Seattle Preparing to Say Goodbye to Single-Family Zoning?

Remember a few months ago, when I suggested that single-family housing in Seattle would be on its way out soon?

If Seattle’s population keeps growing, there is a hard housing reality that we’re going to have to face: the death of the single-family home.

As of 2013, roughly 43 percent of Seattle’s housing stock is made up of detached single-family homes. That’s already a minority, but if Seattle is going to be able to continue growing, that number is going to have to go a lot lower.

With 7,776 people per square mile, Seattle is currently the tenth most dense city in the country despite being only the twenty-second most populous. However, if Seattle is going to keep adding more people into the limited space we have available, we’re going to have to kiss an awful lot of our single-family housing goodbye.

Apparently Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s “Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee” has similar ideas, according to a report published last week by the Seattle Times:

Leaders of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s panel on housing affordability rushed Tuesday to temper the group’s position after a draft report surfaced that included a recommendation for doing away with single-family zoning.

But some city officials say the idea of opening up Seattle’s traditional neighborhoods to more development is worth discussing.

Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, one of the council’s staunchest neighborhood allies, says the panel’s draft recommendation wasn’t far-fetched, and Councilmember Mike O’Brien says such changes wouldn’t need to be very dramatic.

“We’ve heard that some members of the committee have been advocating for that for a long time,” Rasmussen said. “I’m not at all surprised it was included.”

In the recent draft of its recommendations, the committee argued for converting Seattle’s single-family zones into “low-density residential zones” allowing more types of housing, such as “small-lot dwellings, cottages or courtyard housing, duplexes and triplexes.”

But, not everyone seems to be on board with the idea. A follow-up report published today by the Times indicates that Councilmembers Sawant and Licata are already preparing a competing proposal:

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s housing-affordability task force won’t publicize its final recommendations until 11 a.m. Monday, but two City Council members have already lined up in support of a competing proposal.

Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata are scheduled to take part in an 11:30 a.m. news conference unveiling the alternative drawn up by Jon Grant.

I’m going to stand by my April assessment about the future of single-family housing in the city of Seattle:

Either Seattle’s population growth will dramatically slow down again in the near future, or we’re going to be tearing down a lot of single-family homes to make space for more townhomes and condos.

Update: Here’s a follow-up post with the details on the final report that was released this morning: Mayor’s Affordability Committee Releases Tepid Growth Recommendations

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About The Tim

Tim Ellis is the founder of Seattle Bubble. His background in engineering and computer / internet technology, a fondness of data-based analysis of problems, and an addiction to spreadsheets all influence his perspective on the Seattle-area real estate market.

24 comments:

  1. 1
    DB McWeeberton says:

    “Either Seattle’s population growth will dramatically slow down again in the near future, or we’re going to be tearing down a lot of single-family homes to make space for more townhomes and condos.”

    This is why there isn’t another option. You can’t have 1960 zoning in 2015 Seattle. The only way to decrease the population is another recession, which might happen, or making the city financially unappealing for major employers, which won’t happen.

  2. 2

    RE: DB McWeeberton @ 1 – I don’t think it has to be an all or nothing situation. I’m not even sure eliminating all SFR zoning would comply with the growth management act. It sounds like total chaos to allow developers to plop larger projects around the city at a whim.

    This would be a lot more controversial if more homeowners had a clue what having a larger complex near your house does for property values. Even the next block over and your values are going to take a hit.

  3. 3
    sleepless says:

    Look at the Europe and most of the Asia. Most of the people live in condominiums and apartment style buildings. We have limited supply of land and, literally, unlimited supply of people (people breed, you cannot breed the land). You want urban living, so, yes, say goodbye to the SFH…

  4. 4
    sleepless says:

    By Kary L. Krismer @ 2:

    RE: DB McWeeberton @ 1 This would be a lot more controversial if more homeowners had a clue what having a larger complex near your house does for property values. Even the next block over and your values are going to take a hit.

    We will remain in this mess until people realize that the housing is not an investment, but merely a commodity. It is a shelter foremost, and should be affordable. I say, let’em build the hell out of it, more housing = lower prices and better opportunities to rent and own. Also it means more affordable housing. The housing should become affordable by allowing builder to build more.

