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.


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.