What should we do to combat the high cost of housing in King County?
A new poll of county residents found support for a handful of approaches that would increase the supply of homes, including one that’s highly controversial: The elimination of single-family home zoning — and not just in Seattle, but in the suburbs, too.
The survey of 501 King County adults was conducted by polling firm DHM Research for Quinn Thomas, a Seattle and Portland marketing communications company. Zach Knowling, a senior vice president at Quinn Thomas, said the firm prepared the report “to help inform the real estate industry and regional leaders about key housing trends in the Seattle area.”
The survey included a question about policy changes that could help increase the housing supply in King County. Respondents were asked about their level of support for seven potential remedies.
It found a slim majority of King County adults — 55% — support the idea of allowing larger apartments and condominiums in neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family homes in the city of Seattle. The level of support was only a little lower for the same change in suburban neighborhoods, at 51%.
Currently, the majority of Seattle’s residential areas are zoned for single-family homes and “accessory units” like backyard cottages, but do not allow for larger apartment buildings and condos.
Single-family zoning has been a highly contentious issue, particularly since the city’s population began to boom in the 2010s.
Many homeowners have fought proposals to allow denser development in their neighborhoods because they feel it will change the area’s character and cause parking headaches.
But in a city with a booming population, single-family zoning accommodates very little growth. Single-family homes also tend to cost a lot more than multifamily housing. Advocates for zoning reform point out that a neighborhood zoned only for single-family homes winds up excluding people of more modest means from moving in.
Minneapolis became the first major city to eliminate single-family home zoning in 2019.
While the survey shows a majority of King County residents want to see single-family home areas opened up to apartments and condos, there’s an interesting twist: Most of them would rather not live in those types of housing units themselves.
The survey found that county residents overwhelmingly desire a single-family home, with 83% choosing that as their preferred housing type.
Of course, this high demand for single-family homes, combined with a limited supply, helps explain why the typical house in King County now costs north of $800,000.
It’s clear from the survey that King County residents see more development as one way to help make homes more affordable. A solid majority — around 63% — wants to see more housing allowed on underdeveloped land, which could mean anything from unused vacant lots to low-rise buildings in upzoned areas. Another change that appeals to the majority of county residents is to open up public golf courses to housing development, supported by 53%.
The highest-scoring change, among the seven presented in the survey, is converting empty office buildings into apartments, with roughly 78% support. That’s an easy thing to support — there are no obvious down sides to it. But it’s also not a real solution to the county’s housing-affordability crisis.
The survey’s crosstabs show the elimination of single-family home zoning in the city of Seattle is favored by more men than women. There is particularly strong support among people who live in South Seattle (67% approve). Also, people who have recently moved within Seattle, and those who have been struggling with rent or mortgage payments, show a higher-than-average level of support for ending single-family home zoning.
Surprisingly, there isn’t a huge difference in support between renters and homeowners. There also aren’t significant differences in the level of support among the various age groups, along racial lines, or by degree of educational attainment.
Only two of the survey’s seven choices on the question about increasing the housing supply did not receive majority support. Reducing parking requirements for new home construction still had a strong showing, at 47%. Allowing more houseboats on our lakes only appealed to about 38%.
The survey was conducted Oct. 15-26. About half of the 501 people surveyed lived in Seattle, and half lived in other areas of King County. A variety of quality control measures were employed and responses were weighted by the respondents’ age, gender, race, education and area to match the demographic makeup of the county. The margin of error for this survey is plus or minus 4.4%.