  5. 5

    RE: sleepless @ 4 – Well until Seattle becomes a socialist utopia, it will cost money to live in housing, and that means there will be an investment component to it.

    But even ignoring that, having the multi-family housing nearby lessens the enjoyment of the residents of the surrounding properties, which is why it reduces the value of the property nearby. So if you don’t want to have an organized system of upzoning, you will be having an unnecessarily large adverse impact on peoples’ lives, not just their pocketbooks.

  6. 6

    What All the Blogs and the News Article Omit

    Where is all this apartment city living going to park, let alone drive on parking lot freeways totally congested during rush hours.?

    Oh, we’re eliminating cars and the light rail will automatically serve the company you work for….and I’ve got a bridge I can sell you too.

  7. 7

    By softwarengineer @ 6:

    Where is all this apartment city living going to park, let alone drive on parking lot freeways totally congested during rush hours.?

    I believe they are also eliminating the requirement that new construction provide parking.

  8. 8
    redmondjp says:

    By Kary L. Krismer @ 7:

    By softwarengineer @ 6:

    Where is all this apartment city living going to park, let alone drive on parking lot freeways totally congested during rush hours.?

    I believe they are also eliminating the requirement that new construction provide parking.

    So you park overnight in a nice neigborhood in South Bellevue near a light-rail station. Then you ride the train into Seattle to sleep in your apartment inside the car-free zone. Stranger things have happened . . .

  9. 9
    sleepless says:

    By Kary L. Krismer @ 5:

    RE: sleepless @ 4 – Well until Seattle becomes a socialist utopia, it will cost money to live in housing, and that means there will be an investment component to it.

    Having affordable housing has nothing to do with socialist utopia. Affordable housing means removing the grubberment from the housing. Does the grubberment make you iPhone more affordable? Or the free market does? I see no difference. Home is a shelter, it is a basic necessity. The more affordable it is, the better. The grubberment keeps home prices elevated by zoning, property taxes, subsidizing the mortgages, etc. Where as I am telling, remove zoning, or, at least, lessen it, remove subsidies for the housing (sub prime lending and tax credit, etc). I am saying, let the market decide what the true value of housing is, not the grubberment thru regulations. I say let them build 40 story apartments, as long as the money doesn’t come out of taxpayers pockets. And if you want a SFH, you are always welcome t move to the suburbs, this is why they are called suburbs. If you want to live in the city, then, you have to deal with the crowd.

  10. 10
    sleepless says:

    By softwarengineer @ 6:

    Where is all this apartment city living going to park, let alone drive on parking lot freeways totally congested during rush hours.?

    Dump your car and buy a scooter. This is what most people ride in Europe. Or, even better, buy a bicycle. Both, transportation and good for your health, and also good for the environment. I live in Bellevue, 2.5 miles from office. It is 40 min walk. So I walk to work. In worst case, Seattle has amazing public transit system, you can always ride a bus (train, trolley, etc), you can also choose to carpool. The problems are solvable if you address them properly.

  11. 11
    sleepless says:

    By Kary L. Krismer @ 7:

    By softwarengineer @ 6:

    Where is all this apartment city living going to park, let alone drive on parking lot freeways totally congested during rush hours.?

    I believe they are also eliminating the requirement that new construction provide parking.

    Good, fewer cars, cleaner the air! Probably we can fight both issues at the same time, CO2 emissions and obesity.

  12. 12
    sleepless says:

    By redmondjp @ 8:

    By Kary L. Krismer @ 7:

    By softwarengineer @ 6:

    Where is all this apartment city living going to park, let alone drive on parking lot freeways totally congested during rush hours.?

    I believe they are also eliminating the requirement that new construction provide parking.

    So you park overnight in a nice neigborhood in South Bellevue near a light-rail station. Then you ride the train into Seattle to sleep in your apartment inside the car-free zone. Stranger things have happened . . .

    If you work in Seattle, rent/own in Seattle, problem solved. Work in Bellevue, rent/own in Bellevue.

  13. 13
    The Tim says:

    By sleepless @ 10:

    Seattle has amazing public transit system, you can always ride a bus (train, trolley, etc)

    Let’s be honest. This is really only true if you want to get to or from downtown Seattle, or downtown happens to be in between you and your destination. Try getting from Queen Anne to the U District or Northgate and tell me Seattle has “amazing public transit system.”

