As we’ve said repeatedly on this blog, if Seattle is going to be the kind of city where a substantial middle class can thrive, it’s going to need more housing. A lot more.  A new report last week from the Seattle Planning Commission underscores the need for affordable “family-sized” housing in particular: just 3% of all affordable houses in Seattle have 3 bedrooms.  The lack of of such units is something I’ve long found puzzling.

The Planning Commission’s report suggests a number of ways to increase the number of affordable single-family houses, from tax incentives to new forms of housing.  Erica Barnett summarized the key points.   Most of the ideas involve creating various incentives or exemptions in the code to encourage the creation of 2-3 BR units in the city, or better coordination with Seattle Schools and other entities to foster affordable neighborhoods for families.  I’m particularly fond of the idea of “allowing a broader mix of housing in single-family neighborhoods with frequent, reliable transit.”

The real meat of the report, though, is an overall recommendation to up-zone Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods.  This is controversial, but important.  Discussions of where new development should go tend to be narrowly constrained to a few urban villages, while the vast majority of Seattle – something like 2/3 of the land – is considered off-limits (the yellow stuff in the map at right). So we argue about whether to allow 5 stories or 6 in a narrow sliver of Capitol Hill, meanwhile acres and acres of the city’s neighborhoods remain locked at absurdly low density levels.

To add insult to injury, as single family houses get more expensive, they become even more out of reach to larger families, resulting in a spiral whereby only small, wealthy families can afford them, thereby decreasing density even further. Gone are the days when the large houses on Capitol Hill housed families with 14 kids! Today, on the rare occasion when a plot of land in a single-family zone does become available for redevelopment, the land is so valuable that the only logical thing for a developer to do is build a huge, expensive house on it and sell it for upwards of a million dollars. Meanwhile, there’s a demonstrated demand for smaller housing – people want to live smaller, but their options are limited.

Up-zoning the single family zone at all will be politically difficult. Some have argued that the recent switch to district elections will make it even harder. The head of the SEIU, for example, called the ballot measure the “Craftsman homeowner-empowerment act.” But if we’re going to truly make Seattle affordable for families, there’s really no alternative. 

71 Replies to “Affordable Family-Sized Housing”

  1. Upzoning single family homes isn’t going to happen. There might be some potential changes around developing small lots and such, but we have already seen how difficult even that small thing is.

    1. Stop putting all the money into downtown Seattle and build out cheap elevated LINK lines all over King County.

      Then build neighborhoods just like ones people want to live in.

      Clone Seattle Now.

      1. I’ve watched you urging this for months, and I’ve finally got a response: Where will you get that money? Do you plan to repeal suburban equity and ship Seattle money out to your beloved suburbs?

        Also, what would the advantage of inter-suburban lines be without the connection to downtown Seattle and the UW (at least; I’d urge Fremont and Ballard too)?

      2. Where will you get that money?

        Where did the $6 billion for a tunnel stuck with a cork in it’s gut come from?

        Where did the 10 billion to squander two decades building tunnels inch by inch through 20 miles of Seattle come from?

        Somehow money for someone’s pet project or special interest commands billions — but the obvious things that would benefit the far larger majority never get done!

        what would the advantage of inter-suburban lines be without the connection to downtown Seattle and the UW

        I specifically say the idea is to create far flung yet desirable neighborhoods that can enjoy the amenities of the centralized locations, be they Seattle Center, Century Link, UW, Bellevue downtown, Redmond campus, SeaTac airport.

        I recognize the need to do the basics. However, I don’t see why these things have to hold up extending the necessary transit to areas where land is cheaper, and the types of neighborhoods people want can be built.

        Issaquah highlands gets mentioned, but can I jump on a LINK and take a 30 minute ride to a Seahawks game, or stay out at Pioneer Square drinking until 2:30am and then stumble into a quick ride home?

      3. Where did the 10 billion to squander two decades building tunnels inch by inch through 20 miles of Seattle come from?

        The taxpayers of Seattle. If the taxpayers of the suburbs want to pay the money to build elevated Link, I’m all for it. If it’s the requirement for uniform tax rates across the ST district stopping you, I’m all for repealing that.

        However, I don’t see why these things have to hold up extending the necessary transit to areas where land is cheaper, and the types of neighborhoods people want can be built.

