Support HALA committee reco SF2: restoring open zoning to increase affordability

Why We Should Restore Open Zoning

If you live in what are now areas of Seattle in which only single-family, detached homes are allowed to be built, you may have neighbors who live in duplexes, row houses or stacked flats. (Like these: Photos.)

That’s because many of what are now single-family only areas originally had open zoning that allowed multi-family housing within the same maximum height and lot coverage allowed for single-family homes.  (Map)

It’s a good thing too, or you might not have those neighbors.  That’s because small multi-family homes are more affordable than single-family detached homes. Current listings show that the median cost of a home in small multi-family housing is 3/5 the median for a detached single family home. That’s a difference of $235,000. (Data)

The HALA committee’s recommendation SF2 would restore open zoning citywide…

Open Zoning Increases Affordability

Prohibiting multi-family homes stacks the deck against people with less rather than more money being able to live in an area.  In the area bounded by Lake Union, N 60th, Aurora, and I-5, the lowest-priced single family home listing not along I-5 is a 1,120SF house for $550,00.  Even along the freeway, the next lowest home is listed at $540,000. Only one house with a warning that it is being sold “as is” and has visually obvious problems is listed for $450,000. (From, referenced the week of May 15, 2016)

Single-family only zoning sets up a situation in which the lowest-priced old, small or rundown homes are being up-cycled into the least affordable housing: brand new, large single family houses.

Within this same area, a property advertised a teardown is listed at $600,00; not far away in Phinney Ridge another is listed at $499, 950. There are six recent sales or listings of new homes in this area built within the last two years with a median square footage of 3,228 and sales price of $1.46M.   (Photos)

Under open zoning, some of these teardowns might be turned into duplexes, triplexes, or stacked flats that would not be any bigger but would be more affordable now and in the future—just like today’s the grandfathered multi-family.

Two or three homes on a lot would be economically competitive with one big single family house. But with current policy and market conditions, those with less are locked in a losing race with those with more for whom the lowest end of the single family home market is worth more to them as land for a big new house.

Open Zoning Increases Equity, Opportunity, and Productivity

Single-family zoning has other impacts that follow from stacking the deck against those with less rather than more.  It is one variety of exclusionary zoning:

[T]he term ‘exclusionary zoning’… has come to mean the use of zoning and other land use controls for social and economic ends by excluding ‘less desirable’ housing types or people from a jurisdiction… 

Exclusionary zoning takes many different forms, including limiting the availability of land for housing, excluding mobile homes, multifamily housing, or houses on small lots, or by imposing other standards that reduce housing supply, render it more expensive, or block specific projects.  (Source)

Historically, what are called exclusionary zoning have been associated with the suburbs, because that’s where the jobs were (emphasis added):

One well-documented problem is “exclusionary zoning” (or “snob zoning”). It consists of government regulations (generally local) that require such large lot sizes, large square footage per dwelling, and/or other high-end features – in such a large amount of the residentially-zoned land in the jurisdiction – that low- and moderate-income (“lower-income”) people are deprived of the opportunity to live reasonably near their workplace. Exclusionary zoning regulations are especially common in suburban areas, where most job opportunities now are located. (Source)

Now that cities like Seattle have become “where the jobs are,” and living in Seattle can provide better access to jobs than living in a suburb, some point out that in-city zoning traps those with less between a rock and a hard place (emphasis added):

As in the suburbs, cities began to employ land use restrictions to limit the density of housing, impose lengthy approvals processes that provide ample hooks for NIMBYs, and mandate expensive forms of housing.  Many of the country’s most desirable and most economically vibrant cities are no longer “Growth Machines.” They may be getting richer, and in that sense “growing,” but an emphasis on building housing and adding population is a thing of the past. Consequently, housing prices in these post-Growth Machine cities have risen much faster than the national average. The effect has been the same as in the exclusionary suburbs: The anti-development orientation of certain cities is turning them into preserves for the wealthy as housing costs increase beyond what lower-income families can afford to pay. The phenomenon deserves a similar name—the New Exclusionary Zoning.

If low-income families can’t afford the suburbs and they can’t afford the cities, where should they go? For the first time in American history, it makes sense to talk about whole regions of the country “gentrifying”—whole metropolitan areas whose high housing costs have rendered them inhospitable to low- income families, who, along with solidly middle class families, also feeling the crunch, have been paying higher housing costs or migrating to low-housing cost (and low-wage) areas… (Source)

And the correlation between wealth and race makes the impact of economically exclusionary practices racially invidious. In Seattle-King County, African-Americans are 3/5 as likely to live in a single family detached home and 1.4 times more likely to live in small multi-family housing than White households. So Single-family zoning stacks the deck against African-Americans living in an area. (Data)

Moreover, we now know that harm done by economic exclusion can be traced to areas such as neighborhoods, school catchment areas, and zip codes regardless of jurisdictional boundaries.  The harm done by exclusion can occur within the boundaries of one city:

  • Your zip code can predict your life expectancy (Source) (Updated with Seattle-specific maps at the census tract level: source and source)
  • The neighborhood you live in has powerful effects on your life (Source and Source) (Updated with block level effects: source)
  • “Zoning in” multi-family near major roads and “out” of less trafficked areas reserves the most environmentally healthy areas for those with more and corrals those with less into the least healthy areas (Source)
  • The school children attend makes a big difference; within Seattle we have a north-south school performance and resource gap within the city limits that maps to population by race, and in a case study of the new exclusionary zoning, that minority students are being priced out of Seattle into lower opportunity suburbs. (Source and Source) (Updated with school building level effects: source)

For these and other reasons, some argue that exclusionary zoning practices violate the terms of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which the U.S. is a signatory. (Source)

Others argue that exclusionary zoning practices ought to be found unconstitutional based on the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment.  (Source)

Regardless of how the legal treatment of exclusionary zoning evolves, there is strong economic evidence that making it harder to live near the jobs now located within thriving cities costs everyone: to the tune of $2 trillion dollars a year in lost productivity. To put it another way: open zoning could potentially deliver a raise of $8,775 to the average worker (Source and Source) (Updated with job mobility and coastal cities data: source)

Open Zoning is a Question of Character

In any event, restoring the open zoning is also a question about the character of our neighborhoods, too.  Do we want to take the side of making it easier, rather than hard, for those with less rather than more to find a home in our high-opportunity city? Or do we want to take the other side?  (emphasis added)

“If you people can’t afford to live in our town, then you’ll just have to leave.” With these words, Bill Haines, the Mayor of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, in 1970, rejected a proposal by the town’s African-American community to build an apartment complex. Haines claimed that the town’s zoning for large-lot, single-family homes could not yield to allow apartments. (Source)

Further Reading

Dan Bertolet at Sightline has written a comprehensive piece on zoning with more links than are presented here (Link)


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