Zoning

Seattle Is Proposing to Get Rid of Single-Family Zoning In Name Only. Literally.

More and more cities have taken preliminary steps toward allowing "missing middle" housing options in once exclusive single-family neighborhoods, but the devil is in the details.

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On Monday, Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda proposed a less-than-revolutionary reform: Eliminate the words "single-family" from the city's land-use regulations.

"Language matters. 'Single family' zoning may seem to some as merely a planning term, but we know historically it has been used to further exclusionary practices," said Mosqueda in a press release. "We are acting on what we know is right to undo the legacy of exclusion that exists within our planning documents—starting with how we talk about our neighborhoods."

The councilmember's proposed legislation would replace some of the mentions of "single-family" zoning in Seattle's Comprehensive Plan, individual neighborhood plans, and other planning documents with the term "neighborhood residential" zoning.

So, under Mosqueda's plan, the city's current Land Use Element would no longer call for "Single-Family zones" to "maintain the current low-height and low-bulk character of designated single-family areas." Instead, it would call for "neighborhood residential" zones to "maintain the current low-height and low-bulk character of designated neighborhood residential areas."

The modesty of the proposal attracted some meme-laden scorn on Twitter.

Mosqueda's entirely semantic reform, however, is not that far off from how other cities have approached changes to their zoning codes.

Across the country, more and more local leaders are taking aim at single-family-zoning, a policy they say is making cities less affordable, less equitable, and worse for the climate. Despite both the hype and/or heated opposition they've received, most of the particular reforms that have been passed or proposed make exceedingly modest changes to cities' land-use regulations.

Berkeley—the first city in the U.S. to adopt single-family zoning back in 1916—generated a lot of headlines and enthusiasm when it unanimously approved a resolution in February condemning the policy's racist origins. Nevertheless, city leaders have said they don't expect to get rid of single-family zoning until December 2022.

When the city council of Charlotte, North Carolina, narrowly voted in favor of a comprehensive update that calls for allowing duplexes and triplexes (three-unit homes) wherever single-family homes are currently allowed, Republican politicians decried the move as "Biden-Harris Nanny State radicalism" that would bring to the city "all the worst parts of living in Atlanta." These critics might want to keep their powder dry, however, given that any actual changes to city zoning laws are months, if not years away.

The truth is that getting rid of single-family zoning in a way that actually leads to a meaningful increase in the supply of housing requires cities to change much more than the number of homes allowed on each lot. A whole host of other rules and regulations governing development will also have to go.

Until they do, policies eliminating single-family zoning might as well just be words on a page.

"There are different ways to say that homes are legal or illegal" other than just how many units you can have on a single lot, says Michael Andersen, a senior researcher at the Seattle-based Sightline Institute. "You can say [a home] can't be more than so many feet tall, you can say it can't have more than such-and-such floor area, you can say it has to have so many parking spaces per unit or per bedroom."

The particulars of these regulations—like parking minimums, floor-to-area ratios, and height limits—have all generally been crafted with single-family homes in mind.

Minneapolis is a good example of how eliminating single-family-only zoning while keeping those rules in place can curtail the new construction that the reform was supposed to produce.

In 2018, it became the first city in the country to commit to eliminating single-family-only zoning when it passed a comprehensive plan that called for triplexes to be legalized citywide. That policy wasn't implemented, however, until January 2020. When it was, it left in place the pre-existing height and density limits. New triplexes would have to fit inside the same "envelope" as traditional single-family homes.

"It remains to be seen how profitable it will be for homeowners or builders to subdivide houses or build two or three new units that are much smaller than a single-unit house would be permitted to be," wrote Emily Hamilton in Citylab in July 2020.

Developers raised this same issue. "Minneapolis has a lot of 40-foot lots. A lot of triplexes aren't going to fit," said Eric Myers, of the Minneapolis Area Realtors Association, to City Pages in September 2020.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the effects of reform on new construction in the city have been muted. From January 2020 through March 2021, permits were issued for 10 triplexes and 44 duplexes, with half of those projects happening on parcels that were once only zoned for single-family homes.

