The Power of Land Use Rules

Required minimimum yards for SFH

As I walk through a typical neighborhood I’m amazed at the conspicuous consumption that American front yards represent.  Considering front yards are rarely used for anything other than displaying gardening skill, and considering that a home is the most expensive purchase most of us will ever make, and further considering that much of the value of an urban house comes from the land that home sits on, it seems like an ostentatious display of wealth. 

Of course, this excess isn’t necessarily something we chose.  In Seattle, as with most towns and cities, it’s required by law.  In Seattle, your house built in a Single Family House (SFH) zone is requied to have a minimum of a 20′ deep front yard.  This is likely a very old law or standard, as my 110 year old house was built with a 20′ front yard.

What if Seattle did things differently?  What if 110+ years ago we looked around at these displays of wealth and instead of deciding a front yard is something everyone should be required to have, we decided to write our codes such as to minimize front yards?  What would the city be like today?

Let’s start with the 150,000 single family homes in Seattle today, assume an average property width of 40′, and we’ve used up 120 million square feet of our valuable land on these yards.  That land could have built an extra 80,000 homes at 1,500 sf each.  Ignoring the different supply and demand balance that would exist in this alternate reality, and assuming a land value of $40/sf, each house would cost $32,000 less than it does now (yes, that’s how much you paid for that front yard, ignoring maintenance costs and that white pickett fence you built illegally close to the lot line).

Of course, this is little more than a mental exercise.  Maybe the beauty that front yards represent helped build Seattle into the metropolis it is today.  Perhaps living close to sidewalks would be unacceptable to Seattlites.  And even if this would have increased affordability, added walkability, added tax revenue, and saved everyone a huge amount of money and Saturday afternoons of lawn mowing: it doesn’t matter now since all of our SFH zones are already fully built out.  But we can take this lesson and apply it to the type of development that is happening now.  For instance, we can convert more SFH zones to low-rise multifamily zones that allow rowhouses.




Comments

  1. goodluck says

    SF has both.

    SFH without front yards..
    https://maps.google.com/?ll=37.741495,-122.427829&spn=0.008238,0.016512&hnear=Bellevue,+King,+Washington&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=37.741495,-122.427829&panoid=tN1jwsVciOKzfqYudPT9Jw&cbp=12,179.81,,0,2.51

    SFH with front yards
    https://maps.google.com/?ll=37.727416,-122.473261&spn=0.00824,0.016512&hnear=Bellevue,+King,+Washington&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=37.727416,-122.473261&panoid=jSNr9OnlNCLVc7ERrV5ZoQ&cbp=12,5.3,,0,6.67

    Which street is more enjoyable to walk on? I personally find the second more livable and the first more utilitarian. There’s also something to be said about having your bedroom 8′ from traffic noise as opposed to 28′.

    • Adam Parast says

      What do you define as livable? The whole premise of Matt’s argument is that yards add thousands of dollars to the price of a house, ie less affordable. Isn’t affordability one of the most important aspects of liveability?

    • Jeremy says

      If only there were something that could be done about all those pedestrians screaming past your noise-shielding-free bedroom. And all that ozone around the electric trollies. Nothing but toxic air, I tell you!

      • Matt Gangemi says

        A bit of open space makes poor sound insulation. I recommend double pane windows and good wall insulation.

    • Kyle S. says

      Give me the first one any day of the week.

      But oh right, you can’t here, because of the cultural imperialism of the provincial single-family homeowner.

    • Nathanael says

      Front and back *yards* both kind of suck. Front and back *gardens* are another matter — but only a tiny minority of homeowners actually have the time and energy to garden intensively.

      Hmm.

  2. Glenn Roberts says

    From you stated opinions, I’m surprised you bought a single fmily house in a residential neighborhood and then built a two car garage, but say you still park in the street. Perhaps living too close to the sidewalk is unacceptable to your sensibilities.

    There is something called pride of ownership that is reflected in many single family neighborhoods throughout the country. It involves keeping the paint up, mowing the lawn and planting the flowers. Perhaps we need more of this kind of development rather than row houses and apartments which often house renters who frequently leave the “pride of ownership” duties to someone else. Not everyone wants the density you promote, but don’t espouse.

    • Matt Gangemi says

      “Not everyone wants” Sure. But you’re not giving people this option. Your rigid rules say that you must buy a yard. For some vague reason that spending hours on yardwork gives “pride of ownership”. Or not – there are plenty front yards in Seattle that become a blight.

    • Eric H says

      I like the quotes around “pride of ownership.” Just the sound of it makes me want to doff my cap, salute the flag, and thank the deities for the National Association of Realtors.

      That said, I don’t see the phenomenon of owners taking care of their property has much to do with the size of the lot, the front yard, or the floor-to-area ratio.

      • josh says

        There’s plenty of POO possible in stoops on the street — think of the amazing paint jobs of a San Francisco painted lady, the immaculately-scrubbed white marble steps of a Baltimore townhouse, the social sitting area where a homeowner can converse with passing neighbors… POO does not require an expanse of grass.

        In renovating my own 1901 home in an old Interurban Railway suburb of Seattle, I ran into the same setback issue — the very traditional design put the front of the house much closer to the street than modern codes would allow, I actually had to have field verification that my new shingles and front steps didn’t “encroach” any closer to the street than the originals.

        Personally, I find the minimal front yard much more livable — more sociable for chatting with passing neighbors, a shorter walk to get the mail, more of my lot available for the back yard, a smaller front yard to concentrate my dense evergreen groundcover gardening.

        In a few locations, large setbacks are planned for pragmatic reasons: some two-lane streets are planned to grow to four or six as population grows, so it’s easier to preserve that future right-of-way as a front yard than to allow building that has to be torn down. But for most neighborhoods, it’s a purely aesthetic issue, a post-War suburbanist desire to get away from traditional urban forms.

