Recently a developer has been using a loophole to build small-lot houses in SF5000 zones in Seattle.  Single family zones are classified by the minimum lot size allowed for each home, and the options are SF5000, SF7200, SF9600, and residential small lot (as low as 2,500 square feet, but there aren’t many RSL zones in Seattle).  Publicola reports that Richard Conlin has proposed interim legislation  to end this construction of small lot homes in single family zones.  Conlin’s legislation is exactly the wrong direction for a growing city.  Over 27,000 new households predicted to move to Seattle between 2010 and 2020 in Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan’s Housing Appendix (PDF).  Yet the same appendix predicts only 865 of those households will have children.  We’re out of space for single family homes, and it’s time to question whether every one needs to take up as much land as they’re currently required to.

We live in a city, not the suburbs.  SF5000, 7200, and 9600 zoning probably made sense 100 years ago when Seattle was a small city, trying to plan out the next 50 years or so.  But we’ve grown well beyond our original vision.

I propose we remove minimum lot sizes on single family homes, or at least dramatically reduce them.

We aren’t building many new single family homes, so removing minimum square footage requirements won’t dramatically change our city.  But as homes are redeveloped, it will allow more homes to be built on the same amount of land.  This will increase density and allow more people to live in Seattle even if they want to live in single family homes.  A city-wide change like this will spread out new development, changing each neighborhood slowly and by a small amount.

Write your Council members* immediately and tell them what you think about this – they’ll meet on Monday to vote on the emergency legislation.

* Richard Conlin Chair, Tim Burgess Vice Chair, Mike O’Brien Member, Sally J. Clark Alternate

Update 9/10/12: The City Council passed this emergency legislation.  Of course, it’s still possible that they could take up my proposal and reduce/remove SF lot size minimums.

148 Replies to “End Single Family Lot Minimums”

  1. That box in the photo is the ugliest piece of crap I’ve ever seen.
    Put one of those next to me and I’m going to scream too!

      1. Exactly! And the car on the right is standing guard over the most usable floor at ground level.
        Cars +1
        People, walk up!

      1. They look really nice, in that setting, but just one, say in a single story neighborhood would… stand out like a sore thumb.
        Or, take the photo, and build 6 more attached to either side, and it would probably be OK.
        That’s why lots of sub-divisions have covenants to protect against this island building.

      2. I have no serious objection, particularly given the location.

        My big issue with these type of developments is usually the land-use mix of the surrounding area. All too often they are sited in residential-only deserts, without a single square foot of retail space in a several mile radius. At the linked development, however, a resident could theoretically walk/bike to the Everett Mall or even out to Everett Mall Way and the many services located there. It wouldn’t be a pleasant walk, as you spend most of it crossing parking lots, but it’s doable – you’re not 100% dependent on either a motor vehicle or CT’s substandard transit system.

      3. If one house on a block “sticks out like a sore thumb” because it looks like a box, I say who cares? It doesn’t harm anyone else, so if the landowner wants to build such a house, it’s his property and so should be his right to do so.

      4. How about painted like a jersey cow, only with antlers coming out of the roof, maybe flying a few KKK flags? Still OK?

    1. They’ll only stick out like a sore thumb until they build enough of them, then those crappy little war bungalows will be the ones that stick out like a sore thumb.

      Houses built in the 30’s and 40’s were good for how people lived in the 30’s and 40’s. Things built today ought to look and function like they came from the 21st century. And that’s exactly what I like so much about the new house shown atop this post.

      1. They’re being built essentially like detached townhouses / terraced housing. This is where I used to live: I don’t think you can tell from the map, but there were about 5-6 models repeated over and over again. It was simply a tightly-packed suburbia (except I could walk to the main street and local services).

    2. “Publicola reports that Richard Conlin has proposed interim legislation to end this construction of small lot homes in single family zones.” That’s true-ish. The proposed measure does not aim to limit construction of small homes per se; it aims to limit construction of homes *on undersized lots.* (You can still build a smaller home on your lot if you choose.)

      In my read, it aims to reduce exceptions to policy that are not in keeping with the spirit of the Comprehensive Plan. It is also a compromise between what some may call, on the one hand, a very liberal interpretation of the Plan and, on the other hand, denying all applications for lot size exceptions. Remember that the Plan aims to preserve the existing character and density of SF areas and direct new growth to designated areas.

      The proposal would simply impose slightly tighter restrictions on exceptions to code.

      1. Hopefully it will address hiding the value of two building sites as one lot on the property tax assessment. If it’s two lots you pay taxes on two lots. If it’s one lot you want to divide then you go through the process of requesting a short plat and show that you meet current codes. Otherwise it’s a loophole being primarily exploited by developers negotiating in less than full faith.

    1. Why not? It’s a very efficient.

      What I would do is require a builder to mitigate for privacy factors for surrounding properties. Fences or screening trees or situating windows so they don’t have direct views into the adjoining property.

      1. Ugh, those privacy mitigations are how we wind up with the ugly, walled-off-from-the-street, pedestrian-hostile townhomes that have plagued Seattle for the past ten years.

      2. The existing required setbacks in single-family zones (20 ft. front yard, 5 ft side yards) should provide enough room for any property owner to build a fence on their own land if they feel a neighboring house is an affront to their privacy. I see no reason to require fences if two neighbors agree that the required 10 ft between their houses is enough buffer on its own.

        As for driveways, the existing code requires vehicle access from an alley if possible. If there is no alley (as is the case on many Seattle blocks), then a front driveway is the only real option.

