MYNORTHWEST BLOG

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

Feb 20, 2020, 11:56 AM

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.

MyNorthwest Blog

Mayor Bruce Harrell, Sonics...
Nick Bowman

Mayor Harrell latest to pick up the torch on years-long effort to bring back the Sonics

Mayor Bruce Harrell is the latest city leader to take the baton on a years-long push to bring the Seattle Sonics back to their home city.
2 months ago
Bruce Harrell...
Nick Bowman

Harrell aims to ‘hit reset’ on strained relationship between Seattle mayor, city council

In his State of the City address, Mayor Bruce Harrell highlighted his hope to repair the strained relationship between his office and Seattle City Council.
3 months ago
ktth, bryan suits...
KTTH staff

KTTH debuts ‘Bryan Suits Show’ weekday mornings

Bryan Suits returns to Seattle airwaves as part of a new lineup on AM 770 KTTH. 'The Bryan Suits Show' airs weekday mornings from 6–9 a.m.
3 months ago
pet names...
Stephanie Klein

Top dog and cat names in King County last year

King County released its 2021 list of most popular pet names and 'Bella' and 'Luna' came out on top.
5 months ago
Seattle election results, Seattle City Hall...
Nick Bowman

What Seattle can expect in new year with shakeups at city hall on the horizon

Seattle City Hall is in for a shakeup at the start of the new year, with a new mayor, councilmember, and city attorney all taking office in January.
5 months ago
unvaccinated officers Seattle...
Nick Bowman

Durkan, Seattle council engage in one final clash in closing days of mayoral term

With Jenny Durkan set to leave office in a matter of days, she and the council appear to have engaged in one final feud, this time over trees. 
5 months ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!
...

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
...

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]
...

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]
...

COVID Vaccine is a Game-Changer for Keeping our Kids Healthy

Snohomish Health District SPONSORED — Cheers to the parents and guardians who keep their kids safe and healthy. The dad who cooks a meal with something green in it, even though he’s tired and drive-thru burgers were tempting. The mom who calms down the little one who loudly and resolutely does NOT want to brush […]
...
Experience Anacortes

Coastal Christmas Celebration Week in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.
Bowman: Banning single-family zoning in Seattle isn’t nearly enough