From commenter RossB yesterday, a lengthy response to how Seattle zoning got to be the way it is and what we might do about it:

It’s a problem, and I think it essentially progressed like so: Back in the day, Seattle built itself with a mix of houses and apartments. There was little regulation, so we ended up with a lot of buildings that would be illegal right now. Most people would consider some of them really nice (brick apartments without parking or small houses on small lots) while other buildings a bit much (high rise apartments in Madison Park or the Safeco building). But most of the city was a mix of smaller apartments and small lot housing. The houses are fairly close to each other, which I always took for granted, until a suburban friend of mine saw them and was shocked. At some point, we added regulation. At the same time, as growth spread outward, we incorporated areas that used to be farmland, and was never part of the city. These areas followed the standard suburban approach of the day. No cul-de-sacs, but big lots and fairly cheap, small housing. The Boeing bust hit and the city took a downward trend. There was no pushback against new development because there was so little development. Through the 70s, you had a gradual move to the suburbs, which again limited development in the city.

But by the 1980s, there was a lot of growth of two types in the city: duplexes and skinny houses. Both of these were OK by the zoning regulations, but neither were popular. In my opinion, the zoning regulations made things worse in both cases, because they required parking. But either way, in many cases nice, charming houses with interesting yards were replaced with ugly duplexes and boring landscaping (e. g. lots of cement and one rhododendron). Neighbors didn’t like this, so the regulations changed. Again and again, the regulations changed. They had a dual purpose, really. One was to try and force developers to make pretty buildings; the other was to try and limit parking hassles. On top of all this, you had people who just wanted things to remain the same. So the more regulation the better. The irony, of course, is that in many cases the regulations allow(ed) huge houses (AKA monster houses) to replace classic old ones, but not a duplex or row house. To many of these people, the key thing they want is for their street to remain the same. They often live on a residential street, not an arterial. To them, their compromise is to allow development on the arterial, just not the residential street. Once you make that compromise, those that favor development will push for the most development possible. If you look at a square mile of property and say that 90% of it has to be single family houses (each on a big lot) then you won’t be interested in building row houses on the other 10%. The demand for housing on that other 10% will simply be too large. You want big apartments because renters demand it (having been shut out of the other 90%). That’s essentially the current mindset. It’s not that people think we should be offered only the two choices you mentioned [eds, large single family houses or large apartment buildings], it is that people are afraid of new housing of any sort on their street.

On top of all this, you have sky high pricing for property of any type. I mentioned the monster houses, and they make sense. Why spend half a million for a small two bedroom house, when you can bulldoze it and put up a much bigger one for only 100 grand more? This sort of thinking goes on all the time in various neighborhoods. Not just the great neighborhoods that have million dollar views, but the more middle class ones, like the ones that used to be outside the city limits. Here is what I think the pro development folks should do:

1) First, level with people, and explain that any limitation in development costs other people money. The city is ridiculously liberal (we elected a socialist) but it is either ignorant or two faced if it doesn’t understand this. Over and over, we need to explain that limitations on any sort increase the cost of rent (for everyone) and the cost of owning a home (for anyone that doesn’t already own one).
2) At the same time, acknowledge that there are trade-offs. I own a house and I don’t want to live next to a forty story building, either. I also don’t want to see ugly buildings being built (anywhere).
3) Acknowledge that regulations designed to balance these interests often backfire. Regulations designed to insure pretty buildings have lead to some ugly, stupid housing (e. g. why on earth did the city mandate fencing in a city that has so little of it?!!).

I would propose the following:

1) Liberalize the mother in law apartment rules. This should be popular. Why tell the owners of a house that they can’t rent out the little shack next door, or develop it, when you want to preserve the neighborhood? That is crazy, and eventually it just leads to more tear downs.

2) Focus on the external dimensions of the buildings, not the number of residents. If it is legal to build a big house, then it should be legal to build a big duplex or a set of row houses. I could even see having the rules encourage density. You can build a big house or a smaller duplex. If there is push back, I can see two different approaches:

2 A) For areas of the city with big lots, go ahead and allow row housing, duplexes, small apartments, etc. Most of these areas are not super pretty, “classic Seattle”, but areas that until recently contained small, affordable houses on lots that weren’t all that pretty. People park on their lawns (in part because there is no sidewalk). In other words, people really don’t care that much about new housing going in. What they really want are sidewalks.