      3. Why does the code require every house to have storage for a car somewhere? Can’t some houses be built for those who don’t want to own or store a car?

      4. Didn’t we just roll back mandatory parking minimums for construction within 1/4 mile of frequent transit? Or was that only in Lowrise zones?

      5. We already have that. As long as your car storage is in the form of an enclosed garage, you can store whatever you want in there, not just a car. In fact, there are a lot of car owners who use their garage as general storage space and park their cars on the street.

    2. The driveway in front would be my objection, too. Every one of those small houses requires a curb cut in front for garage access. There’s nothing unattractive about the house itself, but imagine a street that has several of those small houses and a curb cut for each of them. We may demonize “free, on-street parking” on STB, but the taking of free on-street parking for the benefit of that style of home is equally bad. Excessive front yards may also be objectionable to most STB readers, but devoting almost the entire frontage to car storage is likewise not a “best practice”. Imagine walking down that street and looking at either empty driveways or Larry’s Lexus and Sally’s Subaru. Those small houses built on small lots should require alley access to the garage. If there’s no alley, then there’s no small house.

      1. Alleys? What Alleys? Most areas in Seattle are not platted for alleys. So unless the city is going to engage in massive taking of private property to make these alleys then driveways and curb cuts is what we’ll have.

      2. I drove by that house this morning. The problem with the small house is that the frontage of the lot is dominated by the driveway, garage door/auto and the curb cut. There’s a lot of concrete to look at! The lot is landscaped nicely to blend in with the house on the north side (not shown in the photo), but the driveway is too large for the lot size. Imagine recreating that situation several times on every block. Yuck.

        The small house would fit in much better if it eliminated the top floor and converted the ground floor to livable space. Then the street frontage wouldn’t be auto-centric and the curb cut wouldn’t be necessary. If an alley is available, the code should require parking in the rear. If no alley is available, Seattle should limit the number of small houses that can be built on a block in single family zones. And, if there is no alley, then I think it would be better to allow on-street parking but charge developers a fee ($10,000?) for an on-street parking easement and charge the eventual property owners an annual fee ($500?) for a street use license. Use the money generated to pay for mass transit.

      3. The big thing I’d do is require that, say, no more than 30% of the frontage could be taken with a driveway. Small houses just won’t get driveways.

  2. This is about lots of things, none of them having a single thing to do with “affordable housing.”

    1. You’re right. Not once was the term “affordable housing” mentioned. So what’s your point? Or are you just using the tried-and-true Seattlite-baiting tactic of hiding behind “affordable housing” or some other noble cause as a means to disparage something you dislike?

      1. If it’s not about “affordable housing,” then why do you want to destroy single-family neighborhoods? Lawn envy?

  3. I live in an 850 sq ft apartment, and if I could turn it into a SFH I would. The development of cottage neighborhoods appeals to me. I do want space, and I don’t want vertical density. I do want a car, but also a transit option.

    Small lots that allow for small homes seem a great compromise between overly large homes that are empty and unused, or are so expensive that 4 or 5 people have to share rent (when they’d rather have the privacy).

    Really, the Trailer Park, done right, could be the future of American residential design…

    1. Agreed, for once. Our biggest practical gains are to be found in shrinking the lot sizes for single family zones.

      Not everyone wants a 4 bedroom house with a 1/4 acre yard. Zoning should allow for people to build 800sqft cottages with a garden patch. But for most of Seattle (hell, most of King County) it does not.

      You hit the nail on the head with the trailer park statement. A properly executed trailer park makes all the right land-use compromises. Small lot/cottage zoning can emulate this without all the negative associations that got trailer parks killed off in the first place.

      Such construction IS currently allowed in Seattle, but not in single family zones. A area has to be bumped up to LR zoning in order to build cottage housing – and few developers are taking advantage of it at that point, usually deciding to build high square footage townhouses instead (950sqft is the maximum size of an individual “cottage”).

      Converting many SF5000 zones to LR1 zones might allow more cottage development, or simply actually using RSL zoning in more places to allow the cottages to be built separately.

      1. “Zoning should allow for people to build 800sqft cottages with a garden patch.”

        and shared parking. Part of what makes this home so out of character is the subterranean garage for their car. Land use would be far more efficient with grouped parking and/or neighborhood ZipCars. Ideally homes like this would be grouped together. The Cottage Company as done several developments like this although some take up more land area in total because of shared and native vegetation areas.

      2. The Cottage Company has been featured on shows like Evening NW and such several times. They are on whole pretty nice developments but the ones in Seattle and Kirkland ain’t cheap. It’s good to have a range of choices and The Cottage Company does a great job of making their developments fit in and enhance the neighborhood. On the flip side, when you enhance a neighborhood the prices go up. The only way you get cheap housing in a high demand market like Seattle is to totally trash a neighborhood. The dreamers just need to take to heart the old saying, “Buy land, they aren’t making any more of the stuff.” That’s the fundamental reason why this idea that “creating” new lots will lower the price of entry.

      3. +1 – Cheap housing is probably better created through aggressive promotion of ADUs in single family neighborhoods at the periphery of uban villages but that irritates neighbors for other reasons.

  4. Here’s an idea: Zone some neighborhoods for single-family housing, and others for multifamily housing. Wow! Who knew?

    1. You obviously didn’t read the post at all.

      We have way too much SFH in this city. Much of it is ripe for redevelopment. Not all of it will be redeveloped into low-rise housing. But under the current zoning laws, redeveloping SFH would mandate maintaining obscene 5,000sqft lots.

