Sightline gets it wrong again

Screenshot 2017-03-06 at 8.59.28 PM - Edited

Later versions of code since 1977 cut into single family and expand residential densities everywhere else – not noted by Sightline

In a recent Sightline piece, the writer tells us that the proportion of land in Seattle given exclusively to single family uses has steadily increased over nearly a century long evolution of the City’s zoning code.  We are supposed to be left, of course, with the impression that this single family creep has tied the city’s hands, limiting the diversity of building types and its ability to meet growing demand.  We beg to differ.  

Over my 40 plus years of involvement in city land use and housing policy development including my years directing the (believe it or not it was city-funded) Fremont Public Association’s Neighborhood Land Use Information and Technical Assistance Service, and through various adjustments to the code dating back to the late 70’s, it’s been with a few notable exceptions a case of city officials (and their developer pals) attempting and often succeeding in expanding residential types and allowed density into single family and lower density residential areas.

From the era dating back at least to the late 70’s when the first ‘skinny houses’ were added to the code thru additional allowances for “DADU’s” and “ADU’s”, thru adjustments to definitions of allowable heights and slope calculations to set back and front yard requirements, small lot allowances, inexplicable and contorted code interpretations, institutional expansion, upping SEPA thresholds, master planned developments, and at various junctures when, upon developer request, whole areas were lopped out of single family and lower density zoning, and rezoned for higher density, the amount of land given over exclusively to single family has steadily declined.

(Note that by freezing the writer’s animated maps for 1977, 1992 and 2014 in the Sightline piece, you’ll see a perceptible decline in single-family areas – but what is not noted is the dramatic increase over time from lower density to higher density multi-family and increases in neighborhood commercial to the 90’s minted urban villages and urban centers).  Further, since the early 2000’s, and as the links below will document, Seattle leaders have been on an upzoning binge-fest raising zoned capacity from 118,000 to over 223,000 residential units by 2016.

From the most recent 2017 update by the city, our zoned capacity has fallen back slightly to a “mere” 205,000 units but that’s of course due to all the growth we’ve been hit with.  In the span of 11 years (2005-2016)  the city has reached nearly 150 percent of its 2024 assigned regional residential growth target – a target set in accordance with the Growth Management Act (GMA) to ensure we absorb our share of regional growth.

Compare that capacity of 205,000 units to the 70,000 units Seattle needs accommodate under our assigned 2035 GMA requirement.    We have about 3 times what we need and enough capacity to take us nearly into the next century given longer term historical trends.  But no matter to the acolytes of density-at-all-costs, all the growth we’ve seen, all the upzoning, and added zoned capacity, it’s still not enough.  More is always better.

When neighborhood advocates point to this excess capacity under current zoning and ask why still more upzones, some pro-density advocates retort that the planned HALA upzones “aren’t about adding capacity” but rather “it’s about inclusivity”.  Not withstanding a handful of so called mandatory affordable units accompanying the HALA upzones, there’s nothing ‘inclusive’ about giving our neighborhoods over to developers and building luxury housing effectively on the backs of low income people, seniors, low wage workers, and people of color – longtime residents who live in older lower density apartments including single family rentals (25 percent of all renters in Seattle live in them) now being torn down and removed at record rates.  The forced relocation and uprooting of people from their homes and neighborhoods is indeed an issue of inclusivity, race, and economic justice but 180 degrees the opposite of the supply-sider’s Orwellian definition.

Most low income and lower wage workers especially people of color depend on a stock of naturally occurring older lower priced rentals – brick apartments, cottages, courtyard apts, and yes single family homes either with lower income families (families of color are disproportionately renters) or with up to 8 unrelated or living there.  About 25% of all the city’s rentals are single family – including likely some of the homes there in Wallingford featured in the writer’s example. These are precisely the areas targeted for upzones under HALA and the Grand Bargain.

So I find it ironic that this Sightline writer laments the loss of opportunities like this mix of lower density structures in single family areas, when she and her organization are hell-bent on the wholesale removal of such a mix whereever it exists and in whatever zone it now exists.

Most of our remaining affordable rental stock – it’s housing built before 1980, most in lower density multi-family and NC zones (roughly 50,000 units) – areas that are precisely in gunsights of pro-developer groups like Sightline.  Many of the upzones from the last decade affecting these areas greatly accelerated loss of these housing types and displacement of those who live there.  According to the City’s most recent figures, since 2005, counting those already lost to the wrecking ball and demolitions that are pending, 8500 existing residential units have been removed.

Sightline article here:

Here is a chart we put together showing roughly a number of the many upzones (not all) we’ve seen since the early 2000’s and its impact on added capacity:

Here’s the source for the 2002 County Report showing Seattle’s capacity then for 118,000 units:

And a later report:

And here is the 2007 report setting Seattle at 122000 capacity:

Here is King Co’s 2014 report with Seattle at 227,000 capacity

And here is the most recent city report showing current capacity at 205,000 units down from 223,000 last year (which is understandable given all the development we’ve seen)…….. see lower right corner page 2 the chart:

And here’s a city bulletin for developers identifying allowed uses in single family zones:



About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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