Seattle is on the verge of making some controversial land-use changes that advocates say will make this increasingly expensive city more livable for people who aren’t wealthy.
The city may soon allow taller buildings in the cores of many neighborhoods and ease restrictions on mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages. But change is hard: Those moves have encountered legal challenges.
Minneapolis this month took a much more dramatic step on density meant to ease its real-estate crunch and address its history of racial segregation: The City Council there voted to end single-family zoning altogether. Moving ahead, the Midwest city will allow duplexes and triplexes on every block.
The Seattle Times talked with Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender about the headline-grabbing change that she championed. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What just happened in Minneapolis?
We just adopted our Minneapolis 2040 plan. We’re required to adopt a land-use and infrastructure plan every 10 years, and this time our goals included eliminating racial disparities and taking action to fight climate change.
As part of that, the new plan says you can build up to three units on every lot. We’ll no longer have neighborhoods set aside for single-family homes.
How big of a deal is this?
Philosophically, it’s a really big deal. In the conversation we had leading up to this, we very explicitly addressed our city’s history of racial exclusion, and we were honest about how government policies contributed to that history. When you take redlining maps and maps of racially restrictive covenants and compare them to our single-family zoning maps, they’re almost the same.
We want to do better and a simple way to start to do that is to take away the exclusive zoning and really open up our neighborhoods.
What has the status quo looked like?
Many Minneapolis neighborhoods developed along streetcar lines, and those have a wide variety of housing types. You see duplexes and triplexes and single-family homes and apartment buildings mixed together.
Farther away from downtown, we have older single-family neighborhoods with Victorian-style homes and postwar single-family neighborhoods with rambler-style homes.
Our city is more than 50 percent renter and renters in our city are majority people of color. Not having enough affordable rental housing has really impacted our communities of color.
Four years ago, we legalized accessory-dwelling units. We made a political compromise to only allow them for owner-occupied homes. That conversation helped us build to this change.
Who were the proponents?
We had groups like Neighbors for More Neighbors organizing around the idea of needing more housing options in every neighborhood. We had a coalition of affordable-housing advocates that had candidate forums during our 2017 City Council elections. We have transit and race-equity organizations, and all these groups had their members call and email to support the plan.
Who were the opponents?
There was a group that organized to oppose the zoning change. They were led by a former City Council member and some community members, mostly from higher-income single-family neighborhoods (and a lawsuit against the plan was dismissed).
Why did your side win?
We’ve been working to set the stage for years and we’ve had a really open debate. People were able to speak up and our community-engagement process was designed to reach out to residents who might not otherwise have been involved.
We did outreach with cultural groups. We sat with people early on and asked basic questions about their experiences living and working in the city. We had 200 community meetings and took thousands of comments online, and then when our planning staff encountered pushback, they held their ground.
I think taking incremental steps worked and I think our grass roots engagement was critical. There was no way we could have passed this change just by having an advisory board recommend it.
When will the change take effect?
Starting in January, you’ll be able to apply (for special permission) to build a home with multiple units. We’ll update the zoning code next year.
What effects are you hoping to see?
It should give people opportunities to build wealth by having homes. Adding units should help people create more income. In neighborhoods where we’ve had only one housing type, we’ll now have other types that will often be more affordable.
This zoning change won’t be enough on its own to close racial-disparity gaps. But we’ll use other tools, as well.
How quickly do you expect to see new housing built?
I think the change in our single-family neighborhoods will be very gradual.
What have you heard about this issue in Seattle?
We’re all dealing with similar problems. With Seattle and single-family zoning, it’s just a tough issue. People are really emotional about changes where they live.
Is it inevitable that Seattle will make the same change?
Honestly, I don’t think so. A change like this requires a very concerted effort, grass roots organizing and political leadership. It’s not inevitable.
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