        It’s not doing that. South King, Snohomish, and Pierce money is being banked now; East King money is going into unacceptably-lengthy studies and preparation for East Link. If you want to spend that money now, be my guest – but North King isn’t stealing a single dollar. (I seem to recall it’s borrowing some from East King, but that was only after ST decided to hold it back thanks to the I-90 bridge.) Nothing is stopping you except money, and if you want to bake another pie of that, I’ll be cheering you on.

      4. Not South King. South King had to defer a Link extension (200th-272nd) when its revenue crashed in the recession. Therefore it has no banked money. So no Bailobahns, sorry.

        ST’s long-term plan is currently being updated, and I hope South King told ST what it wants now. But as far as we know the existing priorities are Sounder, Federal Way Link, White Center-Burien Link, and Burien-Renton Link. It’s unclear to me that South King will be able to afford all that in ST3, much less anything more. So maybe the focus should shift to upzones in Burien, Renton, and Des Moines.

  2. I wonder about the political feasibility of “no SF zones between 85th St and the ship canal.” If that succeeds, when the world doesn’t come crashing down, maybe it will be easier to upzone in other central areas.

    1. Good luck with that one. Ballard and Phinney ridge are both entirely within the region you mention, and there is a lot of SF anger brewing over their changing neighborhoods. Starting with a more reasonable position would be advisable if you want to achieve anything in the next decade.

    2. It isn’t about banning single-family homes. It is about allowing developers to have other options. Don’t play into Sam’s “forced” straw man.

      1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it is about banning SFH-only zoned neighborhoods. Peaceful, low-crime neighborhoods would essentially be told, “you are not allowed to live this way anymore. You must accept apartment buildings and Taco Bells next to your house.” Am I wrong? Won’t good, wholesome, Leave it to Beaver SFH-only neighborhoods be outlawed?

      2. “Peaceful, low-crime neighborhoods”

        If a single-family activist had written this, I might acknowlege their viewpoint while disagreeing with it. Most apartment dwellers are as law-abiding as house dwellers, and many of them actually live in houses in single-family neighorhoods at some point during their life. But when a known troll writes that single-family neighborhoods have lower crime, I have to think that even he himself does not believe it.

        “You must accept apartment buildings and Taco Bells next to your house.”

        Yikes, Taco Bell increases crime, news at 11. Please take a look at Madison Valley and note if you can find any Taco Bells. Most of the businesses are upscale, some are organic, and middle-class people like to live near them.

      3. @Sam,

        Presumably, then, Taco Times would be better neighbors. I have to agree that the Natural Burrito (with roasted sunflower seeds!) is indeed better than the Seven Layer.

    3. The excuses for opposing multi-family housing north of the ship canal are different from the excuses for opposing the same in the Central District. At their core, though, “preserving the character of the neighborhood” and “preventing gentrification” are really two different ways of saying the same thing, and both are ahistorical arguments.

      When those houses were built, they most certainly changed the character and demographics of the neighborhood. I find it laughable when a first or second generation immigrant politician raises the spectre of “gentrification”, when the person raising the argument *is* gentrification embodied. Are the Central District and Rainier Valley full of Duwamish?

      More to the point, are there more Duwamish living in those neighborhoods now than there were one hundred years ago? I don’t know.

      I would submit, though, that a lot more black and Asian people would be able to live in the CD and Rainier Valley, and many other places all over Seattle, if politicians would stop ignorantly using the term “gentrification” to keep a lot more housing from getting built. Indeed, it is the lack of new housing that is forcing people of color to move elsewhere.

  3. Main presently-unspoken fact about the days of nice households of fourteen children was that it was possible for one working parent with a high-school formal education or less to earn enough money to start that family with a swift final walk across the street from a school desk grown too small for him.


    However chosen, would like to have at least one candidate in every election who understands that the best guarantee of affordable anything is universal ability to do the affording.


  4. Would it increase the supply and/or affordability of family-sized houses if senior citizen property tax exemptions or deferrals were decreased or phased out? I’m not interested in booting out the elderly or low-income from the homes they raised their families in decades before but it seems like some housing stock is stuck with single occupants that could better house families. Single family homes can also be fairly expensive to maintain or they fall apart and the neighbors deal with run-down homes. Maybe seniors could be encouraged to move to an apartment by changing this tax policy?