Jason Wittenberg, a planner with the city's Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, says that this is a "somewhat modest increase" in duplex and triplex permits. He notes that permits for single-family homes and accessory dwelling units declined during last year.

Wittenberg says that the council has asked his department to collect data on duplex and triplex construction to see if existing regulations are unduly limiting their development. In May of this year, the city council also voted to eliminate off-street parking requirements for new development.

Portland, Oregon, in contrast, has taken a two-step forward, one-step-back approach to getting rid of single-family zoning when it voted to eliminate the policy in August 2020.

The new law, which goes into effect in August of this year, allows up to four units on almost all residential lots. Unlike Minneapolis' zoning reform, Portland also gives size bonuses to multi-unit buildings—so duplexes can be larger than a single-family home, triplexes can be larger than duplexes, and so on.

The catch is that Portland also shrank the maximum allowable density on formerly single-family lots. That means that the fourplexes the city is now allowing must be smaller than the single-family homes that were once permitted.

The idea is to incentivize the construction of smaller units. An economic analysis performed by the Portland's Bureau of Planning and Stability projects that this sliding scale size cap will produce around 1,200 units a year. Shrinking the size of homes without this sliding scale, the bureau estimated, would result in fewer than 100 additional homes each year.

"It's a modest increase in total construction projected under the Portland plan, but not the large one you'd get if Portland had just switched over to duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes that are all legal under the old size limitations," says Andersen.

He adds that Portland voted to impose new restrictions on large single-family homes right as the pandemic was producing a mass of teleworkers demanding more home office space.

"It's a good example of the fact that we just do not know what the future will hold, the more we try to micromanage the rules to assume we're pushing things in the right direction, the more we'll be unprepared for unprojected futures," he says.

Rather than commit to eliminating single-family zoning, and then figure out how exactly to replace it, some cities are trying to work backward; start with the housing types they'd like to see built and then figure out how zoning regulations will have to change to allow them.

This is essentially what Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is doing with his "Low-Rise" design contest, which asked participants to submit designs for fourplexes, duplexes, and other "missing middle" housing options that would "offer a compelling, achievable vision for how Los Angeles can add more housing in single-family and low-rise neighborhoods."

Contestants stood the chance of winning up to $10,000 for their designs. Winners were announced last month.

"This design competition doesn't commit the city to approving any of the designs, but it also doesn't require anyone participating in the design competition to submit designs that are consistent with local zoning," says Chris Elmendorf, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. "Once the city sees some designs that people like, then the city can look at its zoning code to say what are the things that would keep these designs from getting built on a typical lot."

Leading with the regulatory reform can often take years of trial and error to get things right, he says, giving the example of California's laws governing accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

The first state laws passed in California to encourage ADUs—alternatively known as in-law suites, backyard apartments, or granny flats—date back to the 1980s.

The first law making ADUs by-right, meaning that local bureaucrats didn't have the discretion to deny permits for them, was passed in 2016. It's since taken years of subsequent rounds of legislation, as well as lawsuits targeting local restrictions on ADUs, to really kickstart their construction.

Now, with the most pernicious regulations out of the way, ADU construction is booming in the state. In 2018, granny flats accounted for 20 percent of new housing permits issued in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, CityLab reported on how the new changes are leading to all sorts of innovations in prefabricated homes, which are much faster to construct.

Even if the actual implementation of reform is still a long way off, it is still quite positive that cities like Charlotte are taking on single-family zoning while they're still relatively affordable, says Elmendorf.

In the Northeast and California, where housing costs are already very expensive "policies to expand housing supply get really tricky because those people who have a lot of money tied up in their home tend to lose a lot of money when home prices fall," he says.

Perhaps for that reason, some of these cities are willing to settle for paper-thin zoning reforms.

