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Changes to Seattle's single-family zoning could improve housing picture, city report says

Mike Rosenberg, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

As the median cost of a house has soared to $750,000, "making homeownership impossible for those with modest incomes," single-family homeowners make more than twice as much as those living in other types of housing. The household income gap between renters and homeowners has grown from $43,000 a decade ago to $65,000 now. Only one-third of single-family-zone dwellers make below the city's median income (compared to two-thirds of people living in the rest of the city) and the disparity could widen as soaring property taxes push poorer homeowners to sell.

About half of white residents in Seattle own homes -- while just one-fourth of black and Hispanic residents do. The commission argues a big part of the disparity is due to redlining and racial covenants, which decades ago prevented nonwhites from living in some desirable single-family zones, making it impossible for families of color to pass homes down through generations. Current zoning "perpetuates that legacy" by allowing only expensive housing there.

-- Growth in the city has been highly unequal because of zoning. Of Seattle's 135 Census tracts, 31 have actually lost population since 1970 despite the city adding 180,000 people in that time frame. Almost all of the areas that lost residents were in single-family neighborhoods, often in upper-income areas close to the water where housing has not been added. For instance,the Madrona Beach (median home: $1.1 million) and Seward Park ($880,000) areas each lost about 750 residents.

Altogether, single-family zones that make up the vast majority of the city's residential land have accommodated just 5 percent of new housing units built this decade.

-- Land use is unequal, as well. Although prior analysis has pegged single-family homes as making up about two-thirds of the city's residential land, the report says 75 percent of land available for housing is reserved for single-family lots. When looking at all land in the city -- including parks, streets, schools and businesses -- 35 percent is used for single-family lots, compared to 12 percent for other types of housing. The report notes this creates an equity issue for families, as well, since nearly all of the city's schools and parks are in pricier single-family zones.

-- Although concerns about "neighborhood character" aesthetics often frame debates about preserving single-family zones, buildings are in fact getting bigger in those neighborhoods -- through construction of McMansions that only the rich can afford.

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Because developers have been tearing down smaller, older homes in favor of large new ones that cater to luxury homebuyers, the average size of a new detached house in Seattle has soared 31 percent since 1990, from 2,660 square feet to 3,487 now. Those new houses are often one or two stories taller than neighboring houses and carry a median price tag far above $1 million.

-- Seattle's housing stock is mostly either very dense (like high-rise apartments) or not at all (like a detached house). The so-called "missing middle" types in between -- like duplexes, row houses and one-story apartment buildings -- make up just 18 percent of all housing units.

Possible changes

The second part of the report lays out recommendations to help fix some of these issues. The planning commission has no power to make these changes -- it must ask the mayor and City Council to do so.

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