2 B) For other areas of the city (e. g. Wallingford) encourage conversions. There are plenty of big houses that take up most of the lot in various parts of the city. Why not allow these to be converted to apartments? The obvious reason leads me to my next point.

3) Parking regulations need to go. Of all the trade-offs, this one should be eliminated.

4) In areas that allow full blown apartment buildings, there shouldn’t be regulations limiting the number of residents (beyond the health and safety of the residents). Again, focus on the exterior. If a six story building is OK, then it shouldn’t matter if one family lives in it or eighty.

34 Replies to “Comment of the Day: On Zoning”

  1. If a six story building is OK, then it shouldn’t matter if one family lives in it or eighty.

    To a certain point yes. But 80 residents make a lot more noise than one. And don’t forget how many extra garbage cans those additional 79 people require.

    1. I don’t buy the noise argument. I live in a house. If I crank up the stereo, then maybe I get a knock on the door by the neighbor, but generally speaking, people will put up with it.

      But when I lived in an apartment, I could never crank up the music. If I turned the stereo up to four, let alone eleven, then I would here knocking from someone next to me (or above me or below me). I never had the opportunity to bother the folks across the street because the folks who shared a wall with me would tell me to shut up. If they were too timid to hassle me (this is Seattle, after all) then they might tell the landlord. No, generally speaking, I think apartments are quieter. No, dorms are another matter …

      As far as garbage collection goes, apartments should use dumpsters. I have no idea what was up with the people who wanted to use that many garbage cans for an apartment. But generally speaking, people in apartments create less trash than those in houses. Less room for stuff means less stuff means less trash surrounding the stuff. Anyway, generally speaking, trash in this city is not a big deal.

      What is a big deal is water. It has been a few years, so my guess is some of the new residents don’t know that every so often we have a big water shortage in this town. All it takes is a low snow year (in the mountains) followed by an early summer. Droughts happen just about every year (in July and August) so if we don’t have enough water in June, we have to wait until the fall rains (which can also come late). But here is the good news: Water usage goes down as density increases (per person). Yards are essentially shared amongst everyone. So less sprawl and more density means less concern with a water shortage. It also means that if we do have to pay for added infrastructure (bigger dam for a bigger reservoir) the cost per person is less.

      1. generally speaking, people in apartments create less trash than those in houses.

        That is incorrect. I’ve looked it up in the past and don’t care to google it again but apartment dwellers produce more “trash”. That’s because the tend to purchase a lot of “take out” and prepared foods that create a lot of packaging waste per meal and buy things in small quantities which is also packaging intensive. There’s also a much higher turn over rate and often it’s easier to leave a sofa at the curb than pay to move it. Recycling rates are also much lower for apartments likely because the lack of space makes in much less convenient.

      2. What is a big deal is water.

        Nope. There was a thought that we were running out of water and Seattle told the eastside they would be cut off from Seattle water at some point. That lead to the formation of the Cascade Water Alliance. Long story short, a plan to supply the eastside with water from Lake Tapps was developed; including using the BNSF ROW for the supply line. Conservation efforts exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. Last time I talked to someone from Cascade they assured me that the the Seattle water supply would be more than adequate to supply the entire eastside far into the future, 30+ years. Let’s be real, a water shortage in the Seattle metro area means odd even watering restrictions for lawns. Not exactly a natural disaster.

    2. The garbage cans are a legit concern but I see no reason SPU shouldn’t be encouraging the use of shared dumpsters outside of SF zones. In the case of rooming houses/apodments dumpsters should be encouraged in SF zones too.

      I’ve witnessed this issue around some of the denser town home developments as well.

      BTW I understand why the city wants everyone to have a yard waste/food waste bin but why the heck do they give units without yards those giant containers they give to SF homes?

  2. Seems to me, regulations and limits are what makes this a more desirable place to live. Let’s not apologize for having standards. What do all shantytowns have in common? Little to no regulation. So reducing regulations will make this a less desirable place to live, not better.

    1. Sorry, I must have missed the part when Ross proposed eviscerating safety standards and sanitation requirements.

      As strawman arguments go, yours arrived already on fire.