    1. Seeing that seniors vote in more numbers than the fickle youth, good luck with that. You might as well advertise special “camps” for the seniors and other “useless” citizens

    2. In the lifespan of a city, the decade or two a senior citizen may choose to remain alone in the family home are the blink of an eye.

      If you want to move them along faster, try a carrot instead of a stick… liberalize restrictions that keep those seniors from housing other people in their homes. By the time I can’t maintain my 1,600-square foot, 4-bedroom home, I’ll be renting out two of those bedrooms, my home will have the same population density as when the rooms were full of children. (Ideally, I won’t be letting rooms for money, I’m walking distance from a senior center, my 40-year plan is to trade rent for services from off-duty nursing aides….)

      I’m lucky that my home is old enough it was designed to conveniently let out rooms. Many newer homes aren’t designed to easily segregate part of the house for a tenant, and zoning/building codes greatly discourage making efficient use of large homes whose owners no longer need every room.

      You can keep the physical character of the neighborhood while still greatly increasing available housing if you can strike down barriers to home sharing, just as car sharing makes more efficient use of cars that otherwise spend most of their time parked.

    3. At the age of 48, I’m starting to see senior-hood as getting a lot closer… More so than I’d like. And after spending a long time fighting to keep my house (first, from a possible eminent domain situation and then trying to keep it in a divorce) my immediate response is “oh, hell no.” We’re all going to be old someday. Let’s not make it worse than it is by forcing older folks into one of the more stressful experiences that we go through: moving unwillingly.

      My property is now zoned NC2-40′. When I’m gone, you can have it. :) At any rate, my plan is to rent out rooms as josh suggests. And well before I’m a senior citizen.

      Of course, it would be typical of our society to cancel benefits right around the time Gen-Xers get old enough to use them…

      1. The alternative is simply to build more homes of the size and class that even a senior or senior couple could maintain. I don’t know about you guys, but I went to “Grandma’s House” (a brownstone in Brooklyn) as a kid up until they both died of cancer. The only time an old person would leave their home is when they became incapacitated to the point of not being able to feed themselves.

        Here’s the real future.


        They just need the transit LINKs to make it work.

  5. I actually read this post twice trying to follow the logic. It takes a great man to admit he needs help. Someone please help me connect the dots. Here’s where I’m at so far. Seattle needs more affordable, three bedroom homes (even though Seattle has the lowest percentage of families with children, next only to SF). Most of the residential parts of the city are “locked” in low density levels. (someone once said “not a real thing” when I used the term “anti-single-family-homes-activists.” The solution to creating more affordable three bedroom homes is to force SFH neighborhoods to accept a “broader mix of housing.” Does this mean apartments? A couple of questions. We started off the post by saying we need to get families into affordable three bedroom homes, and ended with them being able to rent apartments in SFH neighborhoods. Huh? What happened to the SFH we want them in? Also, doesn’t this plan fly in the face of TOD? Every square foot of Seattle can’t be TOD. There isn’t enough money in the world to create that. So how is moving families out into non-dense SFH neighborhoods, far from frequent transit, going to encourage people to take transit? Is the gist of this post basically, let’s up zone SFH Seattle neighborhoods so property values of homes decrease so more people can afford them?

    1. A 3 bedroom condo, apartment, or town house is a 3 bedroom home. Rebuilding some of the existing free standing homes into multi-family dwellings would increase the number of available units.

      1. Oh ok. Thank you for helping to understand that. One more question. I’m honestly trying to learn here. So Fletc3her, would you say that SFH-only zoned neighborhoods are, for a lack of a better term, the enemy? That that type of zoning discriminates against the poor and minorities? Is zoning a form of legalized, institutional racism?

      2. I don’t know where you’re trying to go with your strawman, Sam, but the concept of single-family zoning is not the enemy.

        Zoning that enforces ultra-low density in a region that people (singles, couples, families) want to move to in droves introduces market distortions that move the barrier to entry higher and higher up the economic ladder.

        You want to call it institutional classism or institutional racism? We can have that discussion. But let’s not be so hasty with the labels when you are “honestly trying to learn” the actual problem.

      3. Is the only thing that you understand is the concept of war, with one absolute winner and the other(s) completely obliterated? Why else try to cast this in the terminology of war (i.e., the term enemy)?