      If we’re going to keep accommodating SFH in this city, we need to stop forcing it to be so gargantuan and suburban-scale.

      1. We have way too much SFH in this city.

        If that were true it would be cheap. Supply and demand, remember?

      2. Housing styles are somewhat fungible. There are quite a few couples or even singles living in SF homes that would also be happy in smaller housing.

      3. And they are free to move. In fact they are free to invest in any of the numerous properties currently being built. There’s no doubt that’s a hot market; and it’s being addressed by the market. There’s also a very large contingent that want SF housing and (I don’t understand why) are willing to pay about a 100% premium to just to live in Seattle. One thing to consider is the propensity for urbanites to want to live alone. 2 per household vs. the State average of 2.5 means there would be 25% more housing in the City if people just weren’t so set on having a place for just them and their dog.

      4. You can’t just “buy a condo” if condos don’t have enough supply to meet demand, as is the case today.

      5. You can’t just “buy a condo”

        That’s funny. I know people that have been trying to unload their condo ever since the market collapse and prices plunged 25%. If you’re having trouble finding a condo to buy, A) you need to find a better realtor and B) it’s due in part to the market demanded shift to convert new condos to rentals because nobody was buying them. Time to change the name to Alternate Reality Land Use Blog.

      6. A percentage drop in price isn’t terribly meaningful – supply might have been strongly constrained, and a drop in the economy reduced demand a bit. A more useful comparison would be between Seattle condos and an average condo price from the metro region.

      7. Matt, the price drop was pretty much across the board. Seattle, King County and the region. Of course in absolute value Seattle saw bigger drops because it’s always more expensive the closer in property is. There was very little drop at the extremes; Lake Wasington waterfront/Penthouse Condos or run down/blighted/couldn’t sell even at the peak property. The biggest hit was to the McMansion market when people suddenly realized that, “gosh, prices won’t keep doubling forever and it’s not just like buying a CD with a 25% annualized return!?!?” One I know of listed at $4.2 million eventually sold for $1.2 million. People buying those weren’t buying a house but what they thought was a get rich quick scheme.

      8. “the price drop was pretty much across the board” And that’s my point. This wasn’t a supply-side issue, but a temporary demand-side one. We were still just as short on supply, but the demand was unwilling/unable to pay as much, so prices dropped.

      9. This wasn’t a supply-side issue

        Yes it was. The market was massively overbuilt. We didn’t have an exodus of people from the region. In fact it’s continued to grow albeit organically rather than an influx of people from outside the region. The demand driving the bubble wasn’t for affordable housing but for a can’t miss get rich quick “investment”. It was fueled by lending practices that allowed people to “demand” way more house than they could actually afford. The economy tanked not because of Boeing, Microsoft or Amazon but because of the overnight disappearance of all the construction jobs and it’s knock on effect.

      10. “The market was massively overbuilt.” You’re talking about the housing market in general, not in Seattle proper. I don’t think we ever broke 6% for vacancy here in the worst of the recession.

      11. I don’t think we ever broke 6% for vacancy here

        Bellevue Towers only recently hit the 50% sold mark. Large residential projects in DT Seattle were cancelled outright even after some had broken ground.

        Short Sales and Bank-Owned Properties a Third of all King County Home Sales

        Rental vacancy rates never got that high because few people are willing to step out in front of the bus when there’s still a glut of homes waiting to be sold. When inventory final gets back to some sort of equilibrium most of the projects that were converted from condos to apartments will start to revert back.

      12. “Rental vacancy rates never got that high because few people are willing to step out in front of the bus when there’s still a glut of homes waiting to be sold.” First, I was talking about overall housing vacancy, not rental. Second, ignoring any story you put in front of the numbers, enough people wanted to live in Seattle that >94% of homes were always filled. That’s close to 100%, when you consider transitions, summer homes, etc. As we recover, that number will go up.

        I guess I’m just trying to figure out what you mean by “massively overbuilt”. I don’t think a growing city can ever be overbuilt, without massive government subsidies. And it makes no sense to restrict growth in the name of protecting from an overbuild unless you’re planning on shrinking.

      13. I don’t think a growing city can ever be overbuilt, without massive government subsidies.

        That’s what Fanny and Freddy turned out to be. Remember TARP? There wasn’t much in the way of overbuilding SF housing in Seattle since there weren’t large swaths of developable land. An ill conceived repeal of zoning regulations and there might have been. There was most certainly a oversupply of condos built or at least in the pipeline before the free money ran out.

      14. “Overbuilding” imples that nobody wants to live in the empty units. That’s not the case in central Seattle or Bellevue; the problem is that the prices are too high. People either can’t afford them or don’t think they’re worth the price.

      15. “Overbuilding” imples that nobody wants to live in the empty units.

        WRONG. Squatters don’t count. If GM builds more cars than they can sell they sit on the lot costing the company money. If you hand out the keys for free you couldn’t build them fast enough. Wanting a free pony and market demand are two entirely different animals. Sorry, that’s life in the big city.

      16. You can’t just “buy a condo” if condos don’t have enough supply to meet demand, as is the case today.

        There are no condos to buy in Seattle? Who knew?!

    2. Where, in Seattle, would you propose rezoning from SFH to MFH? And where will the businesses (and jobs) be if everything is zoned for housing?

      1. Any SF 5000 area within a 10-min walk to a frequent transit line or a commercial node should be considering for rezoning to Residential Small Lot (RSL) or one of the low-rise (apt/townhome) zones.

