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Single-family Seattle isn’t as big as density boosters claim

Green Lake park: zoned for single family homes? Credit: Flickr User Hammerin Man

You hate to hit an agenda when it’s down, especially when it contains some good ideas amidst its sweeping assertions and overreach. But once again, the city Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which Mayor Ed Murray endorsed and then partly backed away from last month, has it coming. It has promoted a canard that, if allowed to stand, will continue to distort debates over housing, land use, development, and preservation in Seattle.

Last week, Murray retreated from the most controversial of  his housing committee’s recommendations: to effectively upzone all the city’s single-family zones to allow duplexes, triplexes, and rowhouses. Though tabled, the idea is hardly dead. Development interests, both for-profit and nonprofit, made up most of the HALA advisory committee, and would love to open up single-family zones, the largest land classification in the city.

A key argument for doing so is that those zones are just too big. As the HALA report puts it, “Approximately 65% of Seattle’s land – not just its residential land but all its land – is zoned single family, severely constraining how much the City can increase housing supply.”

By contrast – extreme contrast – John Fox and Carolee Coulter, coordinators of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, contend that Seattle’s single-family zones are roughly half what HALA claims. In a column in City Living Seattle, they accuse HALA of recycling “the myth that two-thirds of Seattle is zoned single-family” in order “to imply the city lacks buildable land and is not ‘developer friendly’.” In fact, Fox and Coulter declare, “it’s actually 35 percent.”

Who’s right, HALA or the Displacement Coalition’s Fox? Fox has been fighting to preserve existing affordable housing stock since most Seattle developers were playing with Lego kits, and has the facts on his side on this matter. According to the land-use appendix to Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, 35 percent of Seattle’s 53,519 acres are developed as single familyhousing.

So how does HALA (together with many others) get to say the single-family share is nearly twice that high? The devil is in the footnotes. The note to that HALA passage explains that “all [Seattle’s] land” doesn’t mean, well, all of it – only those parts that help make its point. HALA calculations exclude street rights of way (ROWs). But the 65 percent (or, to be precise, 67.2 percent) it arrives at includes parks and other public open space as single-family zones.

This is convenient on two counts. ROWs also run through industrial, commercial, and multifamily zones, and tend to be wider there; including them would dilute the nominal single-family share. Parks, however, lie almost exclusively within or beside single-family areas. Including Discovery, Magnuson, Carkeek, Seward, Lincoln, Washington, and hundreds of smaller parks – not to mention greenbelts and Green Lake (the lake and park), as HALA does – dramatically boosts the “single-family” share.

But it doesn’t provide any land for houses. Parks are more tightly locked against development than ROWs; the city sometimes vacates alleys and street ends, but not parks.

Even if you exclude ROWs and open spaces like parks as bungalow-ready, the single-family share only reaches 61 percent. If you exclude parks, open space, lakes, and ROWs from the calculation, single-family zones occupy about 54 percent of Seattle’s potentially developable land. If you include parks but concede that they’re not developable, that share falls to 47 percent, using the comp plan data. (The numbers change slightly in the plan’s current draft revision, reflecting some smaller upzones, but not enough to mess up the percentages.)

These percentages are in line with those the city has reported elsewhere using similar definitions. So how did the 65 percent “myth” become accepted wisdom? Fox doesn’t know, but he knows it goes back. “I first heard the story that over two-thirds of the city was zoned single family in the late ’70s,” he told me in an email. “Back then we believed it.”

And he knows such myths can have boomerang effects. Alarmed that so much land was locked up, “we pushed Councilmember Michael Hildt to propose amending the code to allow in-law apartments in single family zones. A modest measure, that required owner occupancy and offstreet parking. A neighborhood activist got wind of the proposal, called [the Seattle] Times Real Estate Editor, and the next day, front page headlines declared ‘City Council calls for end to single family zoning!’”

“Needless to say the proposal was DOA,” Fox said. “It was over three decades later that the Council finally approved a similar in-law measure for Seattle.” This refers to the accessory dwelling unit ordinance, which has spurred or legalized about a thousand mother-in-law apartments, and which HALA rightly argues should be strengthened to encourage more.

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” concludes Fox, “although this time around, it really was a plan to do away with single family zoning.” Perhaps there is too much of that zoning; it may indeed be too restrictive. But first you have to talk about what and where it actually is.

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