    • Adam Parast says

      I live in an apartment and love it, know all my neighbors and take pride in my building and community. As for the need more “pride of ownership” of a single family the only way to get that is the sprawl out. Glenn are you a supporter of sprawl?

      • Anthony says

        @Adam; I commend your enthusiasm for living in an apartment, but I certainly don’t share it.

        Having grown up literally in a house made of hay bales(literally), then on to other weird forms of semi-hippie living, finally followed by a stint in apartment complexes, I prefer SFH. Some of the SFH places I grew up in were absolutely atrocious, btw.

        I don’t think it should be mandatory for a front yard, but for those who like the peace and quiet of not having someone next them, over them, and beside them, the SFH makes total sense and should still be encouraged. It may not be appropriate in all neighborhoods, but the continual espousing of MFH over SFH sure sounds like a diatribe that will never fully resonate with the general public on the whole.

        Density creates social issues, and they have to be addressed. My solution was to move out of it, yes, all the way to Whidbey Island. There are individuals who cannot stand being cramped into apartment complex’s, and frankly don’t do well in them.

      • Brett says

        I’d like to see some evidence that “Density creates social issues”. Just because social issues sometimes coincide with dense living spaces does not imply causality.

        No one is trying to keep you from having your yard. The author’s point is that maybe we should reexamine the requirement to have yards.

      • Anton says

        I live in a nice Belltown apartment. I love it. Yet, I still want our SFH neighborhoods to remain just that. No, I do not dream of moving there. I can go live there right now if I wanted to.

        They just serve a different purpose – satisfy a different market need – one for houses with yards. And yards serve a different function than the house.

        Front yards a waste – no, they are not. They are for:

        1) adding beauty and character to neighborhood

        2) permeable ground to absorb water and polluted run off

        3) a source of food (veggie gardens) in some cases

        I am not a NIMBY. But I love Seattle for what it is. More TOD around malls and in pockets – good, convert SFH to TOD – no!!!! And I live in TOD!

      • Adam Bejan Parast says

        Certainly everyone has preference for different types of housing. Some like huge lots some don’t. Some like grassy lawns and some my prefer rooftop decks with views. The reality of the modern civilization however, back thousands of years, is that cities are the natural and required catalyst for modern society. So despite what you or I think that people “do well in”, cities are how the world has and is structured.

        Accepting this, then the question becomes how do you make a city work within the physical, ecological, financial and social structure we live with. At this point MFH and a more multi-modal lifestyle becomes the only way to move forward. That won’t mean that everyone lives in towers just like it won’t mean everyone will live on 10 acres of land, but MFH is at the center of this solution not SFH.

      • Anton says

        I love the fact that Seattle as a CITY offers me both the option to live in MFH and SFH. It also offers both Mountains and Sound. Both Winter and Summer… I visited Chicago 2 months ago and when I came back here and I thought I landed in heaven! I also came from Eastern Europe where practically my whole 300,000-strong city was all MFH. From 3-story houses to 18-story towers. We had a great pedestrian environment that is unmatched in Seattle, but the fact that we did not have SFH was a drawback in my mind! It was the result of a “one-size fits all” model forced onto the people by a socialist government. No, thanks!

      • Anthony says

        Brett and Adam; sure, MFH may be the inevitable by design solution to putting more people into an existing area, but I’ll repeat my statement that density creates more issues.

        I get this POV from previously living in such an environment, and seeing the effects of overcrowding, which many apartment complex’s do create. The myriad of crap I witnessed, was at times a part of, is based on the fact that more people create more problems, not a hard facet to understand. People within their own MFH lifestyle have wildly varying opinions on how to live, and this unfortunately leads to conflicts because within this framework someone has to give eventually. Some people don’t give up easily.

        Are they workable? In some cases you bet, but not all. The natural timeline is that cities fall as well over the course of history, due usually to overcrowding and a host of other factors. So I’m not sure how valid MFH is in all cases if that’s the result.

        Once again I’ll reiterate my POV that in some areas the “yard rule” may be overblown. For those who prefer such, I’m all for them, buy a condo or move into an apartment in the respective neighborhood. In reality I would rather be playing with my model trains than mowing my lawn, but I do love having it.

      • Anton says

        Anthony can you provide some examples of social problems created by density due to differences in people? I am just curious.

    • Matthew Johnson says

      You keep your pride of ownership if that is what you mean by wasted hours working in a yard you don’t care about. My wife and I have done the SFH in the suburbs. It’s not for us. Lack of front yard (or with just gravel, stones, and succulents) is a requirement for our next purchase (if we can ever offload our current home). While you may like it, why should you get to force that kind of living onto others?

      • the358 says

        +1. Only I don’t want my back yard either. Weeding is not how I want to spend my weekends.

    • Daniel says

      I don’t particularly like the implication that if I don’t own the building I live in, I’m somehow not proud of it, and I won’t take care of it.

      I don’t own the space I live in, but I take good care of it, and it’s home.

  3. BA says

    I think 120 million square feet of mostly garden space in our city is a good thing as compared to say, building on top of it.

    The solution to creating more housing in Seattle is not dramatic changes to the single family neighborhoods, but altering those auto-oriented commercial areas and surface parking lots.

      • Nathanael says

        If it were actually gardened, BA would have a point. But it mostly isn’t. Lawn is not garden.

        There are places where they prohibit people from growing vegetables in their front yards; this is particularly insane. At least you don’t do that in Seattle.