        Another course of action would be to allow SF and ADU construction on lots as small as 2,000 sq.ft. in the “SF 5000” zone.

        If the concern is losing “family-sized housing” we could regulate unit size instead of lot size: minimum 1,500 sq.ft. units, on any size lot.

      2. Any SF 5000 area within a 10-min walk to a frequent transit line

        Ah, and there’s the hidden agenda that makes it so hard to support any transit funding measure. You try and do something good and instantly it becomes a battle to upzone. It’s never about fixing what’s broke but expanding the reach. Hell, if it worked you wouldn’t have case to go to the polls and ask for more money so why make it work?

      3. Why even have density maximums or “zones”, Bernie? Shouldn’t the market decide what’s best?

      4. Chris, density maximums create a floor and value. Without them and other zoning regulations, the market actually has no idea what value there is in absence of them.

      5. Chris — Explain that to Downtown Kent that has unlimited height limits (bar the FAA flight regulations for airspace). Developers don’t know what they’d get approved for and if they can get financing. Banking cares and so do developers. There’s this thing called certainty. Regulation is the invisible hand of the market.

    3. And that is how it is now. The problem is that there is nothing in-between SF5000 (single family houses on 5000sqft lots) and LR1 (townhouse 4-packs).

      1. there is nothing in-between SF5000 (single family houses on 5000sqft lots) and LR1 (townhouse 4-packs).

        Seattle has painted themselves into a corner. We lived for over 20 years and raised a child in a home that was only 910 sq-ft. Small detached SF homes aren’t a reality in Seattle anymore. Heck, they weren’t back in the early 80’s when we had to move from Lake City out to Woodinville. You make choices and live within your means and after a while, the sacrifices pay off… or you can just claim the government owes it to you.

    4. Here’s a better idea: allow single-family and multifamily housing in the same neighborhood! Why should the government be in the business of “social engineering”, dictating how close families can live to each other and how many families are allowed in a dwelling? Isn’t that kind of reminiscent of Soviet Russia?

  5. I think we have 2 options:

    1) Do nothing and keep requirements as is. SFH prices will skyrocket and overall prices will go up faster than usual (think: San Francisco). BUT: we will have nice large lots with lots of space to enjoy and space IS important.

    2) Keep on upzoning Seattle until it becomes Hong Kong and keep it affordable.

    Which one do you choose? I am not so against #1 as it sounds actually.

    1. Actually in your do-nothing option #1, house prices don’t skyrocket nearly as fast as rents. Seattle’s home buying market isn’t quite as zoning-constricted as its rental market.

    2. Well, anyone that already owns a home in Seattle is obviously going to favor option 1). Housing is scare? You already have a home, so who cares. Prices will go up? That just means you’ll make more money when you eventually sell.

      It’s people who don’t live in Seattle now, but might want to move their in the future who are harmed by option 1. However, as city council is accountable to the people who live here now, not the people who might live here in the future, it is perfectly understandable that option 1 works well for them politically.

      1. It’s not just people moving to Seattle. It’s also people who are renting now, and children of homeowners. Plus, there’s movemement between Seattle and the suburbs.

    3. Keep on upzoning Seattle until it becomes Hong Kong and keep it affordable.

      Yep, “affordable” just like Hong Kong. Who knew?!

  6. Given the assumption that the City Council is unlikely to go for a wholesale abandonment of the minimum lot sizes in single family areas, what would be your first proposed step towards achieving your goal?

    1. I would disagree with that. I think not passing the ordinance will increase resistance to increased density in single family areas.

    2. I admit it’s a bold step to remove mimimums – possibly too bold for the current Council. That’s why I added “or at least dramatically reduce them.” I think it would be a fine place to start by cutting them all to 2,500. My home is built on 3,000sf (pre-zoning laws), and I feel I have plenty of green space. Too much really. I think the neighborhood would have been much better without our wasteful front yards.

      1. I wonder if a good initial first step would be to identify areas for a SF2500 zone where the existing lots are already built out to a density that would preclude much further subdivision? That would be a way to get it on the books. Another step would be to downzone the SF9600 areas to SF7200 and SF7200 to SF5000.

        My lot is a little over 3,600 sf and it’s definitely more than I need. I’ll probably be headed for a condo within the next 5-10 years.

      2. I agree — old neighborhoods like Wallingford that have tiny pre-zoning lot sizes are in demand. What is so wrong about those smaller lots? My house is on 3200sf and I have rosebushes and have had a nice veggie garden (though I don’t have it anymore — no time to maintain it). There’s room to go out there and eat outdoors in the summer, and hang out.

        There is clearly demand for nice houses on smaller in-town lots, so why enforce so much SF5000?

      3. How about just halving the lot sizes for the SF zones? 5000 -> 2500, 7200 -> 3600, 9600 -> 4800. Then when they get redeveloped, you can just split the lots in two. And it will also keep the 9600 zones half as dense than the 5000 zones.

        Seattle should also zone some terrace housing. Removing the side set-backs altogether is an easy way to increase density, and it neatly avoids the privacy problems because there would be no side windows to spy on the neighbour from. They only really work with rear alleys though…

      4. Seattle does have a 2500 sf zone, but it isn’t used much: Residential Small Lot. If neighborhoods that are predominately 3500 sf per lot (or less) get rezoned to this, it would be a good start.

    1. I suggest ostentatious.

      (My wife says “Is there a word for torturing poor people? Like for fun? Because that’s what a mostly lawn 15,000 sqft lot in Seattle is.”)

      1. Damn, I live on an acre, I must be genocidal.

        I think this argument is more productive at a lower temperature.

