Seattle is renaming “single-family zoning” to emphasize the diversity of the neighborhoods

by Ben Adlin


In a change to recognize the diverse ways people interact with neighborhoods, Seattle City Council voted Monday, October 4th, to end the city’s zoning as a “single-family home” and instead designate the areas as ” Neighborhood “to designate residential areas.”

The new label is both more comprehensive and more accurate, said Councilor Teresa Mosqueda, who co-sponsored the regulation with Councilor Dan Strauss. It’s also meant to reflect a more holistic view of neighborhood development as the city prepares an upcoming update to its global plan for 2024.

“It is high time we moved forward with a name change to update our language so that our planning documents reflect the true character of Seattle’s neighborhoods,” said Mosqueda, which includes “diverse homes, small businesses and many different types of households.”

Future updates to the city’s overall plan should pave the way for denser development, more living space and more mixed-use areas. The zone name change “will touch many elements” of the plan, the Mosqueda office said in a statement, including the city’s future land use map, 17 different custom neighborhood plans and housing, park and open space planning regulations.

Single-family zones, which will become known as neighborhood residential zones starting next month, comprise nearly half of the total buildable land within the Seattle borders and nearly three-quarters of the residential areas. In general, the apartments in the zones are free-standing, with courtyards and at least one parking space per apartment, according to a summary of the city zones.

Seattle city generalized development map. From the city of Seattle.

The Seattle Planning Commission has called for the label to be changed to “Neighborhood Housing” since its 2018 Neighborhoods for All report. The commission pointed out that the existing designation “single family home” has been wrong since at least 1994, when the city passed a law allowing the construction of additional housing units (ADUs) that made it easier for multiple households to live on a single piece of land.

The reference to single families “is also linked to Seattle’s earlier use of race-based zoning as an exclusive practice,” said the planning commission, referring to the city’s historical use of racially discriminatory redlining policies, which today still predominantly affect BIPOC communities.

Changing the name of zones to highlight neighborhoods as a whole, rather than individual families, “brings us one step closer to a more inclusive Seattle,” Mosqueda said in a statement following the council’s vote on the law on Monday.

Strauss, chairman of the council’s Land Use and Neighborhood Committee, added that the name change better characterizes existing neighborhoods – including those that house buildings that couldn’t be built under current zoning regulations.

“Some of the liveliest places in ‘single family’ zones have old duplex, triplex and corner stores, all of which are currently not allowed,” said the councilor. He acknowledged that the newly passed legislation “does not change the zoning, just the name we call these areas”.

Some speaking during Monday’s public comment at the city council meeting called for more specific changes, such as lifting restrictions on the height of new residential buildings across the city. But advocates of housing and development have hailed the new zoning as a sign of the city’s commitment to promoting denser housing and a wider mix of land use and transportation options.

“This is an important change that will serve as the basis for the policy process of considering alternatives to single-family zoning in government relations and policy for the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County.

Kate Rubin, a Columbia City renter and director of Be: Seattle, a nonprofit advocating for tenants and the unoccupied, told the city council that the change is making way for “households of all shapes and sizes.”

“As a millennial who faced two recessions when I started my career, I was forced to start households with many other people in similar situations,” said Ruben. “This name accurately reflects a lot of people like me who are struggling to find their place in Seattle but are still building community and contributing to the neighborhood.”

Few spoke critically about the name change at the council meeting on Monday, although one commentator, Sarajane Siegfriedt of Lake City, said she was concerned that increased density in Seattle could threaten what she described as “neighborhood character.”

“I’m all for increasing the density, but with the canopy and neighborhood character in mind,” she said, arguing that rules limiting building heights and curb setbacks help keep neighborhoods “walkable and attractive.”

“The neighborhood character that I know is a no-go, but it’s true,” concluded Siegfiet. She urged councilors to wait with future elevated zones unless the changes were based on “data” on housing capacity.

Many upzoning proponents see such concerns based on established residents’ fear of change, especially in affluent, mostly white enclaves – the kind of exclusivity that once supported the city’s redlining policies and continues to penalize the BIPOC population. For them, “neighborhood character” is a code word for gatekeeping that perpetuates structural racism.

Amid a sharp rise in home prices in and around Seattle over the past two decades as the area’s tech sector was booming, many of the area’s most vulnerable residents were displaced. BIPOC communities, centered in Seattle for decades, were pushed south, straining community relationships and uprooting longstanding cultural centers.

While city guides have pushed for more affordable housing to lower housing prices and curb displacement, many housing advocates have called for a broader approach to increasing housing density across the city. Even building apartments at market prices would lower rents and make it easier to find accommodation. It’s an issue that is likely to dominate much of the mayoral race ahead of next month’s elections.

At the state level, Seattle area lawmakers hailed the city council for making progress toward a fairer and greener approach to urban planning.

“Seattle needs a zoning regime that allows for a wide range of housing styles that already exist in many single-family homes,” said Joe Fitzgibbon (D-37), whose boroughs include Burien, White Center and West Seattle. “Legalizing more diverse housing options is the best step forward in terms of quality of life, accessibility, affordability and the climate.”

Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), whose district stretches north from Capitol Hill to Green Lake, said single-family zoning in the city has extended to areas of apartment buildings, maisonettes, and others since its inception in the 1920s higher density housing.

“Single-family home zoning was designed to exclude and continue to hurt families and communities struggling with a status quo that doesn’t meet their housing needs – but the multi-family holdovers from the past remind us that the Status quo can be changed ”, called Macri. “Let’s use language that better reflects our values ​​and our vision for a zone system that works for everyone.”


Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently resides on Capitol Hill. He has covered politics and legal affairs in Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald writer since May 2020, writing on community and local news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured image: Screenshot from the Seattle Planning Commission’s Neighborhoods For All discussion guide.

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