residents that has been in place for years.”

In fact, PolicyLink concluded that single-family zoning was incompatible with achieving the City’s desired racial equity outcomes and breaking the cycle of exclusion.

“Given its racist origins, single-family zoning makes it impossible to achieve equitable outcomes within a system specifically designed to exclude low-income people and people of color,” PolicyLink wrote. “In order to advance racial equity at the scale codified in Resolution 31577, the City must end the prevalence of single-family zoning. This will not only create much-needed additional housing opportunities in high opportunity neighborhoods for low-income residents, is also a reparative approach with the potential to create intergenerational economic mobility for BIPOC Seattleites.”

The Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) wrote a memo at the start of the report responding to the findings. The memo pledges to consider many of the report’s recommendations while not squarely addressing the elephant in the room: the core finding that the status quo zoning and land use policy is deeply inequitable, perpetuates past racial injustices, and needs a complete overhaul.

Even if it’s not clear what the City will do with it, the racial equity report is an opening, and housing advocates and urbanists would be wise to seize it. We do not have to accept the inequitable status quo: hyper wealth accumulation for some while many others are pushed out or increasingly rent-burdened as already sky-high rents continue to climb.

We know it’s not going to be easy. Back in 2015, the City’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee had toyed with the idea of recommending phasing out single family zoning. However, before they could decide, somebody leaked a draft copy of the report to Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, who panned the plan and kicked a firestorm of backlash. Rather than face this storm, Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council abandoned the idea of major changes to single-family zoning.

Instead, the City doubled down on the urban village strategy, but paired planned upzones of multifamily land with inclusionary Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements. It was a major step forward that was finally fully enacted in 2019. However, by avoiding the issue of single-family zoning, the move also exacerbated some underlying inequities. New homes in single-family zones were exempt from affordable housing contributions via the MHA program and continued to be exempt from design review, too. The lack of MHA fees or permitting red tape encouraged new single-family home construction over townhomes and apartments. This confluence of factors helps explain how high-profile sites like Talaris continue to be developed as luxury single-family homes rather than dense apartments and townhomes even though they’re well connected to Seattle job centers and frequent transit.

Luckily, Seattle has examples to follow when it comes to tackling exclusionary zoning. Locally, Olympia has already reformed its single-family zoning and Tacoma is well on its way to doing the same. Walla Walla voted to end single-family zoning in 2018 to surprisingly little fanfare or fuss. Nationally, Portland, Sacramento, and Minneapolis have passed single-family zoning overhauls. Those changes are new enough we haven’t yet had time to see them bear too much fruit — and hurdles and bottlenecks in the design approval process (as we’ve lamented in Seattle’s design review process) can slow and limit the benefit.

Looking abroad we see examples of inclusive zoning in action, but also streamlined permitting processes and aggressive social housing building campaigns. Paris is a shining example, as Sightline expertly laid out this week. Paris went from a laggard with little new housing produced to leading the nation after the 2008 recession and in the process it’s greatly expanding its social housing stock geared at low-income residents. The city is on course to hit 25% social housing by 2025 and 30% by 2030. In addition to ample public investment, the reason this is possible is permissive zoning and quick approvals for new housing. We can follow in their footsteps.

The racial equity report has given policymakers a mandate for action. Seattle has the blueprint. City Hall just needs the courage and vision to implement it.

The Urbanist encourages you to reach out to your City Councilmembers in support.

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