      2. I think she’s talking about kind of a “I can’t find an apartment for less than half my income, but this asshole is wasting all this perfectly good space on grass” mental torture.

  7. Matt – Thank you for bringing up this issue again on the blog. It is a minor change, but symbolically important as to whether the City is going to open up and encourage housing construction, or listen to neighborhood NIMBYs and continue restricting construction and pushing up housing prices.

    I have been corresponding with Mr. Conlin (and cc’ing the rest of the council) about this for the past few days, and they need to hear this message from as many sources as possible that we do not need to add any more restrictions on housing development. The “one home per lot” crowd already has lots of voices speaking to City Hall.

    SF 5000, 7200, and 9200 didn’t make sense 100 years ago. Many smaller lots were created in Seattle prior to the creation of minimum lot sizes in the 1957 code update. Pre-existing smaller lots were grandfathered in, but now Conlin wants to eliminate the grandfathering. That’s right – the issue is a 1950’s zoning code attempting to enforce suburbia on a pre-existing city.

    1. I agree that having the City look at revising the city’s minimum lot sizes is a great idea. I disagree with the post’s conclusions about this emergency legislation. The legislation is needed to stop this “up zoning” from happening in a back-door, uncoordinated way. The existing code (except from the RSL and DADU sections) just isn’t designed to address the sort of construction that’s happening through the loophole/grandfather clause. As I said in another comment on the earlier story on this blog — if the city wants to work on some broad revisions to allow smaller lots through clear code provisions, I’m all for it: let’s have that debate. But let’s not just leave it to opportunistic developers to handle it. They aren’t acting in anyone’s interest but their own, and few people would agree that that’s a good way for any city to develop.
      So, rather than arguing against the legislation, you should be supporting it. It essentially puts a stop to only the most extreme cases of this unplanned, ad hoc up zoning (i.e., newly created lots under half the minimum in that zone) and sets up a process and a timeline for adopting new legislation about how to allow this continue. I’m certainly supporting the legislation. Density is fantastic. But I’m not about to give the developers free reign over how and where that’s going to happen. That’s the status quo, and it needs to change.

    2. “SF 5000, 7200, and 9200 didn’t make sense 100 years ago.”

      I expect it was much more common for families to have vegetable gardens 100 years ago. It helps to have a backyard; I don’t think they had pea patches back then.

      You also need some space to dry your clothes.

      1. I have already mentioned that I had a fine veggie garden — three veggie beds, with square-foot gardening implemented so I had a LOT of yield — in my 3200sf lot that contains a bungalow built in 1911. There was also some room for lawn chairs and such. Previous owners also had a clothesline at the back of the house. 5000sf is nowhere near a requirement to do these things.

    3. I have been corresponding with Mr. Conlin (and cc’ing the rest of the council) about this for the past few days, and they need to hear this message from as many sources as possible that we do not need to add any more restrictions on housing development.

      Don’t worry, Conlin will “hear” the message, as long as it’s delivered by a very rich, very well connected developer.

  8. Regardless of any aesthetic judgments, I think the real scandal here is that the neighbors apparently expected land they did not own to remain permanently vacant (and to outsiders, ostensibly private and accessible only to them), and that they’re abusing the legislative process for this land grab.

    1. You’re misunderstanding the problem intended to be addressed by the legislation. The neighbors’ expectations were that the lots surrounding them would be developed according to the code. So, in a SF5000 zone, a lot owner next to a lot that’s around that size should have a reasonable expectation that the lot is going to have a single house on it. Maybe if they’re expert at reading our byzantine land use code, they’ll realize that there are some provisions allowing for new lots that are only 75% of the minimum lot size. But here, what’s happening is developers searching through dusty archives of property tax records and a century of recorded documents, and finding a document that at sometime in the history of the city , which for a long time had no restrictions whatsoever about lot sizes, addressed that lot as two lots. The developer then buys the lot, and immediately uses this loophole to create another brand new lot, with no limitations on its size. No reasonable person could expect that to happen. And it shouldn’t happen. Our zoning code should be clear and allow everyone — not just savvy developers — to understand what the development potential is on their own property and that of their neighbors. These developers refer to their practice under this loophole as “unlocking hidden value.” It’s completely hidden, and that should change.

      1. I agree with Brian. A home owner is required to disclose any known problems or encumbrances. These hidden bounty hunters are buying low and flipping the property based on facts undisclosed to the owner or any other buyers. It’s not that far removed from swindling an old couple into selling for half of what the land is worth by taking advantage of their trust.

        But here’s an even bigger beef. If you have one home on two develop-able lots you are going to pay a much higher property tax than if that same piece of land can’t be subdivided. These parcels have been paying the lower rate based on being one lot for 50-100 years. You lose the right to subdivide when you accept the lower tax evaluation that declares the lot to be a single building site. Duffus builds two houses, fine; send him the bill for the back taxes!

      2. What makes you both think these parcels were ever in the hands of the neighbors to the left and right?

        For all we know, these parcels were sitting dormant in the hands of a third party for decades. (If you Google Street View the above home at 4115 1st Ave NW, there is nothing on the lot but foliage.)

        The neighbors thought they’d gotten a free “bonus” with their own lots — an adjacent “unbuildable” lot that they could treat as their own de facto private buffer. Except “unbuildable” was not actually the law; the law included grandfather clauses.

        So now they’re crying foul because they can no longer take advantage of something that was never actually theirs in the first place.