        The bottom line of this whole topic is the concept of community where we all come together to make place for everyone. Is that (community) the foreign concept to you?

    2. Steve, then I misunderstood this post. Thank you for correcting me. I thought this post, speaking of obliteration, was advocating for the obliteration of the SFH-only zoning in Seattle. You are saying it isn’t?

      Question. If part of the definition of TOD is walkable neighborhoods near frequent transit, and Single Family Home neighborhoods have low walkability scores and are far from frequent, quality transit, then how will the newly relocated families into the car-centric, upzoned SFH neighborhoods be able to rely on transit? Doesn’t the upzoning create a whole new set of transit problems?

      1. You must not be very familiar with Seattle to think that there isn’t quite a large swathe of SFH zoning near walkable transit rich neighborhoods. For instance, despite all the carping about rezoning Sisleyville around Roosevelt station, the bulk of the zoning in the walkshed will still be SFH, which is a shame.

      2. The transit problem that would be created is the increased demand for frequent transit lines to some of the neighborhoods that don’t already have them. I’m not sure that’s a problem.

        Moreover, allowing more flexibility in current SFH zones could allow for more neighborhood business districts, increasing the walking score of those neighborhoods before factoring in any additional transit.

      3. Brent, it’s easier to bring Moses to the Mountain, than the Mountain to Moses. Build more multi-family housing near existing and future high quality transit. Don’t create density where transit isn’t.

      4. So the question is whether to radically upzone around all existing transit lines or whether to radically upzone everything? Three cheers for shifting the Overton Window!

      5. “Brent, it’s easier to bring Moses to the Mountain, than the Mountain to Moses. Build more multi-family housing near existing and future high quality transit. Don’t create density where transit isn’t.”

        Sorry if I am being cynical, but this strikes me as the BRT advocates saying don’t build rail because BRT is better, but then are nowhere to be found when BRT is on the table.

        I don’t recall you calling for more density around transit stations when that was the topic of discussion.

      6. “Alek is a regular on Seattle Transit blog, one the many urbanist extremists who doesn’t even live in Ballard. Now he’s here to tell that building huge multistory buildings and destroying old stock will lower rent and CO2 emissions. Well, Ballard is having building boom, anyone see rents dropping? And what’s the carbon footprint of destroying existing housing stock and building new huge apartment buildings?”

        Do you recognize these words, Sam? Maybe that is actually a different Sam — one who happens to live in Ballard. The story is about a group organizing against development in the Ballard urban village.

      7. Sorry Brent, for the first time possibly ever I have to agree somewhat with Sam and not with you. I’ll take NE Seattle as a prime example, because I lived there for four decades and still own rental property (3 bedroom no less!) there. A good way to look at this is to note Oran’s frequent transit map posted above. There is (and always has been) a huge frequent transit hole in this area, and it is mostly zoned SF9600/7200. People in that area vote for transit. They realize the need for transit. They can’t USE transit (most of that hole requires a transfer to get anywhere, even Northgate, assuming you are anywhere near a bus line let alone a frequent one). Unless you magically place thousands of new residents in the area immediately, there will be no instant demand for new, better, frequent transit. There will just be more people trickling in as property is developed, all bringing their cars because there is no other viable option for easy mobility. No one is going to buy a pig in a poke and move without a car to someplace on the promise of someday having reasonable transit. Transit improvements need to be first, in concert with any rezoning, because then at least by the time the first new buildings are going in, good transit is a known quality and potential residents and developers can see that when making future plans. If they are not, sure–at some point there may be a critical mass of people there that demand great transit. Until then, though, they’ve added thousands of cars to an area where that has happened every time development has occurred for the past 30 years…and the traffic changes show it. The bus service over that time has for the most part gotten even worse.

        There is enough underdeveloped land on the fringes of areas that already have decent to good transit to allow upzoning there long before some sort of blanket “end SFH zoning” would ever need to be considered. The city hasn’t even put decent WALKING infrastructure in many of these places. Look at Lake City–most of the areas that already have multifamily housing don’t even have sidewalks or drainage. Who the hell is going to maximize development there? That’s an area that could and should be upzoned from low-rise to mid-rise or higher, but the infrastructure just sucks. Fixing those problems and upzoning there–and changing zoning for things like car dealerships to dense residential–could win some approval. Changing SFH zoning simply will not. The voters won’t see the need for it.

