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Bowman: Banning single-family zoning in Seattle isn’t nearly enough

A row of townhomes in Seattle. (Sean O'Neill, Flickr Creative Commons)

A bill that would have effectively banned single-family zoning in Washington predictably didn’t make it across the finish line ahead of a key Wednesday deadline. Even so, it highlighted the need for dramatic solutions to an ongoing housing crisis, especially in Seattle.

Did Seattle’s upzoning measure not go far enough?

The proposed bill would have banned single-family zoning in Washington cities with populations over 15,000 (roughly 80 to 90 cities). That would have opened up the door to construction of duplexes, triplexes, and apartments in neighborhoods originally set aside solely for single-family homes.

As a concept, that’s a winning idea. In a city in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, there’s really no excuse for Seattle to be roughly 70 percent single-family zoned.

More than that, when one side of the debate is arguing against more apartments by citing something as nebulous as “neighborhood character,” I tend to lean toward the side that literally just wants to afford a place to live less than an hour from where they work.

Oregon tackled this last year by becoming the first state to enact a ban on single-family zoning in its own large cities. Minneapolis did the same in late 2018. But can this work in Washington?

The answer is both yes and no.

I’m immediately skeptical of proposals that call for wholesale change while ignoring nuance. Seattle’s most recent upzoning measure took years of negotiating before it passed, and that eliminated single-family zoning for just 6 percent of the city. It also mandates that any new construction include a percentage set aside for affordable living spaces, something Seattle should be considering on a much larger scale.

That being so, a simple statewide ban on single-family zoning would be a double-edged sword. Sure, suddenly we would be able to build a high-rise with hundreds of available apartments in the heart of pricey neighborhoods like Magnolia. But there would also be nothing to stop developers from building luxury units far outside the price range of your average person.

Using other cities’ solutions won’t fix Seattle’s housing problems

To understand how that problem exacerbates itself, we need to look at why apartments remain vacant. Generally, economists consider a “healthy” vacancy rate for apartments in any city to be around 5 percent. Anything lower, and prices start to climb. Seattle’s vacancy rate in 2019 hovered around 3 percent, give or take, hence the city’s constantly rising rents.

When you start getting up over 10 percent, it starts to become clear that the problem isn’t that there isn’t enough housing — it’s that people can’t afford it. Enter South Lake Union, where an Amazon-fueled boom in luxury living spaces had vacancy rates at a whopping 12 percent to close out 2019.

That’s all to make one point clear: More housing doesn’t always equal affordable housing. Before Amazon, South Lake Union was an afterthought of a neighborhood filled largely with parking lots, empty warehouses, and run-down single-family homes. After dozens of new apartment buildings sprung up, the result wasn’t a salve for Seattle’s lack of affordable housing. Instead, it threw gas on the fire.

We do need more places in Seattle that allow multi-family housing, and there’s a strong argument to be made that the whole city should be zoned that way. But if we don’t find a way to ensure that people can afford to live in that housing, we risk heading down a path that leaves too many people out in the cold.

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