A recent Seattle Times housing column tackled a topic that is an important key to understanding our local housing market: zoning. As the article outlines, though 69 percent of Seattle’s residential plots of land contain single-family homes (which is about average compared to the nation’s 50 largest cities) it “generally devotes a lot more of its housing to single-family homes,” which is putting more pressure on a city struggling with affordability amidst rising demand.
Before taking a deep dive into the impact of zoning, it’s important to understand how land is developed and why cities place restrictions on what can be built in a particular area. Land development typically falls into two broad categories:
1. Single-family housing – think detached homes with a yard
2. Dense housing – think attached units in taller buildings such as condos and apartments, or townhomes
Cities generally establish zoning rules that “dictate what type of housing can be built in various parts of town, which is why you won’t see a 40-story tower next to a bungalow.” In Seattle, for instance, tall and dense buildings are generally restricted to the downtown core or in areas that are close to transit, while outlying neighborhoods are primarily made up of single-family homes.
A Look at Zoning in Seattle
The way zoning is set up in the city of Seattle means that growth is not being distributed evenly across the region. Rather, downtown and densely zoned areas are rising at a much more rapid rate than other neighborhoods.
The Times article cites the following disparity to illustrate: “Size-wise, the area that stretches from North Capitol Hill to Madison Park takes up about the same amount of land as the neighboring South Capitol Hill to First Hill. Yet in the last two decades, Madison Park and North Capitol Hill – single-family housing districts – have added a paltry 17 housing units per year. First Hill and South Capitol Hill, which have a mix of dense housing, added 450 housing units a year.”
Current zoning regulations were put in place during a time in which the city was relatively affordable and had a smaller population and employment opportunities. Though there are proposed upzones aimed at helping increase affordability, they “would affect just 6 percent of the city’s single-family homes” and targets regions that already permit dense housing opportunities. At the end of the day, Seattle would need to restructure and replace smaller single-family homes with taller buildings, yet as the article notes, any effort at this would likely be voted down by Seattleites.