      3. Most neighbours don’t even know about zoning regulations. Most don’t know what planning is. Why would they have any expectation about anything?

    2. “Regardless of any aesthetic judgments, I think the real scandal here is that the neighbors apparently expected land they did not own to remain permanently vacant…”

      Indeed. I do not imagine that I have any ability to prevent the neighboring lots to me from being developed, unless I buy easements on them.

  9. My mom lives in the northern Greenwood area. Many of the older houses(1950’s era) are being sold and renovated. Many of them are only 2 bedroom and one bath but have a nice sized lot. Meaning, room for the family to relax and bbq in the backyard and have nice landscaping around. What many of the new homeowners are doing is expanding. Usually, expanding by adding one bedroom to the back of the house and making a new back porch. This is so much better than tearing down the older house and then building a monstrous 5 bedroom/4 bathroom house that is out of scale for the rest of the neighborhood. I applaud these people who want to live in the city–many of them say they chose Greenwoood because there’s at least two different bus routes to downtown for their jobs–but still want to live in a single-family house with friendly neighbors. And, these older houses are really nice to look at. They each have their own style, not some cookie-cutter crap that the suburbs have. Sure, most of the houses are close to each other, but there is still room to walk around the house without feeling claustrophobic. It is fun to visit my mom and talk with her neighbors as they walk by and say “Hello.”

    1. Dangerous talk. People shouldn’t want ‘a nice sized lot’. Its totally selfish and ego-centric, and keeping out people who deserve to live in Seattle. Seattlites need to take up bonsai; that will allow them to have gardens on 2′ square plots and reduce lot sizes to 1000 sf. And forget bbq……..if you want bbq, go to KFC……they have great bbq wings.

  10. When is this site going to be renamed Seattle Land-use and Zoning blog? And can someone post a link to a blog that doesn’t go negative everytime something is “wrong”?

    1. From the top of the About Us page:
      “Seattle Transit Blog is 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that covers transit news for the the greater Seattle area. The blog also focuses on density and the urban form, and other forms of alternative transportation like bicycling and walking.”

      Land use directly affects transit. Transit directly affects land use.

      I’m not sure what you mean by your second question. Do you feel I’ve gone negative? I’ve simply disagreed with a proposal and suggested a different strategy.

  11. The biggest problem in reducing lot minimums is that it will result in the waste of hundreds of homes so the owner can redevelop with greater density, which is what you want, but the result will not be the affordable prices you keep looking for. The older houses were much more affordable. Having one Sisley in this city was quite enough.
    And, to the comment that we don’t need backyard gardens anymore. When you figure out that agri-biz has taken all the food value out of what you eat you will long for some real food from soneones backyard garden.

    1. The new houses are never affordable when they are new. The upper class always buys them. But the older houses being vacated by those upwardly-mobile folks will come down in price.

      You just have to think long-term. Any addition to existing housing stock serves to lower overall prices, even if in the short term it means bulldozing existing low-price units.

      1. Meanwhile you displace people who can’t afford more and fill the lanfills with developer cast offs.
        Take a closer look at who is buying these new SFHs. You’ll find it’s mostly young couples with two jobs who are moving out of attached living situations.

      2. [Glenn] Who moves into the attached homes? Someone who couldn’t afford those homes before they were empty.

        Every additional home you build inside of Seattle, of any style, means one more household can afford to live in the city.

      3. Matt, The rents never go down though. Well, not until a landlord lets them fall to ruin and then demands an up zone so it will pencil out. It just never seems to change.

      4. The only time in the last 50 years that house prices dropped in Seattle was following the 2007-2008 real estate bubble and to a small extent in the mid 80’s. But in the 80’s interest rates were in the double digits so things were not more affordable unless you had cash in hand. After seeing prices double in the first part of the last decade they dropped ~25% inside of two years. With interest at historic lows that’s as affordable as housing is going to get for the next 50 years unless there’s an economic collapse (in which case incomes drop so housing still isn’t affordable). Interestingly though following the collapse rents actually went up. People were afraid to buy and/or banks were afraid to loan so demand for rentals jumped and it’s taken 4-5 years for building to catch up to the new demand. When was the last time rents in Seattle went down?

      5. We’re in a housing supply constrained, yet economically strong city. Of course housing prices are going up. The question is how to keep them from going up faster than incomes. Increasing supply is the only way to do this.

      6. No, the constraint is the land. Seattle can never build it’s way to more affordable housing. At least not single family homes. You can create a lot of apartments and condos and that’s the only way Seattle can really absorb any significant increase in population anyway. SF homes are going to go up in price and subdividing will drive the price up faster with new construction. The old homes left will be then be worth more as building lots and get torn down further pushing people out of the city that want that type of housing.

      7. So there’s no hope for making housing more affordable except a collapse in employment like the Rust Belt?

      8. Frankly, as long as people keep immigrating to Seattle and high-paying jobs keep showing up in Seattle, it becomes very hard to make housing “more affordable”, unles you just build a hell of a lot of apartments.

        You would have to build enough every year to keep up with the new immigration, *plus* more.

        Indeed, a collapse in employment and a rise in emigration will bring housing costs down pretty quickly. (If they’re still too high after a Rust-Belt style collapse… you have a genuine structural problem; perhaps your city services are overstretched covering too much sprawl, and as a result your property taxes are too high. For instance. This happens in the Rust Belt.)

  12. Why is gutting single family neighborhoods the holy grail of land use planning when there is so much under-developed land in already up-zoned areas throughout the city? This idea also ignores the simple realities of market demand. Single-family homes exist because people want to live in them, and people who make that choice have just as much right to live in the city as anybody else. The city can and is being developed in smart ways without a wholsesale redefinition of what city living means.