    2. Yep. Seattle will turn into a shanty town if you remove all regulations. You heard it here first, folks.

      1. @lazarus: at least with respect to Houston, deed covenants end up doing a lot of the work that zoning would do, at least in the more established middle class neighborhoods.

    3. And what do all ghettos have in common? They start with regulations. (See — I can play that game too). Enough with the hyperbole, Sam. That is a silly argument and you know it.

      No is suggesting we get rid of all regulations. There is nothing in my comment that suggests that. You would still have regulations that guarantee the health and safety of residents. You would still have regulations that require development be solidly built. Tin shacks or cardboard roofs would not be allowed. But converting a house to a duplex would be fine. Building small houses on small lots would be fine. Here, take a look at a few examples:

      House converted to an apartment:

      Little Houses:

      1. Ross, let me ask you a direct question. Do you believe there should be neighborhoods that are only zoned for SF?

      2. I wasn’t talking about safety regulations, btw. And yes, there was a theme throughout your post that we should get rid of or relax this regulation or that.

      3. @Sam,

        Only if the protected SFH houses are taxed at the value they’d have as mid-rises.

      4. What’s particularly silly about Sam’s insinuation that your prescription would lead to “shantytowns” is that it looks very much like the neighborhood in Wallingford I used to live in, with a variety of small apartments and some rowhouse-style developments, as well as houses that violate all manner of modern set-back and % of lot rules, all built before the 5000 SF shroud fell over much of North Seattle. It’s a very desirable neighborhood, where houses sell for well north of half a million, even though they’re next to apartment buildings where people who can only afford studio rent might be living. We can point to existing neighborhoods where the model Ross suggests works very well.

      5. @Sam — I specifically called out “the health and safety of the residents”. So, basically you are just making stuff up. Don’t try and read too much into the comment. It never called for anything like what a shantytown is, anymore than your continued support of regulation means that you like ghettos.

        As far as your other comment is concerned: No, not as it is currently exists within Seattle. The other regulations I outlined should be fine for every neighborhood, including the one I live in (which is zoned SF). I am fine with preservation; I think it should be balanced with the desire for new construction. So, for example, I could easily see this, as a reasonable compromise in for some houses:

        1) Allow for small house construction along with the existing house. There are plenty of lots (especially in my neighborhood) that could support this. As I said, you would still have limitations on the height and how close they are to a neighbor.

        2) Allow for house to apartment conversion, as long as the bulk of the house is preserved.

        See, those two suggestions are actually MORE restrictive than current regulations when it comes to preservation. That is why the regulations are so bad; they don’t preserve much, except parking and low density. That is crazy, really. With every zoning decision, there are trade-offs. As I said in my comment, I know people don’t want to live next to ugly buildings, but unfortunately, the current regulations don’t prevent that. In fact, it encourages it.

        Again, in most neighborhoods (like mine) I would go farther than just those two, so that more people could live in a neighborhood that looked like Wallingford, as djw explained. Really, if you haven’t been there, Sam, I suggest you go check it out. Absolutely lovely. I walk through neighborhoods like that all the time, and it is hardly a Shantytown. If anything, it makes my neighborhood (which only has single family homes on the residential streets) look like crap. I mean, in my neighborhood there are few interesting houses, and a some of my neighbors do a good job on the landscaping, but walking by the houses is less interesting because it is so spread out, and people struggle with the landscaping because there is just so much of it. Oh, and we don’t have sidewalks (in part because there aren’t enough people to make the cost go down). But again, if there is some area that contains some nice old houses and the folks there want to preserve them, then I would have no qualms with the compromise I suggested up above. That would keep the pretty, old houses, but increase density, which is a good thing.

  3. I’ve been thinking lately about some sort of way to preserve variety without totally closing off development. I like that my neighborhood (Fremont) has a mix of classic bungalows, world’s fair apartments, and newer townhomes. If it was just one of these types, it would be either expensive and lack people-diversity, or just plain ugly. With all the types though, it is attractive, shows all of Seattle’s history, and is relatively affordable. It would be great if there was some sort of provision for mixed types at the block level. Have other cities implemented that type of zoning? How can it be done, and to what result?

