Advisory Report Says Rezoning in Seattle Single-Family Neighborhoods Could Improve Affordability

After eighteen months of research, a volunteer led commission released an advisory report on December 3rd, which indicates that changing single-family zoning in the city is integral to improving affordability. The commission is comprised of sixteen members, many of whom are professionals in land-use, from urban planners to architects and builders. As Seattle Times  reports, “the single-family zones that make up about 75 percent of Seattle’s residential land have accommodated just 5 percent of all new housing added to the city in this decade.” Rather than making sweeping recommendations, however, the report takes a milder stance with minor recommendations that include slight density gains in the form of duplexes and rowhouses.

As Commission Chair Tim Parham 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

· The report found that overwhelmingly, Seattle neighborhoods are occupied by “high-income and white residents,” which doesn’t come as a surprise given that the median cost of a home in the city is currently around $750K. This means homeownership is less attainable for lower income residents. In fact, the report outlines that “the household income gap between renters and homeowners has grown from $43,000 a decade ago to $65,000 now.”

· Zoning has meant that growth in the city is happening in an uneven manner. The population in 31 of Seattle’s 135 Census tracts has gone down, “despite the city adding 180,000 people in that time frame.” The report notes that an overwhelming majority of the less populated regions are single-family neighborhoods in which moderately priced housing hasn’t been added.

· There is also inequality when it comes to land use. An overwhelming 75 percent of the city’s residential land is reserved for single-family homes. Panning out to all land within the city—which includes parks, streets, businesses and schools—the Times says “35 percent is used for single-family lots, compared to 12 percent for other types of housing.”

· Looking at housing stock in Seattle, there is a stark contrast between the dominant property types: it’s either “very dense (like high-rise apartments) or not at all (like a detached house).” There are few “middle ground” options such as duplexes, row houses or single-level apartments.


· Urban Villages: The report calls for the extension of existing “urban villages,” which are “places near transit where more development is allowed,” by about a quarter mile, to allow for more density.

· Low Density Housing: Rather than focus on the two opposite sides of the density spectrum (single-family homes vs. high-rises), the commission recommends building more “one-story apartments, duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes.”

· Ban So-Called “McMansions”: Taking a note from new rules and regulations on Mercer Island, it would hamper the construction of luxury “McMansions” and instead favor giving homeowners the opportunity to convert single-family homes into duplexes.

To be sure, any proposed changes to single-family zoning will be met with opposition. Right now, for instance, the plan to ease restrictions on accessory dwelling and mother-in-law units in Seattle is under fire, along with “a separate effort to upzone denser parts of the city and about 6 percent of single-family areas.”

The commission plans to hold public workshops around the city to discuss their findings in depth and will also work alongside city leaders to hone recommendations.