Murray concedes single-family fight

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Mayor Ed Murray

Mayor Ed Murray will no longer recommend adding more density to Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Instead, Murray said in a Wednesday news release, “We will refocus the discussion on designing denser Urban Centers, Urban Villages and along transit corridors that include more affordable housing.”

Among the 65 recommendations issued by the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the proposal to allow for more density in all single-family zones has been by far the most controversial. This change would not have altered the overall mass of buildings in single-family zones, but would have allowed for redevelopment and construction of duplexes, triplexes and rowhouses.

Opponents have called the recommendation a citywide upzone that would spell the end of Seattle’s bungalow feel.

Proponents, on the other hand, have called Seattle’s single-family zoning excessive and even racially motivated. By allowing more density in these zones, the theory is that the boundaries between poor and rich neighborhoods — which often aligns with white and black as well — would soften.

Murray is clearly not pleased that he must abandon this part of the HALA recommendations. In his statement he blames the “sensationalized reporting by a few media outlets” that he says, “has created a significant distraction and derailed the conversation that we need to have on affordability and equity.”

Although not named specifically, Murray certainly meant Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat's reporting, and likely some pieces appearing in Crosscut.

The decision to drop this particular recommendation inevitably boils down to political math. When Murray first introduced the HALA recommendations, he had five council members by his side. But that council majority has dwindled recently, both Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Tim Burgess publicly backing down from increased density. Even usually reliable Murray ally Councilmember Jean Godden, who stayed away from the unveiling, called the recommendation a “non-starter.” In the Seattle Times Wednesday, Burgess told Westneat he was running up against opposition in his own fundraisers.

Backyard cottages and mother-in-law suites throughout the city, which have seen much greater support than the aforementioned density increases, also appear to be getting left behind.

Murray’s goal to add 30,000 market-rate and 20,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years remains. Hubs like Ballard, Capitol Hill and Downtown would still see a zoning change to allow for taller and wider buildings. And 6 percent of single-family zoning remains on the chopping block.

Driving the debate is the estimate that Seattle will add 120,000 new residents over the next 20 years. Already, with the explosion of Seattle’s tech industry, Seattle has seen an influx of well-paying jobs, a blessing and a curse that has driven housing demand and prices to the state they are in today. As a result, part of Seattle’s population thrives while part struggles to keep up with rising rents. And the city faces rising complaints that it is failing to pay attention to state Growth Management Act requirements for tying the pace of growth to road, transit and other infrastructure improvements.

Recommendations must first clear the Seattle City Council before implementation. The newly created Select Committee on Housing Affordability in the council will work through the HALA recommendations over the coming months.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.