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Single family zoning: social engineering

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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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  • Origami Isopod

    Westneat is complaining in Pickford’s comments that he’s right and Pickford is wrong.

    • ColBatGuano

      God, Westneat is such a weasel. First he hypes up a preliminary report from an advisory committee as if the city was warming up the bulldozers to level every neighborhood. Then someone calls him on it and he claims he didn’t make any judgement whether it was good or bad. I’ve traded e-mails with him before and this is a common response from him.

      • djw

        Westneat’s MO is to be about 3% less anti-urban than the rest of his paper, and act as though that fact means urbanists should treat him reverently and never criticize him.

        His performance on Prop. 1 was something else.

        1. Write about how awful it is that his regular bus is too crowded.

        2. Make the case for voting “No” on Seattle-only proposition 1 because we shouldn’t have to pay more just to keep the same level of service.

        3. When new financial information makes clear Proposition 1 will be able to fund added services, still push for a no vote because Metro hasn’t told us exactly what that new service will be (a matter of days after Metro had learned it would be in a position to add service).

        4. When it was pointed out to him that since 2010 Metro had a clear, rational legally binding set of service revision guidelines to guide any changes in service levels it was clear he had absolutely no idea about anything boring and technical like that.

        But how dare anyone suggest he isn’t the greatest ally of public transit the world has ever seen?

    • djw

      On the narrow point of the complaint, I think Westneat has a point (so does Pickford)–the call wasy to make this change to SF zoning only near urban villages initially, but in the medium term consider expanding it everywhere.

  • One virtue of the nuclear family living arrangement is that it benefits people who sell homes (and the durable goods that go with them). Not that people should continue to live with relatives when they don’t want to, but I think the emphasis on the idea that everyone needs to set up their own household ASAP or they’re losers is not benign.

    Want to build a home designed for your large multi-generational family? Get lost, hippie.

    Because that’s how poor foreign types live. Real hard working Murcns don’t live like that. (Except when they do, but that’s different!)

  • SatanicPanic

    I haven’t looked into the details yet, but this sounds like really good news, hopefully this will start a trend

  • Hey now, as an adjunct at Shoreline CC, I resemble that remark! (That last one, about it being a “city”).

    I also want to say that Mayor Murray seems to me to be one of the very few positive surprises in local politics. Or in politics in general. Usually you either know what you’re getting, or you think you do, and then get something much worse. Maybe I just didn’t know very much then, or don’t pay enough attention now, but when Murray got elected instead of McGinn, I thought this would be a sign for that McGinn’s urbanism and the “War on Cars” ie reasonable transportation policy was coming to an end. And Murray looks to be pretty proactive, and quite good, at these things.

  • joe from Lowell

    In the case of the multi-generational house, the staffers were probably more constrained by law than by an unwillingness to stick their neck out. The inspectors and planners ultimately rely on the city attorneys to tell them the law.

  • joe from Lowell

    I had an idea for a politically-acceptable way to up-zone single-family zoning districts:

    Write a bylaw that says every legal building lot in a single family zone has the right to build 1-1/8 housing units, and then allow the property owners to sell and transfer the fractions among themselves. Someone who wants to add a second unit can buy up 7 of his neighbors’ shares. Maybe even require that the shares come from within a certain distance.

    Most people in single-family neighborhoods would agree that having one apartment on the street would be no big deal, but don’t want the street to change into a two-family neighborhood. Most people in single-famiy neighborhoods would also like to get paid a few grand for doing nothing.

  • Joe Bob the III

    A sure sign of a mature bureaucracy: No one is willing to forsake covering their own ass in order to do the right thing.

  • joe from Lowell

    I like to think that the comment count on city planning threads is the result of the huge community of planning junkies being dumbstruck by the brilliance of the OP and the commenters.

    • Orbis_Terrarum

      The solutions are really obvious and already on the table. My personal dream is aggressive “rental rate growth management” policies like the ones described here in Berlin (I can’t read German and can’t read the article about the city wide building program, but I would imagine that it’s being done with lots of public support, which I would like to see too). But central cities in the US have a certain set of policy tools that are feasible to implement, so here we are.

      It should also be noted that sustained rent increases are hitting a larger and larger community of renters in almost every growing center city. These are problems in Austin, Denver, even Nashville, not just Seattle and San Francisco. For various reasons capital is back big time in the central city, and we all pretty much have to live with it until the revolution.

      • joe from Lowell

        Having lived and worked in central cities both with and without the presence of “capital,” I can tell you without hesitation which is worse.

        • Orbis_Terrarum

          No shit – all things considered, these are great problems to have.

      • djw

        The solutions are really obvious and already on the table.

        I pretty strongly disagree with this. In the context of a fast-growing, desirable, geographically constrained, already expensive city, the challenge of ensuring a range of housing are available at prices that current and future residents can reasonably afford, under the kind of political/policy/fiscal constraints typically facing such city governments is very much a wicked problem.

        • Orbis_Terrarum

          The specifics and implementation are really difficult. What’s obvious to urbanists and city planners is that in the context of fast growing, desirable, geographically constrained, and expensive cities, future growth can’t be accommodated through the automobile and 5000 square foot lot. The good thing is that more and more residents are realizing this.

          • joe from Lowell

            If you could sell the median American on the idea of having a 5000 square foot lot, the American Planning Association would wash your car for the rest of your life.

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