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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 Home and Consumer News

SEATTLE -- The single-family zoning that dominates Seattle has priced people who aren't rich out of most of the city's neighborhoods, is contributing to income and racial inequality, and has forced the city's booming population to crowd into small pockets of the city, a new planning-commission analysis concludes.

The advisory report released this week stops short of recommending major citywide density but advocates for some mild changes that could affect districts that are mostly detached houses now. For instance, it asks for more duplexes near schools, expanding the boundaries of urban villages by a few blocks and reducing lot sizes to squeeze more homes into streets.

Like most cities, Seattle sets zoning rules that outline what can be built in different areas -- from skyscrapers downtown and in South Lake Union to suburban-style homes with driveways in Magnolia and Crown Hill.

Facing historic population and housing-cost growth, the city has allowed taller buildings and more housing in some of its dense neighborhoods near transit -- think central Ballard or the Junction in West Seattle.

But it's kept single-family neighborhoods almost entirely unchanged: Residents in those areas dominate the electorate and many have been fiercely protective of keeping their neighborhoods the same, making any proposed changes there radioactive.

Now, the planning commission's report, a year-and-a-half in the making, is the first effort from City Hall in years to tackle the single-family zoning issue here. Cities from Minneapolis to Portland to Vancouver, B.C., are moving to allow denser housing like duplexes in single-family areas.

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The commission closes the report by acknowledging how its findings will not be taken well by everyone, which chair Tim Parham reiterated in an interview.

"We recognize totally that this is a challenging issue for many in Seattle and this is controversial, and could cause some anxiety for folks," Parham said. "One of the roles of this paper is just to put the idea out there, so that people can have a common starting point."

Among the findings of the report:

-- Single-family neighborhoods mostly accommodate a certain type of person, namely high-income and white residents.

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