Seattle Is Proposing to Get Rid of Single-Family Zoning In Name Only. Literally.
On Monday, Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda proposed a less-than-revolutionary reform: Eliminate the words “single-family” from the city’s land-use regulations.
“Language matters. ‘Single family’ zoning may seem to some as merely a planning term, but we know historically it has been used to further exclusionary practices,” said Mosqueda in a press release. “We are acting on what we know is right to undo the legacy of exclusion that exists within our planning documents—starting with how we talk about our neighborhoods.”
The councilmember’s proposed legislation would replace some of the mentions of “single-family” zoning in Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, individual neighborhood plans, and other planning documents with the term “neighborhood residential” zoning.
So, under Mosqueda’s plan, the city’s current Land Use Element would no longer call for “Single-Family zones” to “maintain the current low-height and low-bulk character of designated single-family areas.” Instead, it would call for “neighborhood residential” zones to “maintain the current low-height and low-bulk character of designated neighborhood residential areas.”
The modesty of the proposal attracted some meme-laden scorn on Twitter.
— molly mermin (@mollymermaids) June 29, 2021
— Sydney Miyahara (@sydneymiyahara) June 28, 2021
Mosqueda’s entirely semantic reform, however, is not that far off from how other cities have approached changes to their zoning codes.
Across the country, more and more local leaders are taking aim at single-family-zoning, a policy they say is making cities less affordable, less equitable, and worse for the climate. Despite both the hype and/or heated opposition they’ve received, most of the particular reforms that have been passed or proposed make exceedingly modest changes to cities’ land-use regulations.
Berkeley—the first city in the U.S. to adopt single-family zoning back in 1916—generated a lot of headlines and enthusiasm when it unanimously approved a resolution in February condemning the policy’s racist origins. Nevertheless, city leaders have said they don’t expect to get rid of single-family zoning until December 2022.
When the city council of Charlotte, North Carolina, narrowly voted in favor of a comprehensive update that calls for allowing duplexes and triplexes (three-unit homes) wherever single-family homes are currently allowed, Republican politicians decried the move as “Biden-Harris Nanny State radicalism” that would bring to the city “all the worst parts of living in Atlanta.” These critics might want to keep their powder dry, however, given that any actual changes to city zoning laws are months, if not years away.
The truth is that getting rid of single-family zoning in a way that actually leads to a meaningful increase in the supply of housing requires cities to change much more than the number of homes allowed on each lot. A whole host of other rules and regulations governing development will also have to go.
Until they do, policies eliminating single-family zoning might as well just be words on a page.
“There are different ways to say that homes are legal or illegal” other than just how many units you can have on a single lot, says Michael Andersen, a senior researcher at the Seattle-based Sightline Institute. “You can say [a home] can’t be more than so many feet tall, you can say it can’t have more than such-and-such floor area, you can say it has to have so many parking spaces per unit or per bedroom.”
The particulars of these regulations
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