      • Anton says

        No, it’s not both. It’s not wasted space at all. In fact I am shocked that you guys don’t see the environmental benefits of green space. Too much impermeable ground leads to higher-toxicity run-offs into the bay. It’s not what we want and there are whole documentaries on it.

        Why is everyone in Seattle (America?) fighting – cars vs bikes vs buses… houses vs apartments… You can have it ALL!

        I live in Belltown and I do support building some more apartment buildings in the area. I also do support putting some density around malls in suburbs and having pockets of TOD. I DO NOT support converting all suburbs to a city. The zoning is part of the cultural makeup of the city here…

      • Matt Gangemi says

        “I am shocked that you guys don’t see the environmental benefits of green space.” I don’t think you’re thinking this one all the way through. If removing front yards really did create space for 1,500 additional families in Seattle, that’s 1,500 homes that don’t have to replace farms, fields, and forests out in the far suburbs.

        Density is important for many reasons, but one is that you dramatically reduce the amount of pavement overall.

      • Anton says

        Yet if you grew your potatoes in your front yard you may not have to truck them over from far away fields either, right?

        Think of this as a market as it actually is one. The market offers a lot of “sprawl/garden housing”. My opinion is that in recent times the demand for “high density” housing has increased while the demand for “sprawl/garden housing” has kept steady. The solution is NOT to convert one to the other, but to build more density housing in under-utilized areas. And that’s what we are all doing, right?

      • josh says

        If we really care about the environmental aspect, surely percentage lot coverage is a more meaningful metric than depth of front yard.

        If I could move my house ten feet closer to the street, but the house stayed the same size, lot coverage would not change, and environmental values would actually be somewhat improved by the larger contiguous area of vegetation in the less-compacted soil behind the house.

      • Nathanael says

        As far as I’m concerned, the problem is that these lawns usually ARE wasted space. When they’re used as vegetable gardens, flower gardens, playing fields, or even stormwater retention zones, that’s another matter.

        But most land use codes, except the most modern, don’t encourage any of that. How often are the front yards actually *actively used*? How about the back yards?

    • Daniel says

      Most auto-oriented commercial areas are relying on customers driving in from a large distance. When a business is walkable, it must be very close to its customers. A business needs customers to stay afloat. If a business intends to market its products and services to customers who walk, there needs to be a large number of customers within walking distance. If there aren’t, it will go bankrupt.

      I’m curious how you think a small business can cater to a walk-in clientele in a low density neighborhood. Please explain this to me.

      • BA says

        Perhaps you should travel to New York City. There are countless examples of commercial streets running through lower density residential neighborhoods – where blocks of relatively low density residential parallel the commercial focused streets, that also are transit corridors.

        Seattle has a similar geography, no doubt the vestige of the original streetcar development patterns.

        Even in Manhattan, this pattern holds at a much denser scale.

        This pattern of development has been true in cities for thousands of years. Just returned from Pompeii and Ephesis – this was the development pattern exhibited in the ruins there as well.

      • Daniel says

        Fair enough. I went to NYC as a kid, but I haven’t been back as an adult.

        Keep in mind that density is strictly the number of people per unit area, not a specific development model. Increasing or decreasing density has certain costs and benefits, independent of the actual type of development. For example, if my parents leased out their basement, the density of their neighborhood would go up (slightly), even though none of the buildings, laws or zoning codes had been changed.

        Arguing for higher density is not the same as arguing for a specific style of development. I’m very interested in seeing how more people can live in a neighborhood while still maintaining what people like.

      • Nathanael says

        The “relatively low density” in NYC is often still higher density than a Levittown. There are vast masses of row houses in NYC (with significant back yards, yes), and even the fully detached housing is often quite close to its neighbors.

  4. goodluck says

    Adam, I wasnt making an attempt to define livable but stating that its my opnion that I’d rather walk down a street that at least has some areas where air can circulate as opposed to wind tunnels of wood/stucco, and concrete.

    Jeremy, this blog constantly demonizes the prevalence of the automobile and its widespread monopolization of city streets. Glad to hear that on your street its bumper to bumper pedestrians and trolley busses.

    Matt, a bit of open space promotes healthier living with CO2 scrubbing trees and other greenery. I mean if there are no yards in the front, why even put windows in the front of a house, you are just looking at someone else’s house at that point.

    • Adam Bejan Parast says

      Yes and my point is that if I want to every be able to afford to buy a place in Seattle where walking is actually a viable means of transportation, I’ll be living a condo. A place isn’t livable if you can’t afford to live there.

      • Butch says

        Just because you can’t afford it doesn’t make it unlivable. It makes it unlivable for you. You could live in the Rainier Valley where it is walkable and affordable.

      • Adam Bejan Parast says

        @Butch I make a good money, certainly more than most people my age. Even in the Rainier valley I would be stretching my income to buy a house there. Dense smaller housing like condos and townhomes are key for making areas affordable to a broad range of individuals where housing will always be expensive due to high demand.

  5. says

    Example of where this type of land use is done right please? This has been done somewhere, right? And houses are affordable because of it. I’d like to see some examples.

    • Adam Bejan Parast says

      Places that predates zoning codes. You have both expensive examples like Manhattan brownstones and cheap examples in say West Baltimore.

      • Kyle S. says

        Baltimore also has middle-class examples like Charles Village and Mount Vernon/Station North.

  6. mic says

    To each their own. Box buildings starting on the curb is fine for some. I prefer my front yard veggie garden, the backyard rainwater catchment, my solar panels heating the spa off the back deck and feeding our goldfish in the pond near the wood pile to feed the free standing wood stove.
    Come on over next time all the umbilical cords to water, power and food go down for a few days.
    And no, I’m not a prepper. Just enjoy a little elbow room.