    1. I don’t know of any city that has anything like that (maybe somebody else does). But generally speaking, good zoning naturally leads to a variety of buildings. One of the reasons we have so many six story buildings is because the zoning only allows that in a handful of neighborhoods, and nothing more. There is little incentive, for example, to preserve a small four story building on a big lot, when the demand is high for all the units you could cram into a full block, six story building. But if demand was met by a variety of other means (by allowing house conversions or small duplexes as I outlined) then there would be more interest in building small. In other words, imagine that lot as having that small building and a parking lot. If rent is really low, then it makes sense to just leave things alone. At some point, from an economic standpoint, it makes sense to leave the building, but add a new building on the parking lot. Soon after (if rents continue to rise) then it makes sense to just level the entire thing and build right up the maximum allowed. We have jumped right up to that point because there are only a handful of properties that allow that much growth.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that, generally speaking, a change to zoning will change a neighborhood very slowly. You could change a SF 5000 area tomorrow and it would look pretty much the same a year from now. Most of the people won’t sell their house. But because demand is so high, and because we limit the areas that density, let alone taller buildings, the price is really high in areas that do allow conversion. In other words, if they changed the rules for one block from SF 5000 to six story, those people would get knocks on the door immediately. I can imagine the conversation.

      “No, I’m not interested. Name my price? Sure, how about 2 million? What, seriously? You will buy this little house and lot for 2 million bucks? OK, sure”.

      That’s why the building often follows the zoning. Just to be clear, I’m not recommending we change SF 5000 areas to six story areas. But if we did some of the moderate proposals I recommend, then the areas that allow six story buildings would probably have less of them. There would be less incentive to build them (right away) because rent wouldn’t be so ridiculously high. That would likely lead to more variety (especially if the area’s zoning changed again).

      1. Exactly, and it’s largely the lack of variety on our upzoned slivers that have made them so aesthetically anathema to the populace, and made “they’re coming for your block next” such a persuasive NIMBY fear mechanism.

  4. Here’s all I know. I don’t like the idea of urban elites outlawing single family home-only neighborhoods throughout all of America. [ot]

    1. What diploma is that Sam? Just so you know, I did graduate from South Seattle Community College, and I am proud of it, but I never waived that in your face. By the way, if you are as smart as you claim, my guess is that you can get in there, too. The culinary school is fantastic (you might gain a few pounds) but the highlight of the school is the turbo fan Boeing engines you can hear from most classrooms. Pretty bad ass. But I don’t see how that is relevant to the discussion.

      Oh, I get it. You have probably been watching Fox News, or some such crap and thought you could paint me as an “elitist”. Oops, you failed. I don’t drive a Volvo either, so let me spare you that stereotype. Like I said, SSCC isn’t exactly elite (but still bad ass) so your attempt at stereotyping just failed. Maybe, I don’t know, you should focus on the merits of the argument, instead of trying to paint me as being part of some tribe, and you the other — or, in Western terms, identity politics. As I said, I live in a single family neighborhood, and I haven’t proposed outlawing anything. You are the one suggesting that you know what is best for MY neighborhood, and I am basically telling you that you are wrong. Now, how about you come up with a decent counter argument, instead of telling me I want to turn MY neighborhood into a shantytown.

      1. I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking generically about anti-single family home-only zoned activists. People who are trying to outlaw SF zoning.

    2. Fun fact: Seattle’s zoning law says that a single-family house in multifamily zoning (LR1, LR2, LR3, and NC1; those are the only ones I checked) is a permitted use. I live in a SFH that is zoned multifamily. No one is throwing $2 million checks at me.

    3. But what if the dude who wants to convert his house to apartments is an 8th grade dropout and is living in a neighborhood of PhD holding anti-conversion zoning supporters?

  5. “outlaw SF zoning”…

    makes it sound like a violation of some libertarian populist principal doesn’t it?

    But zoning is law. Law that limits property rights. So you’re saying “I don’t want to outlaw the outlawing of multifamily housing.”

    1. How dare anyone outlaw outlawing of anything! We should be able to outlaw everything! (What?) :-)

      Yeah, what you said, Chris.