  14. 14
    whatsmyname says:

    By sleepless @ 9:

    And if you want a SFH, you are always welcome t move to the suburbs, this is why they are called suburbs. If you want to live in the city, then, you have to deal with the crowd.

    And if you want cheap, crappy housing, you are always welcome to move to the bad parts of town, this is why they are called the bad parts of town. If you want to live in the chi chi, then you have to deal with the coin.

  15. 15
    sleepless says:

    By The Tim @ 13Try getting from Queen Anne to the U District or Northgate and tell me Seattle has “amazing public transit system.”
    RE: The Tim @ 13
    This is why you have Burke-Gilman Trail. Seattle becomes more bicycle friendly for a reason. You can also find neighbors to carpool with. I am pretty sure lots of people are commuting from Queen Anne to the U District on daily basis. Or, you can find a place to rent close to work, just like I do, so you don’t have to drive. People make excuses instead of solving the real problems. The problem is the we have a housing bubble, mostly due to the grubberment policies (see above). We have a high demand in housing, so, we need to increase the supply. The best way to do so is to build higher.

  16. 16
    sleepless says:

    By whatsmyname @ 14:

    By sleepless @ 9:

    And if you want a SFH, you are always welcome t move to the suburbs, this is why they are called suburbs. If you want to live in the city, then, you have to deal with the crowd.

    And if you want cheap, crappy housing, you are always welcome to move to the bad parts of town, this is why they are called the bad parts of town. If you want to live in the chi chi, then you have to deal with the coin.

    I want? This is what most of the people want. Do you want housing to be affordable? Or you want to be a debt slave for the rest of your life? What is good about housing to go up in price. Hosing is not an investment, unless you rent it out. If you live in it, it is a shelter, it is a utility. You have a car… Is car an investment. Yes, if you are a car rental company. Is it an investment if you drive your butt to work? It is a utility. Do you want you car to go up in price every year. I don’t want “cheap housing”, I want the grubberment to stay out of the housing business (and all the other businesses as well for that matter). The housing is expensive because of one and the only one reason – the grubberment. What should determine the price of the housing? The market! Do we have a free market in real estate now with all these “programs”? No!

  17. 17
    whatsmyname says:

    RE: sleepless @ 16 – Just offering you the mirror of what you offer others.

    Housing is affordable. You just have to make some choices. A nice shelter costs more than a rudimentary shelter, a good location more than bad, a secure location more than an insecure location. I’m not showy, but I’d like a nice shelter with good wiring and sound structure, but without next door meth-heads or greed fueled 40 story towers. Also don’t need gruberment hating hillbillies who don’t understand that housing prices in a free market aren’t about cost; they are what people will pay. I do wish such people the blessings of a free market in the personal security business.

  18. 18
    Mike says:

    I would disagree that SFR really has to be limited to accommodate this growth. SFR only really needs to be limited if the City continues on this absolutely misguided plan of having nothing built over 6 stories tall outside of downtown and even in SLU (or Cascade to be more precise) most of what is going up is undersized. If the City took the caps off the height restrictions in the urban villages you could easily fit most if not all of the new population growth into the existing high density areas. And taking the caps of the heights would allow those high density areas to actually be dense enough to justify real urban amenities. It is much more efficient from an infrastructure perspective (transit, sewer, power, hell even parking if you get density to a point where a garage is a worthwhile investment – something downtown still has plenty of but Ballard and Cap Hill sorely lack) to get 400 units built on a block in a large tower than to try and spread them out all across the City in little 50 units buildings.

    What Seattle needs (and has to some extent in the current zoning) is its own version of a mini-GMA within the City. Just like we do on a regional level, density should be primarily funneled into key urban villages (Capital Hill, Ballard, U-District, Junction, Northgate), with some auxiliary mid-density areas primarily along the Light Rail or future trolley stops (Roosevelt, Beacon Hill). Then the SFR areas stay as they are so you don’t let growth destroy what makes the City good. Just like we try and force North Bend to stay as it is, but instead of a 5 acre limit it is a 5,000 sqft limit.