    1. The small-lot housing we’re talking about exists because people want to live in them too. I’m not sure being on > 5,000sf is the factor that makes families want SF homes. So why are we forcing them to buy this extra land?

      1. No one is being forced to buy anything. If people didn’t want 5,000 square foot lots they wouldn’t buy them. I agree that there should be other options for smaller and denser housing. Both choices should coexist within the city, but they should be developed in a way that still retains the types of single-family neighborhoods that a large number of people prefer. I don’t agree with the idea that all single-family lot minimums should be done away with.

      2. No one is being forced to buy anything.

        I beg to differ. By the code, people are being forced into a choice between a townhouse in a 4-pack (LR zoning), or a detached house on a 5000 sqft lot (SF zoning).

        If you want a detached house, the city is forcing you into one on a big lot, because they don’t allow you to build one on a small lot (unless you happen to find a magic small parcel that predates the zoning).

        This idea also ignores the simple realities of market demand.

        Smaller houses on small lots are uncommon in Seattle not because no one wants to buy them, but because we’ve made it largely illegal to build them. The fact that developers have been jumping to buy up these rare grandfatherable small lots is proof of the market demand for such homes.

      3. There’s demand for all SF homes in Seattle. People aren’t shying away from 5000 sf lots so why rush to carve them up in an ad hoc fashion. I don’t have a problem with parcels that are grandfathered in. Anything that’s legit would be paying taxes as a buildable lot since the zoning went into effect in the 50’s. I have a problem with someone coming in and changing the rules. It would be like buying up farmland that had it’s development rights purchased and then saying, “Thanks for the tax break but Uncle Ernie put up a deed of trust to save the farm back in the depresion and that sale means I can now replace the crop rows with culdesacs.

      4. Smaller houses on small lots are uncommon in Seattle not because no one wants to buy them, but because we’ve made it largely illegal to build them.

        That’s just not the case. Open up King County Parcel Viewer and put in NE 123rd St and Sand Point Way NE. Loads of lots under 5000sf and many of those are under 2000sf. Now look at what’s actually been build on those lots in the last few years. We rented in that neighborhood back in the early 80’s all those lots had small old homes. What the market says is in demand is the largest new home you can shoehorn in. As always the new construction has raised prices.

      5. Bluntly, the market is saying that people don’t want yards.

        So why does the city government demand that everyone have yards?

        Rowhouses are basically prohibited in Seattle (as documented earlier at this blog), but they’re clearly quite attractive to buyers. People want large houses on small lots — because *most people don’t use yards*.

        Yes, a minority of people use their yards. But most people don’t. Why are most people required to have yards?

      6. difference between single family homes with little or no yards and apartments

        The difference is you’ll never achieve urban density with SF housing.

        Where there’s little difference is the price of a buildable lot vs size. Parcel 8820900298 is 3250 sq-ft and appraised at $145,000. Parcel 8820900296 next door is 7200 sq-ft and appraised at $120,000. Across the street is 8820900416 at 6000 sq-ft appraised at $150,000. The big difference is the house built in 2008 is $400k and the ones built in 1940 are $150k. Smaller lots don’t save much money but gentrification from new construction does make housing less affordable.

      7. ??? The one that’s 1940sf was $296k. Here’s a list that might help you.
        built land.. floor. price.. $/sf floor
        1998 3250sf 1530sf $292k = $190/sf
        2008 7203sf 2530sf $368k = $145/sf
        1956 6000sf 1940sf $296k = $153/sf

        You’ll notice both the 1956 home and the 1998 home is more expensive per floor square footage than the 2008 home.

      8. What’s your point, that larger houses are more affordable? The house built in ’56 is appraised at $75 per sq-ft of living space and the two newer homes are ~$100 sq-ft based on improved value. The smaller lot offers less value per sq-ft when you combine the total of land+improvements because, like I said, a building lot is a building lot and priced as such. The reduction in land value for the large lot home built in 2008 is because traffic noise is considered high. Note that all of these home are zoned SF7200. Only one, by 3 sq-ft meets that and the small lot is less than half the “minimum” but was “built” in 1998. FWIW, the “1998” house must have been left uninhabitable and then remodeled extensively in ’98 because property records switched from B&W to color back in the ’60s and that’s not the style of house that would have been built from scratch in 1998.

      9. My point was that it’s unfair to directly compare the prices of the homes, because the newer house is bigger.

        I think you’re reading too much into county-assessed land values.

      10. And you see no difference between single family homes with little or no yards and apartments?

        Not enough to justify the “New Urbanist” goal of destroying single-family neighborhoods, that’s for sure.

  13. Where are all these huge lots located? When I drive around Wallingford, Greenwood, Greenlake, Ballard, Loyal Heights and even Wedgwood, mostly what I see are houses built on small to small-ish lots. Maybe the house is a bit big and takes up most of the lot, but still, the actual lot is not huge like up in Edmonds or Sammamish. Many of the houses look like they are 3 bedrooms and 2 baths with a basement or second floor. OK, Wallingford has a lot of Victorian or Craftsman-style houses, but there’s not a lot of space between the houses.

    Why can’t we have a variety of homes in this city? That’s what urban villages were designed to be, to put higher density in certain parts of the city while leaving the other parts to be what they already are.