    • David L says

      Then buy a place like that! The issue here is that we are legally requiring everyone to have that, whether they want it or not. The free market should make a lot more of those decisions.

      • Butch says

        That what zoning and rules do. You can move to another area that provides what you want. That’s what the free market does. No rule is forcing you to live in a neighborhood whose design you don’t like.

      • David L says

        The trouble is that the zoning is skewed. There are very few, if any, neighborhoods in the city where you don’t have to pay for a front yard if you want a house rather than a condo. The planners have not given us that choice.

      • Matt Gangemi says

        [Butch] We’re talking about the entire city. You can’t buy a single family house without a front yard here. Until recently, rowhouses weren’t allowed either.

        I’d have much less of an issue with requiring everyone on a given block to have a yard. What you’re telling us is: “Don’t like it? Move to Boston.” Which is not helpful.

      • goodluck says

        Well, if you dont like it and cant seem to change it, you either have to leave it or lump it.

      • Glenn Roberts says

        @ David L Since the early 1990′s there have been many dwevelopments with essentially no yard. Townhouses and cottage developments are available throughout the city. There are also coummunity living arrangements where separately owned units share kitchens. As they get more or less popular, you will see more or fewer of them.

      • Butch says

        The comment “what country are we living in” is interesting. Because a city doesn’t offer enough of what you want the immediate reaction is that it is draconian. At the same time, Bellevue does offer what you want right across the street from their library. You could also build your own and request a variance from the city. Just because Seattle doesn’t offer what you want where you want it doesn’t mean that it has bad zoning or building rules.

      • Matt Gangemi says

        “Just because Seattle doesn’t offer what you want where you want it doesn’t mean that it has bad zoning or building rules.”

        I’m not sure what criteria we can use for whether zoning is “bad”. But forcing 150,000 families to pay an extra $32,000 and countless hours for an ammenety they don’t use and may not want seems like it might be the definition of “bad” zoning. Looking at this just from an environmental perspective of pushing people out of the city and into sprawl would fit another definition.

      • goodluck says

        “forcing”? Laws of supply and demand asside, capitalism in its strictest sense doesnt force anyone to do anything. If people dont like the supply of homes in a city, the demand would be low and people wouldn’t move there. Last time I checked home values in Seattle were pretty strong. Draw your own conclusions based on this reality.

      • Glenn Roberts says

        What is it “they” want Matt? To move to the suburbs so they have a lawn or to stay in the city where they can have one. If they can have a yard in the city there will be less sprawl. Yards aren’t forced on anyone. Just buy a condo or rent if you don’t like yard care. Some people like yard work. They even like working on their home and improving its value.

        Zoning regualtions developed over time because those rules are what the people who live there want. I know you like to say that the people who want to live here should have a say, but that is pretty much nonsense. Might as well ask the Canadians to elect our next president and we could avoid all the campaigning here.

      • says

        Butch, maybe I was too subtle for my own good. Goodluck was saying that you should either move to place that has the laws and regulations you like or you should just suck it up and get over it.

        I should have asked the NAME of the county we live in to be more clear.

  7. GuyOnBeaconHill says

    I’m not sure about your calculation of $32,000 less per house if front yards were eliminated. If lot sizes were decreased, maybe the houses would cost less. But if lot sizes were maintained and people built larger houses, the cost of housing might be greater–due the cost of building the larger house. Plus larger houses cost more to maintain and repair, so it might not be a cheaper option to eliminate front yards.

    Maybe we should look into eliminating the requirement for back yards and with that we could eliminate the dreaded NIMBY!

      • David L says

        It would be if those houses were smaller and/or subdivided. Those are enormous houses.

        Almost everyone in Baltimore lives in that kind of housing (although not as magnificent).

      • goodluck says

        is it the house that’s not affordable or the land? Some small “normal” condo’s in SF are well over 800k which isn’t affordable to many. A house in Detroit is probably much more affordable, but i wouldn’t call it as livable as SF. Same for Baltimore…

      • Matt Gangemi says

        Keep in mind $800k in SF is much different than $800k in Seattle, in terms of affordability. The median person makes quite a bit more there than here.

      • Matt Gangemi says

        Sure. Median family income in SF was $81,136 in 2010. The median family income in Seattle was $62,195 in 2010. Household and individual income are similarly scaled.

        I’m not saying San Francisco is affordable (they have some of the same zoning issues we have, and are surrounded by sprawl). But it’s not fair to just look at housing prices when we talk about affordability.

      • goodluck says

        Matt, thats all you have done saying that the average family is FORCED to pay an extra $$$$ for a yard that they dont want? If they didnt want it, wouldnt they live in a condo? Am I missing something here?

      • Matt Gangemi says

        I’m just pointing out a feature which people in single family homes are “forced” to build or buy, yet few people actually use. People live in single family homes for a variety of reasons – if you remove the front yard that doesn’t make them condos. For instance, there’s still the back yard. I know many/most SFH residents do use their back yards.

      • says

        I’d take a 10′ where I could sit, relax, interact with the street over a 20′ lawn I just walk through anyday.

        Backyards are useful too. My friends in Germany live in a rowhouse that abutes the sidewalk but has a nice little backyard.

        But that is just me. Others might like something else. And they should have the freedom to live in such a place. All I ask is for the freedom to live in the kind of place me and my family want to live.

    • Nathanael says

      Uh, no, “goodluck”, you expletive deleted.

      If you ever actually READ this blog, you’d realize the picutre they’re painting is this:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bedstuybrownstone1.jpg

      There are some problems with this vision (ADA anyone?) but most people find it extremely attractive. Which is one reason why neighborhoods like that are so expensive. (The other is that they’re often in extremely attractive locations.)