  19. 19

    By sleepless @ 16:

    Do you want housing to be affordable? Or you want to be a debt slave for the rest of your life?

    There are other options, like buying a house for cash. And cash buyers are part of what’s driven up the market.

    Hosing [sic] is not an investment, unless you rent it out.

    Again cash. I haven’t paid rent for about 8 years (technically no rent without a mortgage payment–I’ve only paid 3 months rent in the past 30+ years). To live a similar lifestyle I would have had to earn about $180,000 more during the past 8 years. Not a fantastic rate of return by any means, but it was a purposeful investment on liquid funds into an asset which has generated a return.

  20. 20
    DB McWeeberton says:

    RE: The Tim @ 13RE: The Tim @ 13 – As a non-driver (who wants to stay that way), I can testify that this is true. My wife and I both work in the U District and currently live in Capitol Hill, which is an easy commute. Looking ahead to whenever we want to move/get priced out of the Hill, I want to find a quiet-ish short-commute neighborhood with a few amenities (restaurants, grocery store in walking distance). Queen Anne appeals, but it’s an island unless you just want to get downtown (especially top and north end). The same with Madison Park–12 minutes to the UW by car, 50 on the bus (with luck).

  21. 21
    sleepless says:

    By Kary L. Krismer @ 19:

    There are other options, like buying a house for cash. And cash buyers are part of what’s driven up the market.

    Most people nowadays cannot by with cash. What is the median home price in Seattle? 600K? What is the median household income $60K? How is the median income family supposed to save nuf money to buy with cash? If the rents keep going up every year? We need to allow to build more, to build higher. We have a high demand for housing and very little supply, this is why the housing is historically unaffordable. It is not just owning that is unaffordable, rents are also beyond ridiculous. Looking at your avatar, I would assume you are in your 60s, which would mean you happened to buy 20-30 years ago when housing made sense. When mid income family could afford mid income home. Now it is different…

    Also keep in mind that most of the nowadays “cash” buyers are “rich chinese” with ill gotten cash, trying to hide it fro their own grubberment.

    Again cash.

    Again, most Joe averages rely on mortgages. I, myself, live in Bellevue, downtown area. Our household income is in mid 100s, we are very frugal and save 30-40% of our income. By any mean we are not “poor”. But I just don’t see how we can save nuf in the next 10 years with the level of inflation (i mean the real inflation, not BS statistics) and 0% interest on our savings. We earn above median for the area, but we cannot afford remotely to buy a median home with mortgage, let alone cash. Keep in mind, not all people in Seattle are investors, businessmen or the lucky lottery winners, most people here are regular Joes, working bees. I am not advocating housing subsidies, like low interest mortgages, etc. I am saying, the city should loose the limits of how tall and much you can build, so, the builders can actually build more. If people can rent or own close to work, it will also solve the traffic problems where someone has to commute from Everette to Seattle. If housing was affordable and plentiful in Seattle, people, working in Seattle, could just live in Seattle. But very few can afford to live there…

  22. 22
    sleepless says:

    By Mike @ 18:

    I would disagree that SFR really has to be limited to accommodate this growth.

    100% agree. We have lots of new apartment buildings in South part of Bellevue DT, All are 4-5 stories tall. Why not build 20 story building and fit 5 times as many people per same sq.ft of the land?

  23. 23

    RE: sleepless @ 21 – I think you need to quit assuming that everyone’s financial situation is the same. That is rather common on this forum, and while you are correct that “most” buyers use a mortgage, there is a significant number of cash buyers. And there are also a significant number of buyers with income over the median (more than half since many people under the median are not buyers.)

    Also, on the investment topic, I know it’s now un-American, but there is the idea of living in your house and paying off your mortgage over time. In effect the house becomes a form of savings as the mortgage is paid down. And eventually you actually get to the point where you own the house free and clear, just like a cash buyer does.

  24. 24
    redmondjp says:

    RE: Kary L. Krismer @ 23 – I’m a mere $30K away from that point, Kary. It’s nice being on the end of the loan where the majority of your payment goes toward principal. One downside (if you want to call it that) is that there is very little mortgage interest to deduct on one’s taxes.

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