At Capitol Hill open house on Seattle single-family zoning, calls for big change, affordability

Representatives from the Seattle Planning Commission chose Capitol Hill to meet with community members Monday night to discuss the findings of a report that officials say shows major changes to Seattle’s single-family zoning are “necessary for the city’s future.” CHS stopped through the lobby of 12th Ave Arts to talk with people who showed up.

“Restoring the flexibility in housing types seen in Seattle’s historic residential neighborhoods is critical if the city is to achieve its goals of being a diverse, equitable and sustainable place to live,” a statement on the new “Neighborhoods for All” report reads.

Alex Broner, who says the housing issue is a personal one to him after struggling to afford it in Seattle in the past, thinks this report is a “good foundational step,” but wanted to know how the city transitions from the findings into policy that reflects the suggestions of the commission, which included encouraging more compact development on all lots.

“People whose housing is threatened or who lack housing really start falling down in terms of their ability to take care of themselves in every other way,” Broner, director of the Housing Now advocacy group, said. “It seems like something a society should be able to get its handle on, but we seem not to.”

“It’s only a first step, it’s only a foundation, we have to keep going. We need to, I think, allow these realizations to kind of liberate us from some old ways of thinking.”

CHS reported on key findings from the report, including analysis that shows Seattle’s current zoning has created three times more single-family land than multifamily and mixed-use land combined.

The report also found that the vast majority of new residents were absorbed in areas zoned for multifamily dwellings, while areas zoned for one house per lot showed little change, and some even lost population. The “Neighborhoods for All” study also says that the average house size has increased by 1,000 square feet since 1900.

Among the findings:

  • Seattle’s current zoning map shows three times more single-family land than multifamily and mixed-use land combined
  • The vast majority of new residents were absorbed in areas zoned for multifamily dwellings, while areas zoned for one house per lot showed little change, and some even lost population.
  • The average house size has increased by 1,000 square feet since 1900

Xtian Gunther, who attended the evening event and has seen people he knows been forced out of their homes due to rising prices, was disappointed by the report after hearing from Tim Parham, chair of the Seattle Planning Commission, that they “don’t have a strategy that talks about affordability.” The report is more about increasing supply and diversity of housing options, which could potentially lead to lower costs.

“It would be a real missed opportunity to not have a big focus on affordability because that’s the name of the game right now,” Gunther said.

“It’s a hot potato in the city and they just threw the potato again.”

Gunther, who lives on the Hill, said he’s seen people asleep on the sidewalk within a block of his home and wants them to have an affordable one of their own.

“It’s not that it bothers me because I’m offended that people sleep on the [sidewalk],” Gunther said. “I’m offended that we allow this to happen.”

Cathy Hillenbrand, who was instrumental in the 20-year process to bring a planned 428 residential units – 41% of which (176 units) will be designated affordable housing – in the Capitol Hill Station development, was also interested in an affordability aspect of the development, but is glad that density is coming to the forefront of the discussion on housing.

“I think it’s exciting, I think it’s really important,” Hillenbrand, who now lives in a multi-unit home in Capitol Hill after buying a house in the 1970s for under $30,000, said, noting that while she thinks this will ultimately lead to change, she’s unsure how quickly it will come.

Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda attended a part of the open house portion of the event.

In a statement sent to CHS, Mosqueda said the ball is now in City Hall’s court to take the report’s findings and act on them.

“With a significant amount of our city being zoned as single-family, we must make swift changes to ensure we both promote additional housing and development while maintaining our green spaces and promoting our small businesses,” she said. “I look forward to working with my council colleagues, the housing community, and those at growing risk of displacement due to the lack of affordable housing to continue to build housing, push for creative policy solutions to support affordability, and by doing so promote livability in our city.”

One area of progress in 2019 will really be catch-up.  Just before Thanksgiving, one major legal hurdle was finally overcome for the process to implement a Mandatory Housing Affordability program in the city’s densest neighborhoods. Under the MHA framework, affordability requirements chained to the proposed upzoning vary by scale and developers can choose to pay fees instead of including rent-restricted units. The legislation was expected to result in $380M in revenue from the payment option and 1,325 units over 20 years, according to city planners. That $380 million could build another 4,300 affordable units, according to the city’s analysis.

Monday, the city council discussed the timeline for the revived MHA legislation. The hope is for a March, 2019 vote on implementation of the program.

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2 thoughts on “At Capitol Hill open house on Seattle single-family zoning, calls for big change, affordability

  1. I can’t understand why the city doesn’t do more to encourage development of the large amounts of underutilized land along the LINK corridor south of downtown. Land is plentiful and presumably cheaper than city center parcels, displacement of existing residents would be relatively minimal, light rail stations are nearby,and more residences would help neighborhood businesses. A thriving, well-planned city should be able to support multiple housing types: old and new, large and small, expensive and less costly, multifamily and single family.

  2. The central theme of this report tries to prove that we need more homes, but our city population doesn’t bear this out.

    Fun Fact: in 1960 Seattle’s population was 557,087. In 2018 its estimated at 659,000. An increase of 102,000 people. We have built many many more homes than that already. So why the need for a Massive upzone in all neighborhoods?

    This report leaves me with other questions. The demographic pie chart showing the race of homeowners is about the same as the demographic pie chart of Seattle – isn’t this to be expected?

    And the data is based on the 2010 census – is that why this report was released now? So the upcoming census data would not need to be considered? I think many of the neighborhoods that show decreases in population have actually increased and the new census will show this.

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