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  1. “Language matters. ‘Single family’ zoning may seem to some as merely a planning term, but we know historically it has been used to further exclusionary practices,” said Mosqueda in a press release.

    CRT merely acknowledges there has been racism in America.

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  2. So, I am guessing that the phrase “single-family” must have been designated as somehow “triggering?”

    1. Yes, literally. That’s how stupid the people who run our institutions are.

      1. That they then go on Twitter and crow about what a massive accomplishment it is tells you how stupid they think the residents of Seattle are.

        The sad thing is they’re probably right.

        1. Would you rather they actually achieve “housing justice?”

          1. Absolutely not, but I’d also rather they didn’t make asses of themselves claiming what was done makes a bit of difference.

        2. What kind of drugs does fat mike have and who is he?

          1. The LDS church doesn’t allow you to do drugs.

  3. America won’t be truly free until we can all live in an affordable 100 square foot prefabricated efficiency box that has electricity on pre-selected days with Wind and Solar.

    1. Ok so we all get a tiny house someplace where we hopefully won’t freeze to death or die of heat exhaustion; will there be a cafeteria to go with all these dorm rooms?

      1. Venezuelan buffet. That they look suspiciously like dumpsters is merely a coincidence.

      2. Sure. Why do you think California started food scraps recycling last year?

    2. Comrade, when fid you get upgraded to the triple digit square foot housing? Was that a reward for your ballot box stuffing performance last fall? Or for participating in the looting of capitalist businesses last summer?

  4. it’s rarely the best or brightest at the local level, but rather the passionate and emotional who seem to have limitless time because of the best and brightest.

    1. Yeah those educated folks in Missoula and Bozeman sure look out for you rural cousin fucking conservatives. Some of the most backwards non Mormons I encountered were rural Montanans and Wyomingans(not sure what those rubes are called).

      1. Funny how those places haven’t fucked up their towns with your prog policies. Quality of life is far better in places run by country rubes.

      2. You beclown yourself.

  5. Parking requirements are literally the most dame regulation on the books as far as housing goes. Having people park on the street is stupid beyond belief.

  6. I never understood the point of a duplex until this article. It’s all about the density zoning.

    I still don’t understand why someone would actually BUY one.

    1. You can live in one side and pay your mortgage by renting out the other; unless of course they don’t pay their rent and the CDC says you cannot evict them.

      1. Okay, that too. They’re basically taxes and repairs paid for if you don’t mind neighbors, and pre made mother in law suits.

    2. You buy it so you can rent it out for double the price of a house.

      1. I guess it allows multi-family rental units to be more affordable.

        I’m really hung up on some really nice ones near me that are on a golf course and are the same price per sf as the nearby single family homes.

        Why would you choose to share a wall with a neighbor if you aren’t saving a bunch of money?

        1. “some really nice ones near me that are on a golf course”

          Dollars to donuts they have association rules that forbid renting them out.

        2. Because there’s no single-family units available, and if it weren’t for the duplexes then the cost per SF would be higher in the neighborhood. Also, if you’re coming in from an even denser part of town then only sharing a wall and a fence is a huge step up (my father made his retirement by building homes for Brooklyn emigrants to Staten Island).

          It’s certainly not my bag, but different strokes for different folks.

          1. *building duplex homes

  7. So when do we rise up and just kill these idiots? Put them out of our misery?

  8. Ahhhh, the Technocratic Planning Elitists have a new plan. All will be well.

  9. Reason koch is all in on this plan…goood, gooood…

  10. delicious. “our votes change what words mean.”

