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Exclusionary Zoning in Seattle and Elsewhere

Historic zoning mapSeattle's 1923 zoning map legend (Seattle Municipal Archives) See Seattle's most up-to-date zoning map.

By Zoe Ludwig, Built Green Intern | This is part two in a three-part series. Read part one.

How Does Exclusionary Zoning Work in Seattle? 

Seattle first adopted exclusionary zoning policies in 1923 through “an ordinance regulating and restricting the location of trades and industries; regulating and limiting the use of buildings and premises and the heights and size of buildings; providing for yards, courts or other open spaces; establishing districts for the said purposes; defining offenses; prescribing penalties and repealing all ordinances or parts of ordinances in conflict therewith.” 

What does it all mean?

Zoning allows lots to be broken by lot size and restricts use. For example, single-family zones are divided by lot size and can only contain one dwelling unit. This means that for SF 9600 zones (the largest single-family zones) only one dwelling unit can occupy each 9,600-plus square foot lot. For such zones, a maximum of 35 percent of the land can contain a single-family housing structure. Single-family zones shrink all the way to “Residential Small Lot (RSL),” where homes are built on a minimum lot size of 2,500 feet and can cover the whole lot as long as they meet the minimum front/rear yard requirements of 30 feet. 

Despite the seemingly limited laws, Seattle is still in the top ten most densely populated cities in the U.S. (7,963 people per square mile) at number 10 and is set to move past Los Angeles (number nine) within five years. In 2010, 48 percent of units were listed as owner-occupied and just over 50 percent of Seattle housing units were rented space. Now, 49 percent of the city is zoned single-family—that’s a whopping 65 percent of the 76 percent of possible acreage zoned exclusively for residential use.

In short, the Seattle housing market is competitive and those who can’t afford to own often get stuck in difficult housing situations. Take the story of Becky for example. Becky moved with her daughter to Seattle for a great job. She moved into her parents’ basement while she looked for housing in an area with good schools. No luck. Becky found a way to make the basement space her own, but her story is far too familiar to those who have struggled to find a home in Seattle. (For more stories like Becky’s, check out Sightline’s Seattle Neighbors project!) 

Relatedly, a 2017 poll by King 5 indicated that 48 percent of Seattleites are in support of more inclusive zoning and only 29 percent directly oppose changes to single-family zones, with the remaining 22 percent feeling ‘unsure’ about their positions. 

Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA)

To help alleviate some of these housing pressures, Mayor Ed Murray spearheaded the 2015 Housing Affordability and Living Livability Agenda (HALA). HALA aimed to address many of the issues discussed in this post, including homelessness, exclusionary zoning, and overpriced housing. 

HALA was called a “headline-grabbing proposition.” Advocates for HALA commend Mayor Murray for his dedication to sustainability, the bold vision of his plan, and the emphasis on addressing “racial and class exclusion.” Opponents, on the other hand, criticize the plan for being “too little, too late” and say it inadvertently inflates single-family housing costs by imposing costs on small-scale developers that adversely impact their project budgets.  

Since 2015, the City of Seattle attributes the creation of over 1,500 affordable housing units to HALA. The Seattle Housing Levy has been doubled and the Multifamily Tax Exemption program expanded to include almost twice as much area. In three different Seattle neighborhoods, namely the University District, downtown, and South Lake Union, Mandatory Housing Affordability will theoretically keep rents down in new developments, though it is too early to provide a definitive answer. Looking forward, the 2017 and 2019 city council races and this year’s mayoral race, appearing on almost every ballot, will dictate the fate of HALA and housing affordability in Seattle.

One thing HALA will not focus on, however, is exclusionary zoning. Shortly after HALA was announced, Mayor Murray stated “I will no longer pursue changes that could allow more types of housing in 94 percent of single-family zones. Instead, we will refocus the discussion on designing denser Urban Centers, Urban Villages, and along transit corridors that include more affordable housing.” He cites this framework shift to ‘distraction’ caused by the media immediately following HALA’s release. He goes on to reiterate his focus on density in all neighborhoods, but if no zoning changes will occur, it seems unlikely to have the ramifications the city of Seattle wants and desperately needs. 

How Do Other Cities Do It?

Seattle attempted to solve affordability issues through HALA, but how do other cities manage some of the same issues? We’ve seen how housing restrictions can trap cities in their own systemic failures and we’ve seen cascading financial impacts. Studies in New York, San Francisco, and San Jose have shown that the act of lowering regulations in just three cities could raise the overall US GDP by 9.5 percent.

Our Cascadian neighbors in Portland have just three percent of land zoned as single-family. Unfortunately, their 2016 State of Housing report showed decreasing affordability, though this may be impacted by a myriad of variables. However, their commitment to housing affordability overall is clear and could set an example for Seattle, where a state of emergency was declared for the homelessness crisis in 2015. 

Seattle has a housing crisis and booming population growth is contributing to the problem. A recent study by the US Census Bureau estimated that, on average, 1,000 new people move to Seattle each week. With such rapid growth, is it possible for Seattle to follow the likes of New York, San Francisco, or San Jose? According to a 2017 press release by the US Census Bureau, Seattle was ranked the fifth largest growing city, while New York came in fourth. Perhaps Seattle can learn from other fast-growing cities about the best way to deal with housing crises. 


Interested in this complex topic? At this year’s Built Green Conference, we are hosting a panel called From Exclusionary to Inclusionary: How Can We Make Our Region Inclusive, Resilient, and Vibrant? featuring Alan Durning of Sightline Institute, candidates for Seattle public office, and experts on environmental justice and community participation. Register for the conference today—ticket prices increase September 1!


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