        I’m in favor of much more housing in the city. I’m no NIMBY–if I could, I’d call up one of the developers I work with and plop a high-rise tower on my property…but there had better be a subway station being built there or very frequent bus service first! (and where my property is, that ain’t never gonna happen)

      8. Thank you, Scott, for bringing up the frequent transit hole in northeast Seattle. My hope is for more frequency on the 372 and 65 once UW Station opens. I look forward to seeing you on the campaign trail!

        It doesn’t bother me having you agree with Sam’s argument, just this once, since Sam doesn’t actually agree with his own argument. ;)

      9. The hole in north Seattle is not because the existing zoning can’t justify more frequent transit. Metro’s own reports show that that area is currently underserved. The reason for the hole is that Metro has a limited number of service hours, competing demands elsewhere, and a reluctance to reorganize.

  6. I also take issue with Sam’s assertion that “Every square foot of Seattle can’t be TOD. There isn’t enough money in the world to create that.” Most European cities have central cores with high walkability scores; many much more populous than Seattle. To take an example I know fairly well —- London — The inner boroughs of Westminster, Tower Hamlets and Camden are each over 200,000; together they’re already more populous than Seattle, and while northern Camden does have a few pockets of transit difficulty, in general the three boroughs are very transit friendly. And I’m hardly cherry picking. Large swathes of Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Southwark are walkable: that’s more than another Seattle.

  7. Theory on the cause of the problem: With Seattle’s vast tracts of SF homes, it would have been be pretty crazy for a developer to try to compete with large family condos or apartments. Remember, developers rarely build for the poor, and the well-off can generally afford a SF home with a yard.

    Fast forward a few decades, and the older apartments and condos that are now affordable still aren’t designed for families. And the new ones being built still wouldn’t want to compete with the SF homes. So if you can’t afford a SF home and you want to live in Seattle with a family you’re out of luck – there’s nothing in the older housing stock, and the SF homes sit on too much land to be affordable.

    The one saving grace might be townhouses. Those are generally large enough for families, are reasonably dense, and around a decade ago we built a bunch of them. As they age they’ll become more affordable.

    1. There’s a huge gap between the poor and the “well-off” who can afford a single-family house in Seattle. Fast forward a few decades, and people who can just manage to buy a house now won’t be able to afford even those older apartments and condos. That’s why activists are saying we need a major increase in housing now. As for large condos being undesirable compared to houses, you’re overgeneralizing. Some people don’t like condos, but hundreds of people do so it’s irrelevant that others don’t. We should still build those large condos and apartments for those who do.

      And earlier Sam said Seattle doesn’t need large units because it doesn’t have many children, but that’s mistaking the symptom for the problem. The problem is that families can’t afford to live in Seattle. That’s why they’re not here, even though Seattle is more middle-class and has better schools than most inner cities. The ultimate problem is that this makes our population unbalanced, with few families in the city and most families in the burbs, and that will lead to larger problems down the road. So we need more large apartments and condos for families. We can’t build more single-family houses because there’s no empty land left. We could replace houses with duplexes, but the market will move toward higher-density townhouses instead.

      1. “Some people don’t like condos, but hundreds of people do so it’s irrelevant that others don’t. We should still build those large condos and apartments for those who do. ” Who’s this “we”? The developers are building what they and the banks think they can make the most profit from. That hasn’t been families, except at the townhouse market (and even then they’re probably sold mostly to couples with the idea of starting a family.

        “There’s a huge gap between the poor and the ‘well-off’ who can afford a single-family house in Seattle.” Sure. And I’m just saying that the market hasn’t been building homes for middle to low income families.

  8. I don’t think we should underestimate what can be done re: zoning. Identifying more neighborhoods that should have 360 degree walk-ability (instead of the silly linear upzones along arterials) is a good start. I nominate 85th and 15th NW as a starting point to the discussion.

    Has anyone here done the math on what Seattle’s housing mix will be after this latest apartment boom is occupied? We are already past 50% “multi-family” — which includes stuff that exists in SFH zones. My bet is that we are moving to be over 50% apartment/condo which means that many more people who imagine Seattle for what it is – a city. SFH rage might not be as defining a political stance as you fear.

