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Seattle’s housing crunch and single-family zoning--Part II

Posted by Tom Covello on Monday, December 24th, 2018 at 12:07pm.

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The single-family zones that make up about 75 percent of Seattle's residential land have accommodated just 5 percent of all new housing added in the city this decade, according to a planning commission's report released earlier this month. Findings of the report are in my blog from last week.

 

The second part of the report lays out recommendations to help fix some of these issues. The planning commission has no power to make these changes — it must ask the mayor and City Council to do so.

The 16-member planning commission, volunteers appointed mostly by the mayor and City Council, is generally made up of professionals in the land-use world — from architects to urban planners to affordable-housing builders. They plan to hold public workshops in different parts of the city to talk about the report’s findings and will work with city leaders to sharpen their recommendations, which were purposely left “pretty vague,” Parham said.

 The commission advocates for extending existing “urban villages” — places near transit where more development is allowed — an extra quarter mile or so, which would allow more density on the edges of single-family zones.

It also wants to allow more “low-density” housing like one-story apartments, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, which were mostly legal throughout Seattle before zoning laws were adopted in the 1950s, ’60 and ’70s, in parts of single-family zones near parks, schools and other services, and on corner lots.

And, it advocates for banning McMansions, similar to new rules on Mercer Island, and allowing owners of existing large houses to convert them to duplexes.

“My hope is, 10 to 15 years from now, single-family zones may not look a whole lot different but there would be more people living there,” Parham said. “We’re not talking about towers or even modest apartment buildings — we’re talking the type of buildings that already exist right now” because they were built before zoning laws.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, in a statement responding to the report, did not comment on any of its specifics but noted the mayor “recognizes that too many families are getting priced out and pushed out of Seattle, and we urgently need more affordable and equitable housing options for homeowners and renters throughout Seattle.”

“We are currently reviewing the Commission’s report, and we look forward to listening to them, communities, and neighborhoods as we continue to build a more affordable and equitable Seattle,” said Kamaria Hightower, a Durkan spokeswoman.

Critical response
 Any sort of changes to single-family zones is bound to encounter resistance.

In 2015, then-Mayor Ed Murray unveiled plans to add more housing to single-family zones; the backlash was so swift that he canceled those efforts two weeks later. Right now, local density opponents are challenging and delaying plans to ease restrictions on homeowners’ ability to add backyard cottages and mother-in-law units, as well as a separate effort to upzone denser parts of the city and about 6 percent of single-family areas.

 

It’s easy to see why: People who bought into quiet, suburban-style streets often did so because it provided the space, quiet and parking they craved, away from the hustle-and-bustle of downtown. While plenty of residents in those areas have come around to the idea of added density as they watch their kids grow up and be priced out of the city, the idea of changing neighborhoods midway through the game has not sat well with a lot of homeowners.

“Homeownership is a key for neighborhood quality,” said Toby Thaler, president of the Fremont Neighborhood Council, who was critical of a lot of the recommendations made to add density to single-family zones. “If you let the entire single-family zones become rental, the cohesion of the neighborhoods, especially the close-in ones, is essentially going to get eroded away. It’s a disturbing trend and it’s part of the whole erosion of homeownership.”

 

Frank Fay, a member of the Wallingford Community Council, said existing zoning citywide includes plenty of room for more development in non-single-family zones.

“There’s no lack of places that can be developed for more dense housing,” Fay said. “There’s no reason that you have to rezone single-family zones for that.”

 Thaler also noted that most of the planning-commission members are involved in the development community in some way: “There’s almost no public-interest representation on that body.”

Parham countered that most of the commission members are homeowners and many live in single-family zones.

 

“That’s a false argument,” Parham said. “We’re all citizens of Seattle and live in neighborhoods just like everybody else.”

~Mike Rosenberg, Seattle Times

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