Seattle Eyes Zoning’s Third Rail—Single Family Neighborhoods

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on July 31, 2015

My city of Albany, N.Y., is currently going through a rezoning process. Mostly this entails cleaning up a fragmented, inconsistent code that hasn't really be overhauled in 50 years to make things more consistent, understandable, and up-to-date, which should go a long way toward making development and redevelopment, as well as home improvement, easier.

When I went to a recent presentation by one of the consultants working on the plan, I was struck by how delicate he and the city's director planning felt they needed to be to tiptoe around the suggestion, obvious to most of us who live here, that it might not make sense to keep two-family zoning in areas where the built environment includes very high numbers of three-family homes.

Similarly, the consultant was at great pains (and I think he did a great job), to explain how allowing accessory dwelling units in single-family zoned areas has never caused anyone any problems anywhere it has been implemented. And yet, he added, that they are generally not allowed in the wealthiest neighborhoods, which was a shame since they tended to have the most space to accommodate them.

The inevitability that he accorded to the weathy neighborhoods' NIMBY power on such a small, no-downside thing made me deeply sad. I went home and wrote a newspaper column calling on Albany to prove him wrong and allow accessory dwelling units across all the city's single-family zones, regardless of income or lot size. I'll let you know how that goes.

But in the meantime, Seattle's Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) Committee has called for something so much bolder.

In their draft recommendations, they raised the idea of not having so much area zoned single-family at all, given the city's rapidly increasing affordability crisis:

"Approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land — not just its residential land, but all its land — is zoned single-family, severely constraining how much the city can increase housing supply,” the draft says.

The draft continues, “Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city’s goals for equity and affordability. In a city experiencing rapid growth and intense pressures on access to affordable housing, the historic level of single-family zoning is no longer either realistic or acceptable.”

Planners often speak about "maintaining the character of single-family neighborhoods" with the sort of devotion reserved for violent gods who punish transgressions swiftly and with vindictiveness. So it's no surprise that the group is already back-tracking on these comments, and even supporters are predicting they'll never get past The Homeowners.

But the fact that they raised the topic at all is impressive. That they acknowledged the troublesome roots of current zoning is both brave and essential. If large-lot zoning in the suburbs is exclusionary, it can be, and is, argued that massive swaths of single-family zoning in a very popular urban center is as well.

For my money, I'd want any upzoning in a market like that to come with stringent inclusionary housing requirements though, so that the promise of affordability was actually realized in a way that merely increasing density is unlikely to do when demand is so high.

What do you think? Is zoning a good way to address affordability?

(Photo credit: Doug via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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