I am going to start this post with a bold, albeit unreasonable statement. That is that the City of Seattle needs to all but completely end its zoning protections for single family neighborhoods. Over protections for single family neighborhoods account for a massive missed opportunity in both housing stock increases, to accommodate the massive population growth the city is experiencing, as well as a direct way of addressing the largest gap in Seattle’s housing stock—middle-income and family housing.
The current state of Seattle housing breaks down to roughly 48% owner-occupied units and 52% renter-occupied units (Seattle). The vast majority of population growth the city has experienced in the past decade has been accommodated mostly in designated urban village districts through multifamily and mixed use developments. In fact, from 1994 to 2013 the 75% of growth, around 45,000 households, was accounted for by these types of developments. And 90% of growth from 1999 to 2013 was accommodated in this manner (Seattle 2035, 2014). Attempts to break the strangle hold of single family neighborhoods are met with fierce resistance from neighborhood residents. Arguments are generally masked in the guise of “protecting neighborhood character”. In my opinion this is little more than code for “I’ve got mine, so screw you”.
The types of zoning regulations that allow for proliferation of low density single family zones have a long and checkered past in the United States. In the early and mid-20th century “protecting neighborhood character” was code for whites only. Even liberal Seattle was not immune, below is an article from The New World Newspaper from 1948 (Pettus, 1948) describing the impact of racially restricted covenants in the city. Though such race-based restrictions have long since been thrown out, I would argue, and I’m not alone in this, that minimum lot sizes and parking requirements represent a contemporary manifestation of zoning rules being used to keep undesirables out single family neighborhoods. The result is increased pressure on one housing type, apartment buildings, to accommodate all of our population growth, see these articles for more on the topic (http://www.ruseriousingme.com/2012/04/how-other-half-lives.html , http://www.vtpi.org/park-hou.pdf ).
Allowing for increased density; in the form of town houses, ADU’s or Larger homes in which extra space can be rented out acts as a form of relief for an already strained housing market. Additionally, it supports lower income home ownership by reducing or supplementing the cost of family housing, and it helps promote diversity, both economic and hopefully racial. It is also an issue equity, that all of the physical implications of increased density be borne by apartment dwellers is not fair. Upzoning single-family zones is one way to address this issue.
HOW TO CHANGE THINGS
This past May the Seattle City Council voted to approve a new zoning ordinance to limit the development of new homes on small lots in Seattle’s single family zones (http://www.planetizen.com/node/68893 ). The debate over the ordinance was muted, the press coverage nearly absent. Ultimately, a very small group of vocal home owners was able to effectively downzone a sizable portion of the city’s buildable land stock, further reducing the ability of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods to carry their fair share of increased density.
Being involved and aware of neighborhood issues, and city policy is step one to addressing the burden imposed by single family zoning. Go to a neighborhood meeting, attend a session of city council, or go to a design commission meeting. Step 2, exert your influence. Make your opinion known during community forums and to your city council representative. It’s not a glamorous answer, nor a quick fix, but I can think of little more that could significantly reshape our city’s policy than an engaged and thoughtful citizenry.