    Also re: Sam. I think its good that you guys are sharpening your arguing tools with him, but really, don’t let him control the conversation like this. Its a waste.

  9. Let me offer a political argument for spreading out densification.

    One of my co-workers complains about transit not being anywhere close to him, so he doesn’t see why he should pay any taxes to support the bus system.

    If we have relatively dense corridors within walking distance of more of the county, then that should make it easier to get the votes to fully fund Metro and bring about the level of service called for in the Service Guidelines.

  10. Apodments have up to 9 bedrooms per unit and are “affordable”. Plus, you’d never need a babysitter!

  11. I have 8 people living on my 5000 sf single family lot. Could easily build a backyard cottage and fit a few more on the site without crowding, eliminating the garden or anything negative. If the city incentivized instead of punished people (with fees, taxes and bureaucracy) for adding density on their single family lots, we’d have all the housing we need.

    1. Kate has a good point. A tall, 3,000sf (counting the basement) Seattle home is far too big for what most families need so you often see them converted into duplexes. Add in the 800sf backyard cottage, and you could comfortably have three families on that lot. But the 8-person limit, combined with the maximum of one accessory dwelling unit, means that even though you’re allowed to build this (as many have) you’re not allowed to use that space for housing families. Crazy.

  12. Short of filling in Lake Washington, there is only so much land available.

    It seems to me that one of the big problems in Seattle (and most other North American cities, but in Seattle it is particularly pronounced since there isn’t any more land to be had) is some of the existing land use.

    Surface parking lots waste a huge amount of space. A few parking places for a business can easily take up as much space as the business itself. Developing incentives to build above such parking lots would help create more usable land. Rearranging the commercial landscape so that such parking lots consume less land (NOTE: I am NOT suggesting less parking but instead being more sensible about the sheer amount of land it consumes) would help create more usable land period, and thereby help take some of the pressure off residential land.

    Interstate 5 sure consumes a huge amount of prime real estate through downtown as well. The convention center started a nice trend of putting stuff above the freeway. It would be nice to bury it further.

    1. Urbanists have noted that half the land in American cities is taken up by parking lots and roads.

      1. Good! I wish it were more than half. Parking lots pay taxes, and roads bring workers (who pay income taxes) in cars (that pay for public transit) to their jobs (who employ people and pay taxes and property taxes).

      2. “Parking lots” do not pay taxes, a small percentage of parking spaces are priced and have a commercial parking tax. A tall building on the same lot would house people buying things and paying sales tax, as well as businesses paying B&O tax. “Roads bring workers” who pay federal income tax, but not state or city income tax, and require billions more in infrastructure to mitigate already clogged, potholed roads. Cars pay about $30 each per year towards public transit, a pittance compared with most civilized places in the world. the majority of people who travel from Ballard (where Sam claims to live) to Downtown, like me, ride the bus and do not drive.

      3. Sam, thank you for volunteering to convert your house to a parking lot! In keeping with the City of Bellevue’s tax rebate program, you are allowed to keep one tax-free parking space in this development, so that you can live in your car or build a tiny house in the space.

      4. Sam doesn’t live in Bellevue any more. He lives in Ballard now, where he is busily making development opponents rethink their position by trying to associate with them, against their will. Honestly, Sam’s act is so Stephen Colbert that I can’t help but believe he is actually faking out the NIMBYs.

  13. I also like their “action item #2,” allowing for slightly more dense development in single-family zones. My main concern is how politically feasible any of these proposals are. The tandem/cottage housing zones might be going a bit far for many people, because they allow multiple houses where one once stood (this seems to be the main crutch that the “one home per lot” folks lean on).

    I hope that the proposal to allow duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones would meet with less resistance. For one thing, a duplex doesn’t need to look all that different from a single-family home. Currently this type of building is only legal in multi-family zones, but these zones tend to be developed as townhome four-packs instead. I’m not opposed to townhomes in principle, but I do think they tend to be kind of ugly (at least as they are built in Seattle) and can understand why someone might not want to live in a neighborhood with a bunch of them. Duplexes, on the other hand, often look just like a house with two front doors. There are a fair number of grandfathered duplexes and triplexes in many of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods already. They fit in just fine, and the world hasn’t ended. There’s one on the corner of my block and I didn’t even realize it was a multi-unit building until a few months after I moved in.