  11. Single mom zoning.

  12. This stuff has become embedded in people’s psyche now. As if nothing else can exist or has ever existed. Quite amazing how much perpetual subsidized interest rates has changed things. Once upon a time, the notion was to pay off the mortgage and be debt-free. Back then, people didn’t really adjust the mortgage – but they did move. More Americans moved in 1949 than move today. Whatever the housing market then, the prices were based on a pretty significant portion of the volume of housing changing hands. An actual market with buyers and sellers rather than the contra-market of today (prices go up but volume pretty stagnant overall since – 1963(?)). % of the population that is homeowners has been roughly the same since the 1970’s – as is the portion of traditional family households – which back then also roughly matched the % of housing stock that was ‘single-family’. Now that housing stock is much more ‘one-family’ – far fewer small units or 1-2 bedroom than the % of population in smaller households.

    Single-family zoning is all just part of this. When I graduated from college I moved to three cities in the first year. Boarding houses (which were getting rare even then) were where I initially lived before ‘settling in’ for more permanent arrangements. Those don’t even exist anymore – anywhere.

    I don’t know the end-game here but it looks more like serfdom than ‘Go West young man’. Maybe that is the end-game of debt

    1. Zoning regulations like these tend to focus around getting people to move less and for things to be more stable. The issue being that dynamicism is actually valuable for the both the economy and for people in general.

      1. People moving certainly used to work. The rust Belt town where I went to college had 10-20% unemployment during a recession when I was there. In large numbers, they moved to TX. They weren’t moving into R1 zones. They didn’t already have jobs applied for long-distance. They couldn’t afford hotels – and their family remained behind for – months. They weren’t bringing furniture or signing one year leases. They could only move quickly because there was the assumed expectation that they would find a place to stay – with choices – quickly.

        Eliminate that expectation – that missing ‘middle’ – and the pressure is on to have a more extensive safety net in-place.

  13. Single family zoning is exclusionary. Gosh, someone tell the black family down the street, and the Latino family across the way, and that entire Asian community half a mile down that way. Gosh, my entire home town was single family dwellings, and Whites were the minority.

    God make Seattle So Californian’s could have someone to look down on.

    1. Yeah, that was weird. Only white people like to live in houses? Tell that to the 3 million black families living in Atlanta’s suburbs.

    2. Your point? Are you supporting allowing neighborhoods to ban multi-family housing on a private lots?

  14. So Charlotte got on the crazy train before Seattle eh? Might be Tim to move.

    1. Or even time to move.

  15. The catch is that Portland also shrank the maximum allowable density on formerly single-family lots. That means that the fourplexes the city is now allowing must be smaller than the single-family homes that were once permitted.

    The geniuses of Portland, ladies and gentlemen.

  16. So, based on the cities described here, it’s mostly Democratic municipalities that are using this linguistic legerdemain to eliminate “single-family housing” while keeping single-family housing.

    1. of course — liberalism is a mental disease

  17. “… this sliding scale size cap will produce around 1,200 units a year….”

    Government rules don’t produce anything. They stop “greedy capitalists” from doing the things these beyond-useless bureaucrats seek false credit for.

  18. One quibble…
    If you want to increase the supply of low cost housing, mandating things like the allowable size of units is not the way to go.

    Simply take the fetters off. Allow developers to build as much high end stuff as they want.

    The problem solves itself.

    Older, less fancy stuff will eventually come down in price (or get torn down and rebuilt) as the supply of high end stuff increases. Mid level stuff will eventually become less attractive as formerly high end stuff comes down in price.

    Older apartment complexes that used to be elite will become low- rent.

    I lived in such a complex in Atlanta years ago. 1750 square feet… A nice wooded complex. Cheap. All because newer and better units were built only a few minutes farther from downtown.

    Eventually, these units were torn down and a big shopping mall was put up in that location.

    This is how a real market works. The city of Atlanta was prevented from incorporating all the surrounding area, so they could not stop this development. The result? Tons of majority-minority subdivisions with large lots and big houses at affordable prices.

    1. Great response.

      To say it another way, the problem we have nowadays is not that new homes are expensive. That has always been the case.

