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September 29, 2008

Opinion: Does Seattle have too much single-family zoning?

Single-family housing is city's Golden Goose

Irene Wall
Unlocking single-family zoning in Seattle could kill the Golden Goose that makes Seattle attractive to natives and newcomers alike.

Our unique neighborhoods draw their character largely from the look and feel of their homes and streetscapes. The high value of detached housing also fills the city's tax coffers and provides a huge variety in housing styles — a counterpoint to the dreary monotony of the ubiquitous 4-pack townhomes.

Seattle's urban single-family neighborhoods are already remarkably dense. The Growth Management Act defines desirable urban densities as 4 units per acre. Seattle's 24 residential urban villages average 9 units per acre. Outside these urban villages, the average is 4 units per acre.

What do you think?
About 65 percent of Seattle is zoned for single-family homes. Planners and activists are debating whether some of that land should be rezoned to allow for more units, and whether such a move would make living here more affordable.

Tell us what you think. Weigh in on SeattleScape, DJC’s design and planning blog, at www.djc.com/blogs/SeattleScape

Seattle is already doing its share to accommodate regional growth. Without any incursions into single-family areas, the city already has three times the development capacity needed to accommodate predicted household growth to 2022, according to the most recent King County Buildable Lands Report. And those numbers are from before the recent economic downturn.

The argument that busting up single-family lots will drive down housing costs shrivels in the light of recent experience. Seattle added thousands of new housing units in the past few years while the cost of housing skyrocketed. We have learned that dense cities are expensive cities.

Seattle's kids also need a place to play, and our trees need room to grow.

A few years ago, city planners were experimenting with relaxed development regulations to spur affordable and diverse housing choices. One such experiment in Phinney Ridge would have subdivided a corner lot and built a second house in the front yard. This tall “cottage” would have dwarfed the original home.

During this pilot study, the opinion of immediate neighbors was taken into consideration (highly unusual) and the proposal was withdrawn when objections arose. The project was deemed unimaginative, incompatible with its surroundings and less than affordable. What was preserved was of incalculable value: a front yard surrounded by trees and room for a swing set, trampoline or wading pool for generations of kids growing up on the block.

Irene Wall is a North Seattle native, president of the Phinney Ridge Community Council and chair of the City Neighborhood Council's Neighborhood Planning Committee. She is also works in professional services marketing for Tetra Tech Infrastructure Group.

Too much single-family zoning hurts affordability

Roger Valdez

I grew up in a house in a quiet single-family neighborhood.

When my parents divorced my mom and I stayed in that house. The mortgage was affordable, never above $265 per month, and my mom was able to provide us with safe and stable housing. Now, as my mom contemplates retirement, the house is an asset she can use to support herself. This is great comfort to me, her only child living 1,400 miles away.

I should be the last person to suggest Seattle reconsider the privileging of single-family housing when it makes decisions about accommodating growth.

However, last century's model of using single-family homes as a means to create financial security for families like mine may no longer be realistic. A local land use attorney described our country's financial crisis at a recent city council hearing as “not a cyclical change but a systemic one.”

Is our current financial mess the fault of lower middle class families trying to buy their own homes? Of course it isn't. The pressure to acquire a home with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a yard is the problem. That pressure, combined with cheap money, led to billions of dollars in bad loans.

This pressure leads to similarly bad land-use decisions. Blind preservation of existing patterns of single-family use distorts our ability to accommodate growth. Two thirds of available land in Seattle is occupied by single-family homes. Resistance to density in and near these neighborhoods reduces the supply of other affordable options.

It isn't fair that the choice for working families is to live in a far-flung suburb or pay expensive rent in a city that refuses to increase its housing supply.

Cultural and economic pressure to own a house has led to financial catastrophe and is leading us to an environmental crisis as well. Single-family neighborhoods should accept accessory dwelling units and support increased density in adjacent commercial areas.

We need to realign our values to accommodate a new vision of homeownership that is more sustainable, affordable and livable for everyone.

Roger Valdez is a former city council and legislative staffer. He is now a consultant with an interest in using zoning to support neighborhood arts and cultural organizations.

Tell us what you think...

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