How a Seattle Plan to End Single-Family Zoning Could Change Affordable Housing

Some of the proposed tools are untested, some are best practices. Together, they would set the city on the progressive edge.

Image Jason Redmond/Reuters
Jason Redmond/Reuters

Seattle may very well be destined to fall into the Pacific Ocean. Until that dark day when the big one hits, the city has to grow and live. And for a place on the brink, Seattle sure seems to want to set itself up as a model for everyone else.

Back in the fall, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council called on various community leaders to develop a Housing Affordability and Living Agenda for the city. Last week, The Seattle Times got its hands on the draft report of the group’s recommendations. One of the suggestions registers big on the Richter scale: Get rid of single-family housing.  

“Approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land—not just its residential land but all its land—is zoned single-family, severely constraining how much the city can increase housing supply,” the report reads. “Among its peer cities, Seattle has one of the highest percentages of land dedicated exclusively to detached single-family structures and a small number of accessory dwelling units.”

The 28-member committee—planners, business owners, architects, advocates, and other people in housing, right down to the tenants—even fingers how race and class discrimination have guided the history of single-family zoning. This is the purpose of single-family housing: to keep poor people and people of color out of white, wealthy neighborhoods by erecting high barriers to entry. The Seattle committee recommends that the city take those barriers down by replacing “single-family zones” with “low-density residential zones” and upzoning practically everywhere else.

That is a solution that is so clear and sensible that it’s dangerous.

The formal proposal released by Mayor Murray today is lighter on theory and details, but it gives a broader account of the mayor’s plans for affordable housing. Seattle can build or preserve 50,000 new units of housing over the next decade, with almost half (20,000 units) designated affordable.

That’s a reasonable goal. But it’s clear from the mayor’s proposal that he isn’t merely looking to expand affordable housing. Mayor Murray and his City Council allies want to build fairly. Seattle could get housing that is fundamentally just, and that’s something we haven’t seen in any city anywhere.

Use property taxes to promote affordable housing

Mayor Murray proposes to double Seattle’s housing levy—to $290 million—in order to build affordable housing. He also proposes a 0.25 percent tax on real-estate transfers in the hopes of capturing some of the value from rising land prices and redirecting it toward affordable housing. The mayor also calls for an expansion of the multifamily property tax exemption.

Reform parking and preservation requirements

Historic review and design review are important tools for protecting the culture and texture of a city, but yeesh, these tools can be a NIMBY’s deadliest weapon. Seattle’s already done the hard work of eliminating parking minimums from its urban centers and urban villages, so the mayor’s goal is to remove parking requirements beyond these areas.

Three mantras for building: taller, denser, more inclusive

Mayor Murray cannot eliminate single-family housing in one fell swoop. He would be chased out of town with pitchforks and torches.

But enabling low-density housing throughout most of Seattle (rowhouses, duplexes, triplexes, courtyard housing, and so on) is a start. The proposal also calls for taller height limits and relaxed building and fire codes to encourage denser wood-frame multifamily construction. Mandatory inclusionary housing plus upzoning to make room for these requirements is part of the mayor’s package.

Build in extra safeguards to ensure fair housing

The proposal recommends a “ban-the-box” approach to housing to ensure that people with criminal histories still have access to fair, stable, affordable housing. How this works will depend on the nature of the legislation (if and when it is proposed), but this could make a huge difference for present and future Seattle residents. Several other items on Mayor Murray’s wishlist would serve to identify low-income communities that are at risk of losing their homes before they lose them.

Actually do all of these things

Some of these tools are untested, some are best practices. Importantly, the Seattle proposal touches on themes of justice and affordability.

It’s not that any of these policies is radical or new. Some version of most of these policies has been tried before, in Seattle or in other places. Adopting some version of all of these suggestions together, however, would set the city way out on the progressive edge in terms of equity and affordability. Maybe—just maybe—Seattle can upzone, deregulate, tax, and build its way to affordability.

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