      • Nathanael says

        In fact, I might sum up the “New Urbanist” vision as “rowhouses and streetcars for those who want them”.

        Perhaps part of the problem is that you try to describe rowhouses and steetcars, and people who’ve never seen ‘em get visions of brutalist concrete towers. This is bizarre, but apparently common.

  8. Eliot says

    Front yards blur the boundary between public and private land and add to streets cape dramatically. They are an opportunity for seattleites to display their uniqueness to the rest of the people around them, building a community. Seattle would be worse off if we didn’t make that part of the zoning requirements. I hear outcries time and time again on this blog for real and meaningful public space, our neighborhood streets are some of the best space we have!

    • Kyle S. says

      Really? All my neighbors seem to do with their lawns is overplant them or let them get overrun.

      The city doesn’t need to mandate that everyone on a street have a billboard with which to display their “uniqueness” (which Seattleites, by and large, have a lot less of than they like to think!).

      As for your entirely subjective point about improving the streetscape, I completely and totally disagree. Front lawns increase the cavernous feeling of our already too-wide streets, and make my neighborhood feel like less of a community when I walk past. However, the difference between your opinion and mine is that I’m not allowed to act on mine because yours is enshrined in the code.

      • Eliot says

        also notice the use of the word “opportunity” to show uniqueness not mandated as you like to call it.

      • Shane Phillips says

        For one, many if not most people are not from Seattle originally, so I don’t see how that’s relevant. And how is it not mandated when the zoning code specifically requires that you have a front yard, and the front yard is supposedly our way to show our uniqueness? You’re using a lot of fluffy words that have no real meaning – it’s entirely unclear to me how a big yard promotes “community.” What does that even mean? I would think if it promoted community you’d see neighbors hanging out there together, but in reality front yards are almost never used for anything but looking pretty.

      • Nathanael says

        For some reason I don’t fully understand, back yards are more likely to promote neighbors talking to each other than front yards are.

        Front porches work OK too. Front yards are dead space.

        I’m not sure *why* they’re dead space, but it might something to do with parents being afraid to let their kids out in the front yard for fear that they’ll run into the street.

      • Bernie says

        You guys act like you’ve never heard of fences. There’s enough demand for gardens in the City that they just converted the roof of the Mercer Garage at the Center to a p-patch:

        Seattle’s first rooftop community garden opened on Friday on top of the Mercer Parking Garage at the Seattle Center. It is the largest-scale rooftop garden in the country.

        The reason for set backs isn’t just for the home owner; it’s for people using the sidewalk or the street. Without setbacks you get an unaesthetic checkerboard that eventually turns into a lifeless canyon. Plus if you’re pulling out of a driveway it gives you a chance to see people coming. No setbacks would be like an endless series of parking garages.

        Then there’s this, Vegetable gardens crop up in Seattle parking strips. Broaden your horizons and watch Gardening With Cisco. Way more fun than reruns of ST board meetings.

      • Nathanael says

        Front fences give you just as much of a “barricaded canyon” feel as no-setbacks.

        As for gardens, gardens are great. If everyone used their front lawns for vegetable gardens, I doubt we’d even be having this discussion! But it’s not really that common.

      • Chris Stefan says

        Bernie,
        Have you ever been to a neighborhood where houses were build with little or no setback from the street? I’d hardly call most I’ve seen, here or elsewhere “lifeless canyons”.

        I really don’t see why we can’t do row houses or brownstones here. They look a lot better (even modern ones) than 4-pack town homes and offer a nice step between SF and MF zoning.

      • Bernie says

        Row houses or the classic brown stones work fine because they were designed to work that way. That’s totally different that just eliminating setbacks in an existing neighborhood. For the most part these zero setback neighborhoods were built pre automobile or at least before multi car households and half a dozen trips by car per household per day. An aunt just sold a beautiful row home in Boston. Those types of neighborhoods aren’t going to pop up because of lacks zoning. In fact the restrictions on making any changes to the outside of that home or any other on the street make Seattle’s laws look like the wild wild west.

  9. Bellinghammer says

    I agree that we shouldn’t mandate yard space, but there is something to be said for uniform setback requirements (or a uniform lack of them) within a particular zoning designation. I’d hate to buy a house with a yard and have both of my neighbors build right up to the sidewalk, potentially removing much of my access to natural light (especially in winter, when north-facing residences get meager light at best.) Even if it creates wasted space, I think a requirement to have yards will always remain more palatable than a requirement not to have them.

    As we densify I do think there is value in retaining buffer zones of SFH, and I’m ok with those remaining houses being ridiculously privileged and expensive. But SFH zones adjacent to NC/LR/MR zones should definitely be stepped up a notch to the sweet spot of comfort/safety/livability. I find NC/LR zones (in North/East Capitol Hill, Fremont, etc.) to be much more livable than, say, the MR/HR zones in First Hill or West Capitol Hill.

  10. Al S. says

    Do front porches and steps also have to be set back 20 feet? Some of the best 19th and early 20th century neighborhoods that I have seen have had porches and steps ignored in the setback requirements. I’m reminded of East Coast rowhomes where the steps land at the sidewalk, but the actual home structure is set back at least 10 or 15 feet. Rather then be an all-or-nothing rule, perhaps we should be less restrictive on how the setback is used and allow steps and awnings and porches and balconies, enabling it to be more of a transition between public and private space.

    • PSF says

      Very unclear.
      Every contractor and architect we talked to was certain porches & steps did count in setback.
      So were the DPD staff we talked to about our permits.