    My recommendation for something that neighborhood residents might actually be willing to live with would be the following:
    1) Duplexes/triplexes can be built in single-family zones.
    2) Duplexes/triplexes are subject to the same yard size, lot coverage, and height requirements that currently apply to single-family homes.
    3) In lots where parking is required, one parking space is required per unit.

    Currently land prices are high enough in single-family zones that the only rational way to build a new house is to make it pretty close to the maximum size allowed by the zoning code. For a 5,000 square foot lot, that maximum is 35% lot coverage (1,750 square ft footprint) and 30′ height limit (three stories), for a total floor area of 5,250 square feet. These monstrous homes often sell for close to (or sometimes more than) a million dollars.

    You could fit easily fit a couple of three-bedroom units (plus a two-car garage) in that much floor space. The duplex would be the same size as the new mansion next door, it would preserve precious street parking by requiring an off-street space for each unit, and it would look nicer than a four-pack of townhomes. I’m sure the NIMBY folks will come up with some reason to oppose this, but I can’t help but thinking that they’ll have a hard time thinking of something that sounds more reasonable than “we would rather have one millionaire household on our block than two half-millionaire households.”

    1. The great era of new single-family houses in Seattle is over. Nobody is building new houses for regular people because every available parcel already has a house. So the only single-family houses that are being built are mansions for the rich, and public-housing redevelopments. Everything else is densification, anywhere from townhouses to condos. Even the public-housing redevelopments are densification because they’re going from a few houses dotted around a lawn to row houses.

    2. Good description Eric of how to gently densify SF zones. With good design it can work.

      We should note that the City relaxed limits in Lowrise multi-family zones in 2010, (LR1, LR2 and LR3) which has been highly successful in supporting new multi family housing production at the edges of neighborhood centers.

      However there is now a large gap between allowable density (and building form) between the least intensive of the LR zones (LR1) and most prevalent SF zone (SF5000). Zoning for gentle-densification between the available LR1 and SF5000 tools is needed. There is a little-known provision in the code for Residential Small Lot (RSL) zoning, but because of restrictive policies in the Comp Plan against modification of SF zones, this has only been implemented for a paltry 4 acres citywide.

      IMO, Efforts should focus on gentle-densification in or near urban villages or frequent transit – not a blanket attempt at affecting all SF zones. The clichéd idea of transition from multi family to SF areas is actually a good approach. Right now we have a hard edge.

      Also, there’s something to be said for the heritage value of Seattle SF neighbs. They’re a core part of the city’s identity and culture that shouldn’t be dismissed – like a UNESCO site.

      And, to a certain extent maybe we should get used to the idea that raising kids in the city is a status symbol for the rich and ultra rich, like it is in most other global cities with good economies. Not sure we’re going to social engineer our way out of that one.

      1. I think that’s pretty much true. For the most part, both kids and dogs need more room than is available in the city. ;)

  14. The newspeak of real estate is unraveling.

    Series: Unaffordable citiesPrevious | Next | Index
    Rising house prices used to be considered good news. Not any more

    It’s time to change the language of house prices. For decades, media reports have casually talked of householders “enjoying” price rises, of “hotspots” where the market is “performing strongly”. On the rare occasions prices fall, they are “depressed” or “subdued”. But a new poll confirms it’s not just a generation of priced-out Londoners who are rebelling: anger about an overheated market has spread across the country. No, the poll is saying, we don’t “enjoy” ludicrous rises in house prices. Enough is enough.

    This is an extraordinary turnaround…

    1. While I agree with the sentiment, the article as a whole seems more like wishful thinking from the left leaning Grauniad than anything else.

    2. Sometimes Bailo gets it right. A few years ago the Seattle Times had a quote from a Ballard homeowner who said he learned to be careful about talking with his neighbors about his rising home investment when one of them said, “I rent.”

      However, the poll is about Britain so it’s not clear how directly it applies to the US. London is like San Francisco++ in terms of house prices and inequality. Britian’s housing market and structure is different from ours. And its public is more left-populist than Americans are, largely because of its class legacy.

  15. A lot if existing single family is actually unrelated adults living together. They can’t afford even a studio and so they find roommates. Some people prefer to live with others but many would rather have their own place. I sympathize with families who can’t find housing. But we won’t be able to build for them until we satisfy the demand for single adults to live in their own places, or creative arrangements like apodments. The truth is, there are more dogs than kids in this city.

