When Norm Rice was mayor of Seattle, he championed a new strategy for growth: “urban villages.”
The idea was to accommodate newcomers, revitalize the city and curb sprawl in the suburbs. The strategy, adopted in the 1990s, funneled new apartments, townhouses and condos into about two dozen neighborhood hubs, along with shops, parks and buses.
Nearly 30 years later, with Seattle’s population approaching 800,000 and the median home price recently topping $900,000,”it’s time to probably refresh,” Rice said in a recent interview. He isn’t sure quite how, but “If I had to deal with this today … I almost certainly would be looking at different options,” he said.
That’s what City Hall is now doing, in a process that kicked off earlier this month, when officials released a racial equity analysis of the urban village strategy and Seattle’s current growth plan.
The analysis recommends that the city change its zoning laws to allow more housing types in areas outside the urban villages that are now reserved for single-family homes. It also recommends the city adopt strategies to support low-income residents and residents of color who want to rent or own homes throughout the city.
In a sense, urban villages have achieved their aim, absorbing surges of development in dense hubs, the analysis says. But the strategy hasn’t kept home prices and rents from soaring. It also hasn’t stopped the displacement of low-income residents — including Black residents who make up a disproportionate share of low-income households, the analysis says.
The analysis links the current situation to practices used in earlier decades to keep people of color and apartments out of wealthy areas occupied mostly by white people. Neighborhoods in Seattle and other cities once had covenants that restricted homebuying based on race. Lenders discriminated against would-be borrowers based on “redlining” on government maps.
As covenants and redlining were outlawed, “local governments expanded the use of exclusionary residential zoning,” designating large swaths of land for single-family houses “that are typically unaffordable to low-income people of color,” the analysis says.
In other words, urban villages have allowed Seattle to grow while keeping single-family zoning intact across the rest of the city, the analysis says.
“The urban village strategy has not been able to mitigate the displacement of BIPOC residents because it perpetuates a land use and zoning policy that was specifically designed to limit their housing options,” the analysis says, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color.
The analysis adds: “With 75% of residential land excluded from accommodating more affordable housing types, low-income BIPOC residents are left confined to certain sections of the city, competing for limited affordable housing opportunities.”
Previous efforts to change how Seattle is zoned, including the urban village strategy itself, have encountered resistance. In the 1990s, some neighborhood activists opposed Rice’s plan, which included targets for subsidized housing. Some wealthy neighborhoods, like Laurelhurst and Magnolia, ended up without urban villages at all.
In 2015, when a panel convened by then-Mayor Ed Murray recommended the city tweak single-family zoning, objections led him to shelve the idea.
Murray and the City Council did advance legislation expanding some urban villages and requiring development projects to help create affordable housing. Current Mayor Jenny Durkan and the council completed that work and eased restrictions on accessory units, like backyard cottages.
The City Council requested a racial equity analysis in 2018, with an eye toward the next major update of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, a 20-year roadmap required under state law that must be revamped every eight years.
The process matters because the Comprehensive Plan guides decisions about zoning changes, investments and other concrete actions.
The city’s last major update was adopted in 2016, and the next major update is due in 2024. According to recent work by King County’s growth council, Seattle will need to add at least 112,000 housing units by 2044 to accommodate expected growth. For context, Seattle added about 68,000 units from 2010 to 2020.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda sponsored the request for the equity analysis, tapping the Office of Planning and Community Development to lead the work. The planning office split the work into two parts — a community-engagement process and policy recommendations.
For the engagement process, the office and the advocacy organization Puget Sound Sage convened five focus groups with residents “representing a range of racial, ethnic, and geographic communities of color.” The office also held an online workshop. The office then summarized comments from the focus groups and the workshop with about a dozen themes.
“The urban village strategy was seen by many as perpetuating a historical pattern of exclusionary zoning,” the summary says.
“Changing single-family zoning to allow more housing types could benefit BIPOC communities by reducing market and displacement pressures, increasing access to high-opportunity neighborhoods and amenities, and creating more options for homeownership,” the summary also says.
“Participants observed that under the urban-village strategy, displacement … has severely impacted BIPOC communities,” according to the summary. “Some cited as a contributing factor historically being shut out of many neighborhoods and confined to areas that are now targeted for development.”
Many participants said anti-displacement strategies, such as affordable housing, should be prioritized in the Comprehensive Plan, the summary says.
Households of color in Seattle are less likely to own homes and more likely to struggle with rent, according to a city report last year. More than a quarter of Black households spend more than half of their income on housing.
For the policy recommendations, the planning office hired PolicyLink, a national think tank “dedicated to advancing racial and economic equity” that also advised on Seattle’s last Comprehensive Plan major update.
PolicyLink reviewed city data and earlier reports, helped with the community workshop and wrote a memo that jibes with the engagement summary.
“Given its racist origins, single-family zoning makes it impossible to achieve equitable outcomes within a system specifically designed to exclude low-income people and people of color,” the memo says.
The memo says the city should, among other things:
- Add more community-controlled affordable housing, including near transit
- End the prevalence of single-family zoning, with a racially-inclusive approach
- Help community land trusts and other cooperative homeownership models acquire public and private land
- Use regulations to help lower-income residents rent and buy in areas now zoned for single-family houses
- Help provide opportunities for renters to buy their apartment buildings
- Coordinate workforce training with the city’s growth
- Develop an approach for providing reparations to BIPOC residents
- Include community members in city planning
The new analysis is a starting point for developing the next Comprehensive Plan major update, Rico Quirindongo, the planning office’s interim director, stressed during a meeting of the council’s land use committee. “There’s so much more for us to talk about,” he said.
The next three years will include extensive community discussion and more racial equity work, plus an environmental-review process, Quirindongo said.
Mosqueda hopes the new analysis will be a springboard. Relaxing restrictions on accessory units made sense, but more sweeping changes are needed, she says. She says development doesn’t have to equal displacement.
“We need a more racially inclusive approach to zoning, coupled with displacement mitigation,” she said. “Both can be done.”
In the meantime, Mosqueda wants the council to rename single-family zones as neighborhood residential zones. That wouldn’t alter regulations but would carry symbolic value, she says. It would reflect the reality that there are some apartments sprinkled in such areas because they were constructed early in the city’s history, before restrictions were tightened.
During a panel on displacement and zoning hosted last week by Mosqueda and Councilmember Tammy Morales, a speaker stressed that zoning changes on their own won’t yield opportunities for all residents.
“Building denser housing won’t help if BIPOC households can’t get financing or the subsidies they need to make this purchase or rent,” said Ab Juaner, equitable development manager at Puget Sound Sage.
“You could imagine a Seattle where multifamily developments sprout up in single-family zoned areas but are still so expensive that existing BIPOC communities are not able to afford them,” Juaner said.
Rice thinks Seattle should be exploring new ideas, partly because houses have become so costly. Under such pressures, “the people who get hurt are the people of color,” he said.
Meanwhile, City Hall should ensure new housing is well-designed and complemented by “good schools, good playgrounds and good transit,” he said. Those were his aims with urban villages, he said.
“What you’ve got to do is make sure children are exposed to the things that make healthy neighborhoods,” Rice said, adding, “The devil is in the details.”