      But when you search the code, you find this sort of thing…

      http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us/~scripts/nph-brs.exe?d=CODE&s1=23.44.014.snum.&Sect5=CODE1&Sect6=HITOFF&l=20&p=1&u=/~public/code1.htm&r=1&f=G

      5. Uncovered Porches or Steps. Uncovered, unenclosed porches or steps may
      project into any required yard, if they are no higher than 4 feet on average
      above existing grade, no closer than 3 feet to any side lot line, no wider
      than 6 feet and project no more than 6 feet into required front or rear
      yards. The height of porches and steps are to be calculated separately.

      And this one…
      http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us/~scripts/nph-brs.exe?d=CODE&s1=23.45.518.snum.&Sect5=CODE1&Sect6=HITOFF&l=20&p=1&u=/~public/code1.htm&r=1&f=G
      5. Unenclosed porches or steps.

      a. If setbacks are required pursuant to subsection A.1 of this Section
      23.45.518, unenclosed porches or steps no higher than 4 feet above existing
      grade, or the grade at the street lot line closest to the porch, whichever
      is lower, may extend to within 4 feet of a street lot line, except that
      portions of entry stairs or stoops not more than 2.5 feet in height from
      existing or finished grade whichever is lower, excluding guard rails or hand
      rails, may extend to a street lot line. See Exhibit C for 23.45.518.

      • Al S. says

        Thanks PSF! I think you’ve uncovered something important. These restrictions certainly do not encourage habitable porches or stairs up to a truly split-level entry. Perhaps this is where an adjustment to the zoning code could be made without forgoing setback requirements.

  11. Transit Voter says

    This is a purely academic discussion. Seattle is what it is. Most of the residential land is built out in SF homes with yards front and back. I grew up in a SF home with a yard that I played in. My kids have grown up in homes with yards that they played in. This has been the pattern for some generations now, and for other families with kids, it will continue to be. Matt (and Roger Valdez) should accept that most all of Seattle’s SF neighborhoods are going to remain mostly as they are.

    Instead we should be concentrating on how to better accommodate future residential growth in Urban Centers and urban villages, with higher densities in their centers and lower densities on their fringes — areas where your yardless townhomes would be quite appropriate.

    • Kyle S. says

      Yes, regardless of what rules are currently in place regarding SFH and whether or not those rules should continue to exist, it’s more important that we lift restrictive SFH and low-rise zoning in areas that have the capacity and connections to sustain a much denser pattern of development.

    • Shane Phillips says

      I think Matt made it pretty clear that he’s not proposing we change single family zoning to remove front yards – it’s too late for that. He specifically says this is little more than a mental exercise, but hopefully one we can take lessons from. Your second paragraph is something I’m sure people agree with, but it bothers me how often people don’t seem to understand the point of posts made here (particularly people like Glenn Roberts). This is about how zoning can be done poorly to waste the money of many people who are mandated to have things they don’t actually want. Obviously, even if these rules didn’t exist when all the single family homes were built there would still be many front yards. But there would also be many that didn’t and that would be okay too.

      • Transit Voter says

        Shane, I guess I missed out on all the opposition to front yards, that there’s a group of people out there who think new or remodeled SF houses should be built to the front property line if owners so choose. No matter what the resulting aesthetic assault on existing SF neighborhoods? Sorry, I just can’t go there. And there’s no need to.

        The existing code (at least as noted in the graphic above) allows flexibility in front yard depths — if homes on either side are less than 20 feet, then the yard of the new or remodeled home can out to the average of the homes on each side. Sounds pretty reasonable to me, and it avoids the Sore Thumb problem that can result when the neighborhood aesthetic is ignored.

      • Matt Gangemi says

        I agree that a wholesale removal of front yard requirements could get ugly. I’d much rather slowly (or not so slowly) grow our urban villages and centers as you describe.

      • Adam Bejan Parast says

        @Transit Voter We actually are having this discussion in terms of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) but in relation to back yards not front yards. ADU are totally a win-win but NIMBYs have fought the modest proposal tooth and nail. So no this isn’t a purely academic discussion.

  12. FWIW says

    I think a lot of the setback/yardsize requirements had roots in the days of fire fear.
    Ability of firefighters to gain access to each side of a burning building, minimize fire racing thru many homes without a natural break, all things they lived with and thru in days past.

    • josh says

      Fire/rescue access is still one of the determining factors for minimum side yard width. On zero-lot-line developments, there’s still a building separation requirement if you don’t want to upgrade to the code safety requirements of multifamily dwellings.

      But you’ll notice minimum side yard setbacks and building separation requirements are much smaller than typical front yard requirements.

      • josh says

        Row houses have a great history of rapid fire spread, before modern building codes required fire breaks, roof parapets, fire-rated doors, sprinklers, etc. Even where the buildings were brick, wood-framed roofs would allow fire to race through attic spaces from one building to the next.

    • says

      Another part of it may be a desire among those with yards not to have other nearby houses without them dragging down their own property values.

  13. Jack says

    Neighborhoods that are livable are flexible, as the economy changes dwellings are remodels or rebuilt to suit. Things like mother-in-laws, backyard homes, etc. I feel that my property in Whittier Heights is under-developed for the 21st century but zoning rules are stuck in the 19th century and, short of shelling out thousands to the DPD without any guarantee of success, there is nothing I can do about it.

    • Transit Voter says

      Thank you for bringing up MIL apartments and backyard cottages, what the City calls Accessory Dwelling Units. It was quite brave of City Council to push through these minor assaults on SF neighborhoods. These changes allow SF neighborhoods to absorb some growth without fundamentally changing their fabric, and they don’t change the reality that most residential growth is destined to occur in Urban Centers and urban villages.