    Luckily, even apodments are more politically feasible than a blanket up zone of SF neighborhoods.

    1. I doubt it’s “a lot”, more likely “a few”, except in the University District. Especially since unmarried couples living together are officially unrelated.

  16. This discussion is truly insane. We live in a 108 yr. old home that we restored. We raised a family. We house an in-law. This is BAD in Seattle because unless we have 14 kids we’re horrible rich people? Not everyone can live everywhere. We can’t afford to live in downtown SF or NY. Are we complaining? No. The whining in this town is becoming very irritating.

    1. No one is saying that you’re a bad person.

      The argument is this. Compared to 50 years ago, there are more families who want to live in Seattle. But we haven’t done a very good job of meeting their housing needs. There are some existing houses, like the one that you live in, which are great for families. But it’s not cost-effective to build new single-family houses, and most of the new apartments and condos that we’ve been building are too small for families.

      If we allow developers to build more multifamily buildings in existing neighborhoods — and at the same time, provide incentives to build larger homes that are big enough for families — then we’ll go a long way towards making Seattle an affordable place for families to live.

      No one thinks that you should have to move any sooner than you’d like. But when there are homeowners who do want to move, we think they should be able to sell their property to developers who would like to use the land more intensively, especially if those developers want to build family-sized units. Otherwise, the only way a family can live in Seattle is if they buy an existing house from someone like you. That’s not fair to either of you!

      1. Not sure if this is going to add anything to the conversation, but here goes. As a parent, grandparent, and 45-year resident of Seattle, my perception is that families with kids want a yard for their kids to play in. If they move into a 3-bedroom apartment, that’s transition housing. Long-term, most such families will be looking for a place with a yard.

        Apartments don’t come with yards; at a minimum those families need a townhouse with at least a little yard/outdoor play space for kids. Yes, I know kids grow up happy and well adjusted in Manhattan, living their entire childhood in apartments, but Seattle ain’t Manhattan, and it won’t be for a very, very long time to come.

        In fact, this was one of my reservations about DADU’s, detached accessory units in the back yard. A home with one of those taking up all the outdoor playspace is unattractive to families with children. Yes, they add valuable housing capacity, but it’s one less home for a family with children.

        One option would be to just accept the fact that a small percentage of Seattle families have children and go with what we’re given. Families who grow children have the option to move out of the city to communities with more homes with yards for kids to play in. I don’t like this, personally, but I’m glad we live in a country where people are free to make such a choice if it suits them.

        Bottom line, we’re not going to see any wholesale rezoning of SF neighborhoods, with homes being demolished here and there and replaced with 6-plexes full of 3-bedroom units.

  17. Pingback: More Duplexes
  18. I agree we need more density, but I think that density should be achieved through a variety of zoning changes, and not just by creating more 5-6 story apartments around the city — main point, not all new families want to be renters, and many might want a yard — even a small yard. For this, I think we need to do much more to allow small housing and land ownership. I don’t think our community is enhanced by creating a larger renting class, but instead by creating more variety. I’d like to see many more compact houses on compact lots around the city — a good architect & builder can fit 3 bedrooms in compact efficient home that is enjoyable to live in, and that allows a person to step out into a small yard to experience nature, and this could be done on a 2,000 SF lot (with parking under the house).

    Lets not make Seattle into a giant hive of apartments with no yards on one extreme, combined with neighborhoods with 10,000 SF yards and 5,000 SF houses on the other extreme, but lets have more in the middle.

  19. I have to wonder whether or not if it would make sense to first drop the terms “single family” and “multi-family” from the land use discussion would be useful. I would also note that “family” is a term which was developed to imply nuclear families with children but many foreign-born residents (and increasingly US residents) understand that extended families are much more common than in the past, The real issues are about height, setback, lot coverage, FAR and parking.

    Perhaps we can discuss and eventually regulate things using only the term “residential” in our zoning and land use and not “family”. Perhaps we can eliminate the terms “single” and “multi” and instead define density by merely using small numerical values. I like 6 units per acre, or 20 units per acre or something easy to compare. Then we will be able to have a less value-laden approach to defining residential density.

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