      The problem we have is that old homes are expensive. And the reasons they are expensive is because we have not allowed enough new homes to be built. The lack of new supply forces wealthier people into bidding wars over the existing stock and this drives up the price of old homes.

      1. Which, in turn, builds political power behind maintaining the status quo.

        If you spent $750k on a 1400 sq foot, 60 year old house that is now worth $1.3 million, the idea that some developer might put 1,500 new homes in a development down the street that are twice the size, new and finished out like a million dollar home is a threat. You don’t want to see that half million in equity turn into a $300k upside down mortgage situation.

        Let that percolate for a few decades and you get the zoning restrictions, rent control, low income housing mandates, subsidies and other failures of New York style housing policy.

        Untying that Gordian knot would be easy if one were willing to spend the political capital to simply wipe out all those regulations at once…. But there is no chance of getting re-elected after that. And then the next administration would likely put it all back before the benefits have a chance to begin, what with the long timelines of major housing developments.

    2. Eventually, these units were torn down and a big shopping mall was put up in that location.

      How does that solve a housing shortage? Do people live in the shopping mall?

    3. Academics call what you describe as “filtering.” Others call it trickle-down economics. I read a Stanford study of Seattle housing that said it takes 40 years to ” filter down” to become affordable. By then, most buildings are torn down or rehabbed up to new. Then the author said, Seattle didn’t build enough at the time for filtering to work here. No wonder prices just keep escalating.

  19. There is imo a very easy libertarian market-oriented way to both state the R1 zoning problem – and solve it.

    The basic R1 zoning problem is that owning an individual house allows you to force government to control the property of others surrounding you. For your house ownership to de facto ‘own’ the neighborhood – without paying for that value. No surprise, since that value costs nothing, cities are increasingly R1 zoned.

    The solution is – competition. If a city decides to zone, the mill rate should differ by zone. Not via some arbitrary decision by city council but by the willingness of nimby’s to pay for the value of the exclusionary zones. Every ten years or so – zones reset. Wanna keep your neighborhood R1 for the next 10 years? Pay for it.

    Pretty sure you people will vomit at the idea of paying for the value you receive.

    1. I like the thrust of your argument, and who knows, maybe it work in practice. It seem like an administrative nightmare to be honest though.

      Better to just get rid of R1 and institute a land value tax.

      1. all forms of property tax remove our private property rights. a property tax (or land value tax) means that i’m just renting my property from the government. if i fail to pay my property tax then men with guns come take my property from me. so i say no to a land value tax — we need to eliminate all property tax instead.

      2. Yeah I agree. But I think LVT was de facto (maybe de jure) made illegal in most states a long time ago. Now – people don’t even know the real value of the land component of property.

  20. Not at all surprised this is happening in hyper-blue Seattle. Progressives appreciate the power of language and are masters of double speak.

    They already muddied the housing discussion by appropriating the term ‘Affordable Housing” to mean ‘Government Subsidized Housing”. Replacing Single Family with ‘residential’ is just another salvo in their war on private housing development.

  21. The Japanese have a more efficient land use regulatory approach.

    They allow all building types up to a certain ‘nuisance’. For example, if one wants to plop a single family home in the middle of a area zoned industry, well, more power to you. Go right ahead.

    Areas zoned for residential allow multi-story mixed commercial/residential but there is again no prohibition on putting in a single family home if one wishes, or a retail store.

    This flexibility has allow Tokyo home prices to remain flat even though Tokyo’s population has increased over the last 25 years.

    1. So do they actually have fewer types of zones?

  22. I live in a small town in Idaho. We have no zoning laws and you don’t even need a permit to build. The result is a kind of wild west sort of building, with no setbacks or anything else. A lot of it’s not what I would do with my land, but I respect their right to build what they want.

    1. Until something collapses or burns and some firefighters or residents are injured, no one cares about permits.

      Afterwards, the lawyers sue the towns for not preventing the obviously sloppy construction, and you’ll wind up with permits. Just like the rest of us.

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