  14. johnny says

    Seattle offers a unique urban SFH experience. There are many SFH homes in Seattle that are within a 10 mile radius of the heart of the city. Downtown Seattle offers a high concentration of jobs, and entertainment. The ability to live in a SFH and be able to bike, bus, or even walk from one of these homes is very desirable. Take any “city” in FL (not including Miami) Lets say Orlando, or Tampa, their downtown’s offer little in entertainment, and the jobs are dispersed over a very large area. Living in a SFH there(most of which are in subdivisions have a walk score of zero.lol) You are forced to drive everywhere. With that said, I’m still for creating and maintaining the walkable neighborhoods of Seattle, even if it includes redeveloping SFH homes into mix use development. This will benefit everyone.

    • Nathanael says

      Well, Florida is crazy. But most “old style” cities actually have a lot of single-family housing within 10 miles of downtown (go, look at Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc.) — it’s just that they frequently have rowhouses or houses which are very close together, not “fully detached” houses.

    • Adam Bejan Parast says

      For the area between houses, maybe, but that isn’t really what we’re talking about.

    • Nathanael says

      The requirement to separate houses from each other doesn’t actually provide much fire hazard mitigation anyway; it’s not really wide enough for a proper firebreak. It may have been a matter of late-19th-century or early-20th-century fire paranoia, before they figured out how to actually fight fires?

      • Nathanael says

        …and I guess it was, as josh notes above. Modern fire codes should take care of that….

  15. says

    Zoning in Seattle doesn’t go back that far. In fact, modern zoning wouldn’t have come until after Euclid. This was entirely by choice when platting properties. If you notice, most houses are elevated above the sidewalk. It was a trend. Why? I’m not sure. It’s nice in many ways, but I’d much prefer no significant yard as I hate those type of duties. An elevated walk-up with a three-to-five-foot garden setback would be plenty for privacy. But then, I’m much more the townhouse/terrace/apartment type of person.

    • josh says

      The Seattle Zoning Commission started about 1920. At the time, many residential areas were built out much closer to the street than would be allowed today, and part of the early zoning effort was to pursue a “city beautiful” aesthetic that wasn’t native to Seattle.

      Many of the smaller-front-yard neighborhoods were grandfathered in — if you’re building between two homes with 12-foot setback, you can generally match their setback rather than going to 20 feet.

      Elevation of homes here is both aesthetic and practical. Most of the area is too damp for slab-on-grade, so homes were built on elevated footings, allowing airflow between the wood floor joists and the damp earth. (If the bottom of your floor joists is less than a foot to the ground, you probably have rot. If you have concrete slab on grade, there’s a good chance you have mold.)

      Elevation also helps with minor surface flooding — I can remember sitting on the back porch of my grandmother’s early-teens bungalow watching water lap at the first step but never climb up to the floor joists.

      Elevation also helps avoid sewage backing up into the home — when your sluggish, undersized, gravity-fed sewer line plugs up or gets flooded with rain, sewage will start overflowing out of the lowest toilet on the block. You don’t want that to be your toilet. (Been there, done that.)

      In areas where the water table is low enough to allow an excavated basement, extending the basement wall above grade allows windows for natural light and emergency egress. You’ll find a lot of Seattle bungalows like that on hills, the main floor sits 2-3 feet above grade on top of a basement dug into the hillside.

      • Chris Stefan says

        I lived on a street in the U-District where the early 1900′s homes were mostly built with little or no setback from the street (or alley for that matter). It was actually a rather cosy neighborhood and the only real downside was how loud the garbage trucks were when they went by.

  16. Anton says

    I think this is just a market inefficiency issue. To oversimplify, we have 5 products on the market:

    1. SFH with front and back-yards
    2. SFH row-house with no front-yard but a back-yard
    3. SFH row-house with no yard at all (alley in the back)
    4. MFH up to 6-story
    5. MFH tower, no height limit

    I think that the SUPPLY of 2 and 3 in the Seattle market is too low, while the demand for it is increasing. The demand for 4 and 5 is also growing but their supply is significant and growing too.

    So the City of Seattle should increase the supply of 2 and 3. Because the demand for 1 is steady, it should NOT do so at the expense of 1, but should find under-utilize land (of which there is plenty) to increase the supply of 2 and 3.

    Problem solved.

    • Matt Gangemi says

      Where exactly is this unused land in Seattle? Are you talking about our parks? The truth is that if we’re out of land in Seattle, and have been for a generation (or two).

      Oh, and #2 and #3 don’t exist in Seattle except in a few cases before zoning. We do have town houses, though the Seattle townhouses are (IMHO) strange and ugly.

      • Anton says

        Underutilized land = strip malls and parking lots to say the least.

        Now, reading your post again, converting some 1 to 2 or to “1.5″ may make sense. But it is still a market demand question.

      • Chris Stefan says

        I’d love to see the Seattle “4-pack” and “6-pack” replaced with proper row houses.

    • josh says

      But many people do still prefer SFH, they still want the separation from other buildings, they just don’t want the *amount* of separation current code demands. There are very few places in Seattle you can find a freestanding home with only 10 feet in front, 5-foot side yards, and a modest back yard. Some people really like that style of neighborhood — it’s walkably dense, yet still SFH.

      • Butch says

        I’d argue Seattle should encourage duplexes or twins. It gets you close to what you are looking forward and provides excellent bootstrap potential for immigrants.

  17. Lightning says

    I bought a very modest house–some of your apartments have more square footage–because I wanted to have a garden. Not too much to ask for. Look out my window in the summer and all you see are leaves from the trees I have planted and nurtured. Which doesn’t stop me from talking to neighbors. As stupid as it might sound to some of you, my greenery actually adds a little oxygen to, and takes a little CO2 from, the atmosphere. I bet most of you would push for the removal of all golf courses in the city as a waste of land use. Replace them with more buildings. I know, golf courses use too much water. Not as much, though, as the occupants of the buildings which would replace them. Jeesh.

