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Single family zoning: social engineering


I’ll have more to say about it next week, when we see the final version, but a leaked draft copy of the mayor’s task for affordable housing in Seattle caused a pretty big splash this week. It was leaked to the Seattle Times, where Danny Westneat turned the pearl-clutching sensationalism up to 11. (Alex Jones’ website ran with the headline “Is Seattle Doing Away with Single Family Homes?”) What was proposed was quite a bit more modest, but was a set of very good ideas, as Erica Barnett explains:

according to a draft plan leaked to Westneat, recommend doing away with the label “single-family zoning” and replacing it with the more inclusive “low-density residential zone,” which would allow more flexibility to build backyard cottages, duplexes, and other very low-density (but not exclusive single-family) housing types.

I’ll make the urbanist/affordable housing/environmentalist case for these changes in another post; the case on all three fronts is very strong. Affordable housing in Seattle will require a great deal more than this, of course, but this matters, and it’s both cheap and easy for the city. But aside from all that, the notion that it’s appropriate for the government to limit development and housing styles in over 2/3’s of the available land in the city in such a way that promotes a particular style of living over all other arrangements should still trouble us. Whatever the virtues of living in nuclear family units may be, they’re not so obviously superior to other alternatives that the state should encourage it in ways that substantially limit other options. This story makes clear why: Want to build a home designed for your large multi-generational family? Get lost, hippie.

In May of 2013 I took the Preliminary Design into Seattle’s Department of Planning and Design (DPD) for an over-the-counter zoning screening. After disappearing for 20 minutes to consult with his colleagues, the reviewer declared “It’s a single-family house!” and with that settled (or so we thought) we continued developing and engineering the design


In January of 2014 just prior to submitting the permit application to DPD I met with Jess Harris, Director of the City’s Priority Green program, to see if the house could participate in the program. Jess passed along the floor plans to several compatriots in zoning review at DPD. A week later I recieved a carefully crafted letter from DPD saying that they had “discussed this most recent design with our in-house counsel who has advised us that it would be extremely difficult for us to defend permitting this structure as a single-family dwelling, as it is currently configured.”

Everyone we talked to, including multiple zoning reviewers on up to DPD Director Diane Sugimura, Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee chair Councilmember Mike O’Brien, and Kathy Nyland and Robert Feldstein (Director of the Office of Policy and Innovation) in the Mayor’s Office as well as several members of the Seattle Design Commission, all agreed it was a great project and that Seattle ought to support this kind of housing, however no one wanted to stick their neck out to give the project the green light.

The irony is they were able to complete their project in Shoreline, a “city” carved out of unincorporated King County that’s about 97% suburban sprawl.

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