  6. What ever happened to that wonderful zoning tool called the conditional use permit, used for regulation when uses and design fell into a gray area between “by right” and “forbidden”? I don’t see why conditional use permits aren’t central to this regulatory discussion. Am I missing something?

  7. Ross,

    Great comment. I think your analysis is spot-on.

    I’m going to focus on your proposed solution.

    It’s unclear to me whether you’re proposing something that you think is politically feasible, or something that you think we should strive for over the long term. At first glance, it seems to be a hybrid of both.

    I think you’re not giving enough credit to the extent to which some people do care about the number of residents. The current battle over microhousing exemplifies this tension. Microhousing developments (a few years ago, anyway) were literally being constructed as if they were intended for 7 households, rather than 56. The exterior structure is exactly the same as it would be if these developments didn’t take advantage of the “microhousing loophole”, and yet people were up in arms because of the number of residents that the “loophole” would allow those buildings to have.

    (FWIW, while people pretended to care about the internal layout of the apartments, I think they really just cared about the number of people living there. I’ve never once read a newspaper article about a single-family homeowner who decided to add an additional door or wall in their home, or remove a kitchen.)

    However, I think you’ve touched on something really, really interesting, which I’m going to try to summarize:

    1. There is a weak correlation between the shape/size of buildings and the number of residents.
    2. There are groups of people who are opposed to certain shapes/sizes of buildings, and there are groups of people who are opposed to certain densities of residents, but these groups are not necessarily the same.
    3. Changing the “logical” layout of the built environment — e.g. how many people live in a building; how a building is partitioned; whether a building is used for residential or commercial — is much easier than changing the “physical” layout (e.g. the shape/size of buildings).

    These three points, especially #3, suggest that we should focus our battles on the physical environment. If we build structures that have the right shape but the wrong use, then in 20-30 years, in a different political environment, we can change that. If we build structures that have the right use but the wrong shape, then we have nothing to do but build out (or rebuild).

    Here are some concrete examples to illustrate what I’m talking about:

    – An apartment building can be subdivided into smaller units.
    – Live/work units can be replaced with actual retail.
    – Flat (non-sloping) underground parking can be finished and converted to indoor use — anything from homes, to co-working space, to an underground “mall”, to a bar or dance club.
    – In a central business district that is trying to be more active at night, offices can be converted to homes; in an outlying neighborhood that is trying to be more active during the day, homes can be converted to offices.

    My point is that these types of changes can be accomplished on a much shorter timeline, and for much less money, than knocking down a building and replacing it with a new one. So if we want to invest in the future, then our best bet is to focus on the things that will last for a long time, and worry about the rest later.

    1. I agree. That’s why as much as I would like to see more 2BR and 3BR apartments built inside the city limits, I know that worst case we can always knock down walls and combine a few studios and 1BRs. I’d bet one day (perhaps when the next bubble pops and vacancy rates soar) some enterprising apartment owner will do this.

  8. This is a great post and while I would agree with every detail, sets out the issues we face.

    It’s important to understand that the Seattle Coty Council is moving in the opposite direction from these measured and thoughtful ideas.

    Instead of developing a plan for how we grow, the Council is using future growth as bargaining chips to quell angry neighbors. For example, a modest change to single-family regulation that would have created 250 new homes was removed from small-lot legislation and heights were reduced.

    On microhousing legislation as it is currently proposed would add senseless requirements for more sinks and require that they be in the bathroom. The proposal would also impose expensive and time consuming design review that DPD itself acknowledges would result in less microhousing.

    These bargains with people who don’t want hosting on their block, neighborhood, or city mean fewer, more expensive options. Spending down our housing supply to try to make buildings better when the real agenda of housing opponents is no building at all hurts our future.

    We need the Council to hear from you. They have the momentum and we’ve got to turn that around soon — or we will become A crowded, expensive city like San Francisco with 100,000 unit deficit of housing supply. I don’t want that to happen to our city.

  9. Part of what makes this tough is the parking thing. A lot of people in single-family neighborhoods literally cannot conceive of a life without a car, or at least that’s the impression I get from some of the microhousing debates.

    1. The best was when a construction worker in my checkout line told me “I’m buildin jail cells.Where all those people goin find parking in this neighborhood?” I replied, I wouldn’t know. I bike.

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