    • says

      Here’s the point that I have said twice in this thread alone, and many others have said as well.

      No one wants to take away your ability to have a front garden or yard.

      However under the current zoning I am barred from NOT having a front garden or yard (which neither I or my wife want).

      Do YOU support keeping me and my family from having the ability to live in a SFH without a front yard?

    • Matt Gangemi says

      Are you saying that those occupants don’t use water wherever they live right now? As long as WA’s population is increasing, we can either allow more people in cities, or put them in areas that are currently fields, farms, and forests. There is no third choice. And yes, they’ll use water and energy wherever they end up – just less in cities.

      • Lightning says

        I want you to have no yard if that’s what you want. I want higher density in the city so that fields, farms and forests can be preserved. I know you don’t want to take away my front yard, but there seems to be a feeling on the part of some in this city that front yards, back yards, gardens, etc. are superfluous. I quote from the first paragraph of the article: “…it seems like an ostentatious display of wealth”, which is a preposterous statement. Seattle is not New York, Chicago or any of the others. It didn’t develop that way, as has been mentioned here. I just think the more greenery in the city, the better and that includes my garden and trees and those of many others as well as our robust park system. Seattle can fit many more residents into urban villages developing in the city. I wish we could concentrate our efforts toward that end (if we feel the city has to grow, and I suppose it does) and consider the SFH with yard as a historic relic and legacy of an earlier age, but one that, IMHO, still has merit and worth and needn’t be scoffed at.

      • Nathanael says

        Gardens are a bit different from yards, and more useful.

        The demand for gardens is high enough that in Manhattan, where the buildings often lack any sort of space for gardening, there are “community gardens” which people get control of small plots of.

        The demand for yards? Nobody seems to mind the absence of yards. They go to parks.

  18. Rod N. says

    I live in West Seattle. A SFH. I recently had an addition built. I had to go up because the existing zoning in my area of West Seattle would not allow me to cover more than 35 per cent of my approximately 5800 feet lot size. Yes, 35 per cent coverage.

  19. Mike Orr says

    The tradeoff of a longer front yard is a shorter back yard. Children, adults, and dogs use back yards much more than they use front yards. That was true in my single-family neighborhood growing up, and I see the same thing now when I walk past houses: nobody in the front yard, except sometimes a solitary gardener. So, small setbacks for a few plants may be worthwhile, but large setbacks end up being wasted space. Unless of course the purpose is to have an empty garden in front of your house. But what matters more to kids is a more conducive place to play, and what matters to adults is a place to barbecue and sit in the yard, or plant vegetables without passers-by stealing them. Front yards generally don’t do this very well, so it ends up being a diminished quality of life for the residents compared to what they could have.

    • Chris Stefan says

      I see houses with large front yards being used by kids, adults, and dogs. I see houses with a good portion of the front yard turned over to a vegetable garden. The front yards that get used do tend to be on houses without much of a back yard, and tend to be fenced or at a different level than the sidewalk.

      • Nathanael says

        “The front yards that get used do tend to be on houses without much of a back yard, and tend to be fenced or at a different level than the sidewalk.”

        An interesting point. I wonder what this says. Do people prefer back yards? Fenced or elevated/sunken front yards are not any more inviting than “streetwall” houses, and I see no reason to mandate setbacks if *that*’s the sort of front yard people want….

      • Chris Stefan says

        It is interesting that the only cases where you see much use of front yards is where there is some sort of separation between the yard and the sidewalk, either in the form of elevation change or with a fence.

        As for fences note there is a huge difference between how much of a wall they create depending on height and if they are visually transparent or not. A 3 ft high wire mesh fence is a very different thing than an 8ft tall solid fence.

  20. says

    I’ve seen some houses in the U-District with what I consider very small setbacks. I’m particularly thinking of 9th Ave near the library. Don’t know how deep they actually are, however.

    • says

      I used to live in one of those houses on 9th.

      Anyway, those houses predate modern zoning codes. Personally, I’d be pretty happy if we could go back to a sort of “1910″ zoning which would encourage houses to be built with more lot coverage and smaller yards. Nice porches, but close to the sidewalk — for many of us, this would be a good thing and would encourage neighborhoods more like the older parts of Wallingford, North Beacon, etc.

      I live a house like that now in a neighborhood like that. I have no back yard, actually. (I have a tiny front and side yard — very tiny.) I think that, within a city, that type of SFH is pretty good and not terribly suburban.

  21. Cheesewheels says

    I like yards, well…big yards. Yards in cities seem like a waste of time and space to me. I also believe that in neighborhoods that want to maintain an upscale SFH image, they should MANDATE yard upkeep and landscaping like many affluent suburban neighborhoods do. (North cap hill, Sand Point, Ravenna, Montlake, UQA should do this).

    There is a place for SFHs, and there needs to be SOME kind of step down to suburbia, esp near Richmond Beach and Lake Forest Park.

    • says

      ” I also believe that in neighborhoods that want to maintain an upscale SFH image, they should MANDATE yard upkeep and landscaping like many affluent suburban neighborhoods do. (North cap hill, Sand Point, Ravenna, Montlake, UQA should do this)”

      If people wanted to live in neighborhoods with overbearing neighborhood association rules, they could live in the ‘burbs. ;)

  22. says

    The good news is that all over America, they are building the safe, small homes with yards style neighborhoods that the charlatans and hucksters here have been destroying.

    Observatory Village in Colorado is a good example.

  23. Joanna Cullen says

    Remember some green space and land actually are good for the air quality and helps with drainage. Blocks and blocks full of lots of cement contribute to the heating of our planet.

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