Seattle’s housing crunch could be eased by changes to single-family zoning, city report says

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The single-family zoning that dominates Seattle has priced people who aren’t rich out of most of the city’s neighborhoods, is contributing to income and racial inequality, and has forced the city’s booming population to crowd into small pockets of the city, a new planning-commission analysis concludes.

The advisory report released Monday stops short of recommending major citywide density but advocates for some mild changes that could affect districts that are mostly detached houses now. For instance, it asks for more duplexes near schools, expanding the boundaries of urban villages by a few blocks and reducing lot sizes to squeeze more homes into streets.

Like most cities, Seattle sets zoning rules that outline what can be built in different areas — from skyscrapers downtown and in South Lake Union to suburban-style homes with driveways in Magnolia and Crown Hill.

Facing historic population and housing-cost growth, the city has allowed taller buildings and more housing in some of its dense neighborhoods near transit — think central Ballard or the Junction in West Seattle.

But it’s kept single-family neighborhoods almost entirely unchanged: Residents in those areas dominate the electorate and many have been fiercely protective of keeping their neighborhoods the same, making any proposed changes there radioactive.

Now, the planning commission’s report, a year-and-a-half in the making, is the first effort from City Hall in years to tackle the single-family zoning issue here. Cities from Minneapolis to Portland to Vancouver, B.C., are moving to allow denser housing like duplexes in single-family areas.

Among the findings of the report:

• Single-family neighborhoods mostly accommodate high-income and white residents.

As the median cost of a house has soared to $750,000, “making homeownership impossible for those with modest incomes,” single-family homeowners make more than twice as much as those living in other types of housing. The household income gap between renters and homeowners has grown from $43,000 a decade ago to $65,000 now. Only one-third of single-family-zone dwellers make below the city’s median income (compared to two-thirds of people living in the rest of the city) and the disparity could widen as soaring property taxes push poorer homeowners to sell.

About half of white residents in Seattle own homes — while just one-fourth of black and Hispanic residents do. The commission argues a big part of the disparity is due to redlining and racial covenants, which decades ago prevented nonwhites from living in some desirable single-family zones, making it impossible for families of color to pass homes down through generations. Current zoning “perpetuates that legacy” by allowing only expensive housing there.

  • Growth in the city has been highly unequal because of zoning. Of Seattle’s 135 Census tracts, 31 have actually lost population since 1970 despite the city adding 180,000 people in that time frame. Almost all of the areas that lost residents were in single-family neighborhoods, often in upper-income areas close to the water where housing has not been added. For instance,the Madrona Beach (median home: $1.1 million) and Seward Park ($880,000) areas each lost about 750 residents.

Altogether, single-family zones that make up the vast majority of the city’s residential land have accommodated just 5 percent of new housing units built this decade,

• Land use is unequal, as well. Although prior analysis has pegged single-family homes as making up about two-thirds of the city’s residential land, the report says 75 percent of land available for housing is reserved for single-family lots. When looking at all land in the city — including parks, streets, schools and businesses — 35 percent is used for single-family lots, compared to 12 percent for other types of housing. The report notes this creates an equity issue for families, as well, since nearly all of the city’s schools and parks are in pricier single-family zones.

 

• Although concerns about “neighborhood character” aesthetics often frame debates about preserving single-family zones, buildings are in fact getting bigger in those neighborhoods.

Because developers have been tearing down smaller, older homes in favor of large new ones, the average size of a new detached house in Seattle has soared 31 percent since 1990, from 2,660 square feet to 3,487 now. Those new houses are often one or two stories taller than neighboring houses and carry a median price tag far above $1 million.

• Seattle’s housing stock is mostly either very dense (like high-rise apartments) or not at all (like a detached house). The so-called “missing middle” types in between — like duplexes, row houses and one-story apartment buildings — make up just 18 percent of all housing units.

To be continued in next week’s blog…..

~Mike Rosenberg, Seattle Times