Rectifying Seattle’s racist past requires a denser future, says report

A city commission argues that multi-family housing, once legal across the city, is key to building a more equitable future.

duplex and triplex

Built in 1910 and 1953, respectively, this duplex and triplex in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood could not legally be built today. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

In about 75 percent of the land designated for residential development in Seattle, there is only one kind of structure that can be built: a single-family home. There have been efforts to change this fact, to allow for the construction of multi-family homes that advocates say would make the city more affordable and sustainable while addressing long-standing racial and class divides. And, in turn, those attempts have been fought back by groups of residents who don’t want to see their neighborhoods change. Allowing more people into single-family neighborhoods, it turns out, is no small suggestion.

Yet, there it was again, at the heart of a report released by the Seattle Planning Commission last week. A year and a half in the making, the report suggests officials pass legislation that would bring change to single-family zones: allowing large single-family homes to be subdivided into smaller units; placing size limits on new home construction to limit the spread of McMansions; and allowing development of duplexes, triplexes, small apartment buildings and other multi-family rental housing.

An independent body of volunteers appointed by the city council and mayor to suggest policy changes, the Planning Commission is making its pitch at a moment when other cities are finding success with similar approaches. Minneapolis recently made headlines for allowing triplexes in all residential neighborhoods and apartment buildings near transit hubs. Olympia passed its own plan this fall to encourage construction of multi-family housing. Portland is likely to pass a “residential infill” plan next year.

There is another example of the planning commission's suggestions somewhere else: Seattle's past.

The recommendation to allow duplexes, triplexes and small apartments — the so-called “missing middle” between detached single-family housing and big apartment buildings — is not actually a new idea. In a sense, they are calling on the city to re-legalize housing that was once not so missing. New construction of those housing types is still allowed in about 12 percent of the city’s residential areas. But in the residential core of many neighborhoods — including Wallingford, Queen Anne, and Greenlake — you are either building single-family homes or nothing. Still, if you take a stroll through any of these neighborhoods, you’re sure to find a few duplexes, triplexes, and even small apartment buildings mixed in among the stand-alone houses, byproducts of an earlier era of Seattle zoning.

At the turn of the 20th century, Seattle didn’t have a zoning code. Instead, it had a building code. Though the distinction seems minor, the building code only regulated size, not use. So as long as a building didn’t exceed a neighborhood’s size limits, it could be subdivided into as many units as the builder deemed practical. “There was a huge amount of flexibility in what could be built,” explained Margaret Morales, a researcher at the urbanist think tank Sightline, who has studied Seattle’s zoning history. “You could build a duplex or triplex almost anywhere in the city except downtown.”

In the early 1900s, Seattle neighborhoods were developing around the streetcar system, which at the time branched out from downtown to inner neighborhoods such as Woodland Park and Madison Valley. Duplexes, triplexes and apartments built over corner stores were logical choices, not only because people wanted to live near transit, but because the population was exploding, from 80,671 people in 1900 to over 315,000 in 1920.

“We had really naturally occurring, robust transit-oriented development,” said University of Washington College of the Built Environments associate professor Rick Mohler, who sits on the Seattle Planning Commission. “Seattle had density occurring along streetcar lines and near them for a few blocks. It made sense in the pre-automobile era to have housing near streetcars.”

Seattle’s first zoning ordinance was implemented in 1923. It dictated not just building size, but how land within a neighborhood was allowed to be used. Its function was, in part, to create space between where people lived and commercial and industrial operations. But, said Mohler, “Part of it was in the interest of exclusion, frankly. There was concern about people of color and to some extent renters moving into the neighborhood.”

By the time Seattle created its first zoning plan, the U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled that explicitly-segregationist zoning was unconstitutional. But city planners recognized that dictating the types of housing allowed in certain areas could serve as a stand-in for explicitly racial zoning, especially in tandem with property deeds that banned the sale of housing to non-white buyers.

early Seattle zoning document
A section of Seattle's 1923 zoning plan, which created the city's single-family neighborhoods. (Courtesy of the City Clerk's Office)

St. Louis city planner Harland Bartholomew was a pioneer of American zoning. According to historian Richard Rothstein, Bartholomew stated his goal for the 1919 St. Louis zoning plan was to “‘preserve the more desirable residential neighborhoods,’ and to prevent movement into ‘finer residential districts … by colored people.’” The St. Louis plan became a model for other cities who began hiring Bartholomew as a consultant, including Seattle for its 1923 plan.

Seattle’s zoning plan created six types of districts: first and second residential, business, commercial, manufacturing and industrial. First residential districts allowed single-family homes as well as churches, parks, libraries, schools and rail stations, but banned the multi-family dwellings that had been largely unrestricted in the building code days. These structures were restricted to second residential districts, which covered about 35 percent of the city.

“Single-family zoning was a strategy of exclusion,” said Mohler. “If you make the properties expensive enough, you automatically exclude some people.” With people of color experiencing poverty at disproportionate rates to White people, making certain neighborhoods more expensive by limiting them to standalone homes ensured that Seattle remain segregated.

Seattle, as with most cities in the first half of the 20th century, further ensured segregation through the use of redlining and racially restrictive neighborhood covenants.