    For me, I would prefer a good sized house, 3 bedrooms and 2 baths, with enough space on the lot to have a good backyard to relax in and a nice sized front yard to have a nice street appearance. Not everything has to be a box like the picture on top or the crap that’s being built these days.

    1. Seattle lots tend to be narrow and deep. Sometimes if it looks from the street like the house fills the lot, there’s a large backyard hidden behind.

      Our lots aren’t as big as a Black Diamond or Sammamish lot, but there’s plenty of room to grow, and there’s plenty of people who want to move here but can’t.

      1. There’s really not plenty of room to grow. The land is limited and that’s why it’s important to use it wisely. Take for instance the poster child for bad/no planning in the picture at the top of the page. Or look at the <2000sf lots that have been developed in Lake City off Sand Point Way. If instead of 2000sq-ft houses on 1000sf narrow lots you combine five of these and allow a height variance for things like a common drive and underground parking you get more people into a much nicer neighborhood.

        Of course there are areas like around Georgetown and the Duwamish which can be converted to residential as the type of industry that was once there is never coming back. But just zoning it residential and allowing developers to carve it up into 1000sq-ft lots would be a really terrible idea.

  14. As a land use planner, I genuinely have to question why the Council believes this is a worthy discussion. I see nothing different about these mini-lots than Accessory Dwelling Units apart from a mapping standing point of parcels. It’s absurd. Frankly, lot minimums are a nuisance outside of SF9600 and above.

  15. I’m surprised that Seattle has forced some neighborhoods to rip out their streets and sidewalks in search of increased density. At the end of the day, we should all just walk everywhere over organic paths naturally worn soil. There should also be no engineered or altered material in any buildings, regardless of height. Bamboo is the way to go.

  16. Conlin is right on this one. This kind of development does nothing meaningful to increase density, and is totally detrimental to our SFH neighborhoods. This kind of development needs to be shut down.

    Put the stop in place, re-do the zoning to allow for true cottages on lots like these, and move on. But there is simply no reason for 3-story buildings like this on slivers of land in backyards of otherwise fine neighborhoods.

  17. I don’t understand this hidden-lot tax issue at all. What was the tax advantage in declaring lots you didn’t intend to build on? The tax law must have been very different because now you’d pay more for an extra lot.

    Also, the description of the problem is that regular-size lots have a hidden lot embedded in them. But the pictures show an extra-large yard next to the house, which means the lot is larger than normal. So this seems like a contradiction. The little storybook houses on small lots on 31st S, N 80th, and NE 55th, etc, should probably remain as they are. But if one house has an extra half-lot next to it, which has heretofore been a yard extension, why not build a house on it? It doesn’t bother me, not even if it’s 3 stories.

    1. The issue is people accepting the lower tax rate of a single lot and then someone coming in and claiming that all along it was really two buildable sites. Sorry, once you take the tax deduction for it being a single lot game over. You don’t get to hide one lot for 50 years and pay no taxes on it. That’s called a loophole. If you have a large lot and want to divide it fine. There is a process in place for that. If part of your argument is that it should have been listed as two lots all along then pay your back taxes and we’ll call it even.

    2. Yes but my question is, why were these phantom lots created in the first place. The articles say “for tax reasons”, but what tax advantage was there?

  18. How are these houses any different from all the Skinny Houses that got built around here in the 80’s that everyone thought were ugly so the city made it so you couldn’t build them anymore? (See, for example, the ones across the street from North Seattle Community College; there are also some on the corner of NE 75th and I think 38th?) Or those tall and skinny houses they built in the early 2000’s, like the ones up the hill from Delridge behind the Home Depot (there are similar ones on Beacon Hill near Cleveland High School)? Is it that the lots are more tiny than the tiny lots that the Skinny Houses and their progeny have?

    1. How are these houses any different from all the Skinny Houses that got built around here in the 80′s

      Smaller, uglier and more expensive. The City made it so you couldn’t build them anymore? Just for fun I looked up the old house we rented on Exeter back in the early 80’s. I was stunned to see the appraisal at $584,000 but then I realized that a 2004 “remodel” left nothing of the original structure save the outline of the basement. Just before we moved out, couldn’t afford to buy in that neighborhood, a couple of single wides were built just down the street. Just as ugly now as they were then but way better than what’s at the top of this page. It would have made a lot more sense if they’d allowed proper row homes on these lots like you see in San Francisco or Boston.

      1. Bernie – I agree with your last statement, which if I make the correct assumption is build by design and not by code. How the code requires yards and setbacks on townhomes is ridiculous. a zero setback thereby maximizing density is key. yards are for suburban homes. townhomes are for people that want condo living without the hoa bitching!

      2. Townhouses, or more succinctly “row homes” can be great. They’re really great when they are the defining architecture of the neighborhood; like the relative that just sold a turn of the century home in Boston or the ones in San Fran. At least two of the three I cited in Lake City were developed at the same time by the same person. Although I don’t remember if there were existing small old homes there before it really would have been better for all involved to allow, no require, common walls. As it is these homes have just enough clearance to barely maintain the siding between them. I’d also note that while they have ally access in the rear all built garage openings to the lake side (down hill) and two of the three graveled/paved the back for additional parking but all park vehicles outside in front of the doors to their drive-in storage lockers.

        There should be a lot more flexibility in the building codes. That doesn’t mean a wholesale change in lot sizes. I’ve shown that in this neighborhood where I have some familiarity almost none of the homes even meet the existing SF7200 zoning. It would be interesting to know why Seattle designated it as such. I have a couple of ideas as to why that revolve around the infrastructure costs of allowing even further subdivision back in the 50s.

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