The current debate about major changes to single-family residential zoning has become politically polarized, like every other issue. Clearly much more affordable housing is needed, and as soon as possible, but because there is a housing affordability problem, single-family housing has suddenly been declared “racist” by some groups as a convenient but inflammatory and erroneous way to justify a radical, top-down, across-the-board redefinition of our residential land-use patterns.
The fastest and most efficient way to develop housing is to build large, multifamily projects, and studies repeatedly show that Seattle’s multifamily zones have enough capacity to meet projected needs. These zones are on major transit lines and close to shopping and work areas. Multifamily housing can either be apartments or condominiums, so a variety of economic levels and ownership options can coexist. Seattle’s carefully developed urban-villages plan is based on this concept.
More, denser housing won’t necessarily mean more affordable housing. Many large cities are denser than Seattle, yet their housing costs are often much higher. Also, even massive housing construction will not fix problems related to inadequate mental-health care, drug addiction or people choosing to live outside normal society.
Seattle’s zoning already permits three housing units on single-family lots: a primary dwelling, an attached unit (ADU) and a detached unit (DADU). This allows denser housing that still preserves traditional neighborhoods. Yet even though Seattle allows these units, few have been built, indicating that most residents prefer their traditional houses.
For these reasons, elimination of single-family zoning — as proposed in state legislation — is unnecessary and would create significant problems and risks.
Increasing density beyond ADUs and DADUs is a leap to the common “four pack” and “six pack” projects. These generally level whole sites, eliminating most trees, open space and privacy. They completely change the nature of neighborhoods while creating housing that doesn’t work well for families with children, or most older people, and they are not particularly affordable.
Further, massive, one-size-fits-all rezoning is unprecedented and a terrible shift in public policy. For decades all projects have had to meet specific land-use standards based on local comprehensive plans and go through careful site-specific environmental reviews. Imposing zoning law changes across an entire city or state without review with respect to local conditions ignores a multitude of ethical, legal and environmental principles, as well as decades of planning for the environment, transportation, utilities, parks, schools and other public services. There is a 100% chance of unintended major negative consequences.
Redlining and discriminatory covenants affected many single-family neighborhoods in the past, but that does not mean single-family neighborhoods are inherently discriminatory today. Neighborhoods were discriminatory because of shameful, racist, private business practices related to sales, covenants and mortgages, not because of zoning laws. To address past inequities, it makes sense to develop proactive programs to help disadvantaged groups make up for past discrimination and have more housing options, including ownership, rather than eliminating the entire category of single-family housing for everyone.
Single-family housing is discriminatory only in an economic sense: It is generally more expensive than multifamily housing. On that basis, everything with a price is discriminatory. Single-family housing is more expensive because it has more open space and vegetation, more living space, more peace and quiet, and more stable populations of long-term neighbors who know each other — all reasons why people pay more to live in single-family neighborhoods.
In the last 10 years, much of commercial Seattle has been bulldozed and redeveloped, and/or allowed to lapse into disrepair, chaos and crime. Only Seattle’s traditional single-family neighborhoods have remained healthy and maintained their unique character. Polls show that most people prefer to live in single-family homes, so if these neighborhoods disappear it seems likely that people will start moving to the suburbs as they did in the 1960s.
If you do not support a radical, ill-conceived, statewide rezoning which will have unpredictable effects on the character of your neighborhood and the value of your home, please ask your state lawmakers to vote against House Bill 1782 and Senate Bill 5670, and follow up with your city council.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.