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Redlining came down from the Federal Housing Administration, which encouraged banks to rank neighborhoods by the “riskiness” of mortgage lending. Red neighborhoods on the maps were considered the riskiest and banks would either not lend to people seeking to purchases homes in those areas, or do so with exorbitant interest rates. Not coincidentally, Seattle’s red neighborhoods were predominantly African American or Asian American, including the Central District, Chinatown-International District, parts of Beacon Hill and Delridge.

The racial covenants, meanwhile, were baldly racist. Written into a home’s deed, they stipulated that the property would only be sold to whites.

The Supreme Court deemed racial covenants illegal by 1948, but the practice carried on for a considerable time. In 1952, Richard Orenstein, a Jewish immigrant in Seattle, attempted to buy a home in Sand Point, but found the sale blocked by a covenant prohibiting Jews. The 1968 federal Fair Housing Act was meant to eliminate redlining. 

The foundation for Seattle’s current land use regime was set by a 1957 overhaul of its zoning regulations, a move Mohler said was motivated by homeowners concerned about property values. “There was a perception that property values might be diminished if renters were living in their neighborhoods,” he said. The introduction to the 1957 plan states: "The general purpose of this Ordinance is to protect and promote public health, safety, morals, and general welfare through a well-considered comprehensive plan for the use of land." It also explicitly states: "The economic stability of land use areas and conservation of building values are promoted and protected thereby.”

In addition to business and industrial designations, the overhaul created three sizes of single-family zones, greatly expanding the bounds of existing single-family neighborhoods, while further shrinking the space in which multi-family housing can be built. 

duplexes in seattle
Photos show a Wallingford duplex, built in 1906, in its current and historical form. (photos via King County Dept of Assessments)

In the decades since, Seattle has made further tweaks to zoning, but rarely to allow greater density in single-family zones. One exception was in 1994 with the legalization of basement and garage apartments, known as accessory dwelling units. The change came shortly after the city had established its current “urban village” model that puts commercial buildings and multi-family housing in the center of a ring of neighborhoods while leaving outer rings to single family homes.

The pressure to introduce more changes to these neighborhoods has grown in recent years. Over 105,000 people moved to Seattle between 2010 and 2016, but the city gained just 35,694 net new units of housing. About 80 percent of that growth has been squeezed into the 25 percent of the city that allows apartments and other multi-family buildings. Some single-family neighborhoods have even lost population in the midst of the city’s boom — a result of smaller average family sizes and empty nesters staying in their homes. Housing prices are starting to drop, but with the median Seattle home price still over $750,000, home ownership is out of reach for many. And since many of the city’s parks, libraries, schools and the like are located in single-family zones, the report argues walkable access to those publicly-funded amenities is out of reach as well. The rate of homeownership among White residents is 51 percent, more than double that of Black residents (24 percent) and Hispanic residents (25 percent). 

“We really haven’t revisited zoning in single-family neighborhoods for over 50 years,” said Tim Parham, Planning Commission chair. “Let’s talk about this 75 percent of the city and what we can do to accommodate more growth to give access to the parks and schools there while being mindful of the bulk and scale of buildings.”

Yet, proposals to do just that have been met with unwavering opposition from neighborhood groups.

A suggestion in 2015 by former Mayor Ed Murray to allow greater density in single-family neighborhoods died long before it was a fully formed policy because of the ensuing blowback after the idea was leaked to The Seattle Times. A plan to loosen regulations on basement apartments and backyard cottages to encourage their construction has been delayed by a years-long legal fight. As has a plan that trades increased density for a requirement that developers pay for or construct affordable housing.

Toby Thaler sees the report as a rehashing of the same fight he’s been having with the city for years. Thaler is the head of the Fremont Community Council and a leader of Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability, and Equity (SCALE), a coalition of neighborhood groups that’s worked to stop the Mandatory Housing Affordability program and its ensuing upzones.

Thaler said he takes issue with the idea that increasing the amount of rental housing will do anything to address the historical injustices found in the city’s decades of segregation.

“The proposals the city is pushing do not actually promote home ownership, which is what was being denied to African American households,” said Thaler. “If you goose gentrification, you’re not going to get homeownership for poor people in the city.”

It’s true that nothing in the commission’s report will help address the loss of intergenerational wealth inflicted by Seattle’s racist housing practices that kept people of color from buying homes. The commission's recommendations center mostly on increasing rental housing. Yet, Planning Commission member Mohler argued that allowing the missing middle housing in single-family zones would help expand walkable access to amenities to those who can’t afford to buy in Seattle. “These are the most desirable places to live because of their proximity to public infrastructure like parks and schools,” he said.

If those neighborhoods are just available to people who can afford to buy homes in them, he said, “does that really reflect our values as a city?”

Thaler said he’s not totally opposed to the commission’s ideas, but is opposed to any top-down changes in his neighborhood. “Those recommendations in the planning commission document aren’t bad, but they need to be done through neighborhood planning. Not as a veto, but as a democratic process.”

Parham said the commission’s next step is to take their ideas on the road, with several open houses in the first quarter of 2019. From there, it is up to the mayor or city council to turn any of the commission’s recommendations into on-the-ground policy.

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