Eliminating single-family zoning is a good idea, and Christopher Kirk’s Seattle Times editorial is a steaming pile of garbage

An editorial by Christopher Kirk in the Seattle Times yesterday was so stupid I had no choice but to finally come back here and respond.

Here’s the link: Statewide rezoning of single-family neighborhoods is a terrible idea

Now, before we start it’s worth noting that this piece is described as a “Special to The Times” and the author is not a journalist. He’s not an economist, either. He’s also not an urban planner, and as you’ll see he’s obviously not a historian. He’s an architect whose primary accomplishments listed on his bio attached to the piece are having “served on public historic preservation and design review boards.”

So with that context, let’s get into it. Here’s the opening paragraph:

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.

Christopher KirkHe really comes in guns blazing right out of the gate, with scare quotes around “racist” and an angry defensive stance taken right off the bat. Given the tone of that opening, I am sure you will be shocked to learn that Christopher Kirk is a 73-year-old white guy.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that old white guys are all prone to make self-serving, foolish, intellectually dishonest political arguments, but it’s not exactly rare among that particular crowd.

And to be clear on the point of single-family zoning and racism: Yeah, single-family zoning is an inherently racist practice. That’s not up for debate. It’s a documented, historical fact.

Single-family-only zoning was invented by racist white landowners as a way of keeping Black people out of their neighborhoods. When redlining and other more explicit methods were made illegal, zoning became the primary tool to enforce this kind of racial discrimination, and it has the same practical effect today. I’m not going to get into the whole history here, because this subject has been covered very well many times over by others. At the end of this post I’ve embedded a series of videos that explain the racist history and the racist modern impacts of single-family zoning.

Anyway, moving on…

The fastest and most efficient way to develop housing is to build large, multifamily projects

Ahh so obviously every other way of adding more housing should be illegal. Got it.

Wait, no. That’s idiotic. To claim that the only two choices should be super-dense areas packed with large multifamily homes or sprawled-out single-family-only neighborhoods is absurd. The U.S. needs to legalize the “missing middle” housing. Again, I’m not going to get into this in depth, because others have already done the job much better than me. Here’s a video on that topic from the excellent YouTube channel Not Just Bikes.

Going back to the garbage heap that is this editorial:

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.

Oh look, it’s a strawman argument! Nobody is saying that allowing denser neighborhoods will “necessarily mean more affordable housing.” But one thing we do know is that artificially limiting what can be built in 75% of the city is definitely a contributing factor to our current housing affordability problem.

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.

You have to love a good non sequitur. Again, nobody is trying to claim that eliminating single-family zoning will somehow magically fix problems with mental health or drug addiction. This guy is literally arguing against nonsense points that he’s making up on the spot.

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.

Appealing to “the nature of neighborhoods” is code language used by NIMBYs to keep “undesirable” people out. It’s gross, nebulous, and ultimately meaningless.

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.

His implication here that local control is superior to state-wide lawmaking is especially rich, given his previous Seattle Times editorial appearance, which was entirely dedicated to demonizing Seattle city government.

I especially loved this part:

Further, massive, one-size-fits-all rezoning is unprecedented and a terrible shift in public policy. … 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.

Literally in back-to-back paragraphs he decries mysterious, unnamed “unintended major negative consequences” and then immediately pivots to hand-waving dismissal of the 100% intended consequence that single-family zoning continues to have to this day of keeping Black people out of certain neighborhoods. Truly astounding.

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.

No ignorant housing rant would be complete without throwing in the implication that filthy renters are lousy, unstable neighbors and generally bad people that nobody wants to be around.

Finally, he closes by calling the proposal to eliminate single-family zoning…

radical, ill-conceived, statewide rezoning which will have unpredictable effects on the character of your neighborhood and the value of your home

It’s like NIMBY buzzword bingo. Again with the “neighborhood character” dog whistle, and an explicit appeal to homeowner greed for the almighty “home value.” Just all-around disgusting.

Well, at least Christopher Kirk’s garbage editorial had one good outcome: It gave me the motivation to finally come back here and post something fresh. So… good job, I guess.

Anyway, if you’re not a selfish jerk and you’d like to support eliminating crappy single-family-only zoning, contact your state legislators and tell them they should support HB 1782.

Want to join a conversation about this or other local real estate topics? We’re on Twitter at @SeattleBubble.


Videos About the Racist History of Single-Family Zoning

3.09 avg. rating (62% score) - 33 votes

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. Tim also hosts the weekly improv comedy sci-fi podcast Dispatches from the Multiverse.