Seattle councilmembers to propose eliminating ‘single family’ zoning

Jun 28, 2021, 2:49 PM | Updated: 6:01 pm
single family zoning, Puget Sound housing prices...
Homes in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Seattle Municipal Archives)
(Seattle Municipal Archives)

This fall, two Seattle City councilmembers will propose doing away with the term: “single family zoning.” The city’s planning commission has repeatedly asked for the change since 2018.

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda says if Seattle wants to be an equitable and just city, then it must apply that same lens to its zoning code in an effort to end the use of the term she says has been used to further exclusionary practices and discriminatory policies.

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“Language matters. ‘Single family’ zoning may seem to some as merely a planning term, but we know historically it has been used to further exclusionary practices and discriminatory policies of the past,” Mosqueda said. “If Seattle is going to be an equitable and just city, then we must also apply that same lens to our zoning code. After years of discussion, we are acting on what we know is right to undo the legacy of exclusion that exists within our planning documents—starting with how we talk about our neighborhoods.”

Mosqueda says the future proposal, co-sponsored by Councilmember Dan Strauss, will seek to change the name from “single family” to “neighborhood residential zoning,” creating a more equitable and inclusive Seattle and accurately reflect its diverse neighborhoods.

“I look forward to taking up this important proposal in my Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee to align our planning documents to reflect the diverse mix of households that make up our residential neighborhoods. Our city is a series of neighborhoods that are more vibrant than the name ‘single-family’ suggests — from backyard cottages and legacy duplexes to multi-generational households — this proposal reflects the Seattle of today,” said Councilmember Strauss, Chair of the Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee and co-sponsor.

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Mosqueda’s office said the language change will affect several elements of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, including: the Future Land Use Map, the Land Use, Housing, and Parks and Open Space elements, 17 neighborhood plans, and the Housing appendix.

Seattle legislators added their support for the language change.

“One hundred years ago, housing of all shapes and sizes was legal to build anywhere in Seattle. Since its introduction in the 1920s, ‘single family’ zoning has been expanded over time to encompass areas with apartment buildings, duplexes, triplexes, and more. ‘Single family’ zoning was designed to exclude and continues to hurt families and communities struggling with a status quo that doesn’t meet their housing needs—but the multifamily holdovers from the past remind us the status quo can be changed. Let’s use language that better reflects our values and vision for a zoning system that works for all,” said Rep. Nicole Macri (43rd Leg. District – Seattle).

“‘Neighborhood Residential’ is a more accurate description of the zone currently constituting the majority of Seattle’s land area. Current single-family zones allow for more than one family to live on a single parcel and are home to a wide range of uses. Seattle needs a zoning code that permits a range of housing types already existing in many single-family only areas, including townhomes, rowhouses, backyard cottages, in-law suites, and apartment buildings. Legalizing more diverse housing options is the best step forward for livability, walkability, affordability, and the climate.” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (37th Leg. District – Seattle/White Center).

“Updating Seattle’s planning documents to call our single family zones ‘Neighborhood Residential’ will allow us to be more accurate in our description of these areas that contain a diversity of households, services, amenities, and structures, and will help Seattle move beyond a system that singles out a specific type of household to one that’s welcoming to all neighbors,” said Rep. Frank Chopp (43rd Leg. District -Seattle).

KIRO Radio’s Hanna Scott contributed to this report.

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Seattle councilmembers to propose eliminating ‘single family’ zoning