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Economist: Seattle’s single-family zoning ‘doesn’t make any sense’

Over the last year, housing prices in Seattle and the greater Puget Sound area have skyrocketed. What can be done to manage that? Windermere Chief Economist Matthew Gardner believes that the solution may lie in ending single-family zoning once and for all.

Tacoma unveils plan to do away with ‘single-family’ zoning label

As Gardner points out, roughly 70% of Seattle is zoned for single-family homes, restricting the construction of larger, dense housing options, like duplexes, triplexes, or apartments.

“That doesn’t make any sense — we need to reconsider that,” Gardner told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “The trouble is we have a lot of existing residents who don’t like change. They want to keep the status quo, and they’re going to push back.”

Unfortunately, the battle to expand zoning in Seattle has been difficult for advocates of denser housing. The city features eight total historic district neighborhoods. That severely limits the ability to build large, dense housing in those areas, with the historic designation requiring the maintaining of “the appearance and integrity of structures and public spaces.”

In a city where “we’ve got no more land,” as Gardner notes, that lack of density drives up prices, leaving what he calls “forced renters” out in the cold, unable to afford even a modest-sized home.

Ultimately, he sees that as the end result of a city stuck thinking in an early-1900s mindset in terms of how it views housing.

Did Seattle’s upzoning measure not go far enough?

“Zoning in our area, it made sense when zoning was created in Washington state back in the late 1930s — it doesn’t make sense today,” he said.

He sees potential solutions in the examples set by places like Minneapolis, which upzoned 100% of its land in late 2018, and Oregon, which will be implementing a similar plan statewide starting in 2022.

“I think ultimately we just need to really kind of look at it in a different way, a fresh set of eyes, in order to try and accommodate other households out there,” Gardner said.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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