This afternoon, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat had an excellent, but inartfully headlined, scoop: Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee (HALA–rhymes with balla) could, according to a draft plan leaked to Westneat, recommend doing away with the label “single-family zoning” and replacing it with the more inclusive “low-density residential zone,” which would allow more flexibility to build backyard cottages, duplexes, and other very low-density (but not exclusive single-family) housing types.
The new designation, even if it’s limited to a pilot project, as the draft suggests, would be a stunning rebuke to the supposed sanctity of single-family zoning, which applies to an astonishing 65 percent of all the land in Seattle.
The recommendation seems almost designed to fan the flames of single-family protectionism (ten bucks says the leaker was a disgruntled HALA member who believes he or she benefits from those protections), and Westneat (or his editor) didn’t do urbanists any favors by reporting on the proposal under the inflammatory headline, “Get rid of single-family zoning in Seattle, housing task force says in draft report.” (That headline has since been changed to “Drop single-family zoning, housing panel considers.” By tomorrow it may be “Housing panel considers change,” but the 500-plus unhinged comments on Westneat’s piece suggest the damage is already done.)
Those who believe it’s their God-given right to own a four-bedroom house on a 5,000-square-foot lot and never have to cross paths with a single apartment dweller on their route from house to two-car garage to office tend to see any incursion on that right (including a rule change that allows them to build an apartment for Grandma) as an assault on their way of life.
I mean, how dare those HALA hippies point out the historical fact that single-family zoning was originally designed to keep minorities and poor people out? Don’t they know that exclusive areas for wealthy white homeowners is just the natural order of things? The draft report begs to differ:
The exclusivity of Single Family Zones limits the type of housing available for sale or rent, limits the presence of smaller format housing and limits access for those with less income. Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city’s goals for equity and affordability. In a city experiencing rapid growth and intense pressures on access to affordable housing, the historic level of Single Family zoning is no longer either realistic or sustainable. HALA recommends allowing more flexibility and variety of housing in Single Family zones to increase the economic and demographic diversity of those who are able to live in these family oriented neighborhoods. In fact, HALA recommends we abandon the term “single family zone” and refer to such areas as low-density residential zones
But as much as I love the symbolic potency of a rule change designed to drive single-family protectionists apoplectic, there are so many other reasonable recommendations in the HALA plan that I hate to dwell on the most sensationalistic. Among the lower-profile HALA recommendations are two other relative bombshells that would probably have a much greater immediate, on-the-ground impact than the new low-density zoning designation.
The first is increasing maximum heights in all multifamily areas; the second, getting rid of minimum parking requirements everywhere.
The draft report recommends increasing the existing 65-foot zoning designation to a 75- or 85-foot zone and considering the same increase in 30-foot zones, to allow builders to max out the practical limits of wood-frame construction. These upzones would require changes to the city’s building code and, potentially, approval of new technologies like Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), which allows taller wood-frame construction, to make six- and seven-story woodframe buildings possible. The recommendations also include removing barriers to small apartment and condo buildings in low-rise zones, and encouraging rules that replace empty lots with multifamily housing.
And it recommends “reforming parking policies” to acknowledge the fact that car ownership is declining, by reducing parking requirements for all multifamily housing; redefining “frequent transit service” so that more multifamily developments can be built without excess parking; and eliminating parking requirements not just for backyard cottages but potentially for single-family homes as well. Justifying that last proposal, the committee writes,
Requiring one off-street parking space for every single family home is an artifact of an earlier era and is not a necessary or effective requirement. The space occupied by an off-street garage or parking space could be used instead to accommodate space for housing, including an accessory dwelling unit. The most common parking configuration – a driveway and curb cut accessing a garage from the street – occupies curb space that could be used to provide a parking space on the street. A 1:1 parking requirement eliminates exactly as many on-street spaces as it mandates off the street, causing no increase in parking supply, bisecting sidewalks with countless driveways, and gobbling buildable housing space for redundant (and expensive) parking. Therefore, the City should consider removing the parking requirement for single family homes.
When’s the last time you heard parking referred to as “gobbling” up space for housing?
There’s plenty more to like in the draft proposal—including a new buffer multifamily zone between single-family and commercial areas; expansion of urban village boundaries; increasing the amount of multifamily land across the city, and expanding funding options for affordable housing, along with many incremental changes that would lower barriers to entry for housing–but the connective tissue joining all of those elements is an eye toward long-term improvement, not instant gratification.
Gentrification and displacement may both increase in the short term, but upzoning land now will, the report argues, “help to stem rent increases over the long term. This strategy should be viewed as an investment in Seattle’s overall housing market affordablity for both current and future generations.” Translation: Don’t focus on the short-term loss of the dilapidated but affordable apartment that’s being torn down for transit-oriented development. Instead, see transit-oriented development as a long-term gain.
Similarly, transition zones between existing single-family and commercial areas may allow more density to “encroach” on single-family areas in the short term, but as the whole city densifies, they’ll serve as a needed buffer between more intense commercial uses and single-family areas.
Given the uproar over the very idea of putting single-family zoning on the table, it’s unclear whether the draft HALA recommendations will emerge from the committee in anything like their current form. But if they do, it could be a game changer for a city where urbanism has been a battle of tiny, incremental gains often offset by monumental backlashes from those who benefit from the established order.