Zoning is the key to understanding Seattle housing. Here are the basics

Zoning can be a bit of a snoozer. It’s a wonky topic with a high learning curve thanks to lots of legalese and acronyms — HALA! MHA! TOD! But getting a handle on it can help us get smarter about something pretty critical: how our city grows.

“Education is so important along land use,” says Laura Loe, who founded the Share The Cities advocacy group, “because then you know the levers of power around your community [so you can] make a difference.”

Here are the very basics to help us wrap our heads around this complex subject.

What is zoning, exactly, and what does it do?

Zoning tells us how tall and what kind of buildings are allowed to be in different parts of the city and what they can be used for.

In Seattle, there are five main levels of zoning: single-family residential, multi-family residential, mixed-use (think apartments above a corner store), commercial, and industrial.

Seattle passed its first zoning codes in 1923 and, in an update in 1957, laid the groundwork for our current land use rules. (Learn more about that history on Crosscut and Sightline.) There haven’t been many changes to Seattle’s zoning — until last year. That’s when a judge ruled that local leaders could move forward with a big plan to “upzone” parts of 27 neighborhoods across our city.

Wait, what’s an upzone?

Upzones raise the size and height to which developers can build, or they change what land is zoned for to increase density.

Bigger buildings mean more payoff for developers, but there’s a catch: Developers who take advantage of the new rules must include more affordable housing units in new buildings or pay the city to build them elsewhere.

Why require that?

So our communities can become more dense to make room for our rapidly growing population and set aside space for low-income residents who might not otherwise be able to stay in Seattle.

It’s all part of a plan called “mandatory housing affordability,” or MHA. The city aims to build around 6,000 housing units over the next decade through that program.

Have there already been upzones?

Yup. Parts of South Lake Union, Chinatown-International District, University District, lower Queen Anne, and the Central District were upzoned last year.

In the University District, the upzone raised building heights around an incoming light rail station from 240 feet to 320 feet, or around 32 stories. That’s not nothing, and there’s been plenty of disagreement over how it’ll change a neighborhood. Will the upzone make the place more accessible? Or will snazzier developments push people out?

Updating the rules can change a lot, and locals who live and work in the areas up for an upzone have questions about everything from how an influx of renters could affect their tight-knit communities to whether they’ll still be able to park on their streets or at their favorite businesses.

Jason Kelly, spokesperson for the city’s Office of Planning & Community Development, acknowledged the concerns. But whatever the changes, he said, they probably won’t be as drastic or immediate as people think.

“Just because you change the zoning doesn’t mean there’s going to immediately be new construction or new development,” Jason said. “Those changes usually happen over a long period of time.”

I’ve been hearing a lot about single-family zones lately. Why are they such a big deal?

In two words: density and scarcity. About 75 percent of Seattle’s land available for housing is zoned to only allow standalone, single-family homes — and that’s around three times the amount of land available to multi-family and mixed-use buildings, combined. Wherever there are single-family zones, there can’t be things like apartments, duplexes, or row houses. Put another way: We’re the fastest-growing city of the decade, but can only build denser housing in a quarter of the city. Is it enough? And can enough people afford it?

Although Seattle’s sky-high home prices are dipping (finally), it’s still prohibitively expensive for many folks to buy a standalone home in the city. As a result, some housing advocates call single-family zones “exclusionary zones” because they restrict the number of housing units that can be built there, which increases housing costs and bars many locals, including our neighbors experiencing homelessness, from living there.

And then there’s race. Because people of color disproportionately experience poverty, affluent single family zones have contributed to racial segregation in Seattle. That, coupled with racist policies like redlining and awful old racial covenants that only allowed homeowners to sell their properties to other white residents, made it difficult for marginalized Seattleites to buy homes and build wealth in our city. And we can still see those impacts today.

White Seattleites make up 51 percent of our city’s homeowners — more than double the homeownership rate of local Black and Hispanic homeowners, according to the city’s Neighborhoods for All report.

That report outlines a number of ways single-family zones are contributing to Seattle’s housing crunch, including increasing income and racial inequality. One key finding from the report: While our city’s been building to accommodate for our record growth, most of that construction’s been happening in nodes of the city that are already dense. Our current zoning rules have mostly prevented single-family neighborhoods from changing.

So why do people want to protect single-family zoning?

It depends on whom you ask.

Some property owners see their community’s existing character as the result of decades spent battling with city leaders to allow them to maintain some neighborhood autonomy. Others fear a major disruption to their daily lives, whether that’s a shortage of on-street parking, noise, or an increase in temporary neighbors who might not be as invested in the neighborhood.

Trying to improve affordability via upzones effectively “abolishes neighborhood planning,” Maria Batayola and David Ward, leaders with the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity group, — which opposes upzones — wrote in an op-ed for The Seattle Times.

“This poor planning will erode precisely what has made Seattle highly ranked as a ‘most livable city’ — its unique neighborhoods,” they wrote.

When neighborhood activists challenged the city’s plan to upzone 27 neighborhoods in 2017, some worried that increasing density could also overpopulate schools and make Seattle more unaffordable by redeveloping existing affordable housing. To address affordability, they instead suggested density impacts be studied neighborhood by neighborhood, that the city should restore neighborhood planning funding, and pass an employee head tax on big businesses. We all know how that last one went. 😬

Are there any cities that are supposedly doing housing right?

Lots of pro-upzone advocates point to Minneapolis, where city council members voted last year to ban single-family zones and increase density near public transit.

Our Pacific Northwest neighbors are growing denser, too. Leaders in Olympia and Vancouver, B.C. recently changed their local zoning codes to build more multi-family housing in traditionally single-family zones, and Portland is trying to pass rules to rezone single-family neighborhoods, too.

So what’s next for Seattle?

Now that local judges OK-ed the plan to upzone 27 neighborhoods,Seattle City Council members began debating on Monday as to whether they should pass the plan and what the MHA, height, and size rules would be for each area. Check out this nifty map from The Seattle Times to see where more housing could be added near you. The council is slated to take a final vote on the plan on March 18.

Jason says that some locals living in communities that’ve historically had single-family houses or other developments may not realize what kind of homes their neighborhoods are zoned for. (You can look that up using this handy tool.)

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This article has been updated to correct that the rate of white homeownership is double the rate of black and Hispanic homeownership, not the number of black and Hispanic homeowners. Thanks to reader Will Chen for the catch.