Morning Crank: Toward a Redefinition of “Single-Family”

Council member Teresa Mosqueda released more details last week about her proposal to do a full race and social justice analysis of the city’s urban village strategy—a neighborhood planning framework that was adopted in collaboration with homeowner-dominated neighborhood groups in the 1990s, long before the city adopted its Race and Social Justice Initiative. The memo suggests that the city might move toward a “redefinition of ‘Single Family,’ that includes attached family-dwellings in areas that may not have frequent transit service, but have good transit service, and access to community assets within walking distance (such as parks, open spaces, and community centers) that are otherwise missing from many of the Urban Villages?”

Mosqueda’s memo notes that single-family zoning currently occupies 86 percent of the residential land in Seattle, but it hasn’t always been so. Prior to the 1930s, when the federal government officially encouraged the separation of multifamily and single-family housing through formal redlining, the city had two residential zoning designations—First Residence, which was single-family-only, and Second Residence, where multifamily housing of all kinds was allowed. Much of what is now single-family was in that second category.

The urban village strategy, adopted in the post-formal-redlining 1990s, concentrates development tightly around arterial streets, preserving the vast majority of the city’s land exclusively for detached single-family houses, a development pattern that has contributed to the city’s housing shortage and helped drive up housing prices to levels that are unaffordable to working- and middle-class people.

Mosqueda’s plan, if it’s allowed to play out, could point the way toward an alternate neighborhood-planning strategy that includes renters, low-income people, and people of color in decision-making—a strategy that would likely lead to more density in areas that have been walled off by existing neighborhood plans. Last week, council members (particularly budget committee chair Sally Bagshaw) raised questions about whether Mosqueda’s plan would duplicate work that has already been done and whether it impacts an ongiong legal challenge by a group of neighborhood activists seeking to invalidate the city’s mandatory housing affordability (MHA) policy, in part, on the grounds that the city didn’t do a race and social justice analysis of the impact of increased density. (More on why that challenge is disingenuous here.)

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In the  memo, Mosqueda’s staff quickly dispensed with the latter concern, noting that a racial equity analysis of existing neighborhood plans would have no bearing on whether one was done for MHA (and that it’s outside the scope of the state environmental policy act, which is the basis for SCALE’s challenge, anyway). In response to Bagshaw’s concern—that the analysis has essentially already been done—the memo notes that all the analysis the city has done of the impacts of housing policy on people of color and low-income people so far, including an oft-cited report by former council member Peter Steinbrueck, “appear[s] to start and end with the proposition that the [Urban Village Strategy] is the preferred growth strategy. None appear to actually question the efficacy of the current strategy [or include] an exploration of whether to engage in a new strategy.”

It’s far from clear that Mosqueda’s colleagues will consider this argument persuasive; last week, even Rob Johnson, who supports the idea of revisiting the urban village strategy in principle, suggested that the council might put it off until later in 2019.

The city continues its budget deliberations next week. Last week’s budget discussions  included a debate over Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to use higher-than-expected revenues from the soda tax to cut general-fund spending on the education and food access programs the tax funds, rather than increasing funding for those programs; a discussion about the availability of enhanced shelter beds (almost nonexistent) and whether the mayor’s homelessness budget spends too much on back-office staff; and a proposal, from Mosqueda and Mike O’Brien, to increase pay for all human service providers that contract with the city by 3.5 percent. Durkan’s budget would increase the pay of front-line workers who provide services to Seattle’s homeless population by just 2 percent, and would only benefit those whose jobs are funded through the city’s general fund; increasing and expanding that wage hike would cost just shy of $6 million a year.

The council also talked about the seemingly moribund proposal—recommended unanimously by the county’s opiate task force in 2016—to open a supervised drug consumption site somewhere in the county. Durkan’s budget carries over $1.3 million for a site from the 2017 budget, but doesn’t actually propose spending the money. Durkan, a council staffer told council members last week, “has indicted that opening a [safe consumption site], either leasing or acquiring property, is unlikely is because of the expense and for this reason they have pivoted to a so called fixed mobile site”—i.e., a van. The city is looking at a variety of models for this theoretical site, ranging from a site that does not offer medically assisted treatment (AKA prescriptions for suboxone, an opiate drug that reduces cravings for more dangerous and addictive opiates) and is open only during 9-5 business hours, to a 70-hour-a-week model that does include MAT. “People struggling with addiction aren’t doing it within the course of a 40-hour work week,” Johnson noted.

6 thoughts on “Morning Crank: Toward a Redefinition of “Single-Family”

  1. “The urban village strategy, adopted in the post-formal-redlining 1990s, concentrates development tightly around arterial streets, preserving the vast majority of the city’s land exclusively for detached single-family houses, a development pattern that has contributed to the city’s housing shortage and helped drive up housing prices to levels that are unaffordable to working- and middle-class people.”

    As you well know, the “vast majority of the city’s land” is not preserved for detached single-family houses. According to the 2035 Comprehensive Plan, Land Use Appendix A, it is 35% zoned for single-family, with 11% zoned multifamily. Repeatedly misstating this verifiable fact hurts your credibility, which I appreciated on so many other issues, including the budget.

    Since the capacity of multifamily is about five to 100 times that of single-family zoning, depending on the height and density allowed, and since we currently have zoned capacity for 400% of planned growth, it is impossible to blame single-family zoning for the city’s housing shortage. Developers insist on building in certain neighborhoods and not in others (such as Lake City) because they can’t get their desired 20% annual Return on Investment where rents are lower. Thus we have 5,000 vacant units, mostly downtown.

    • So you’re in favor of teardowns? The assumption that all existing zoning will be used to it’s full capacity assumes that any unit not already at max will be torn down and rebuilt.

      Developers build where there’s demand. Lake City is very far from downtown, and doesn’t have sufficient transit for people to reasonably live there and commute to the work centers of the city. If you want to propose Lake City, you also need to encourage transit funding for rapid ride & eventual Light Rail that far out.

  2. “Prior to the 1930s, when the federal government officially encouraged the separation of multifamily and single-family housing through formal redlining, …”

    This is inaccurate. Redlining was done by banks, which wouldn’t lend in redlined areas. Zoning has always been a local matter. It was subsequently requested by developers to protect their investments.

    • This is quite wrong. Read “The Color of the Law” by Richard Rothstein, a prominent academic on housing segregation at Cal. He documents statements and writing by the heads of various departments and commitees on housing in the Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman administrations that encouraged localities to create extensive single family zones to keep neighborhoods homogeneous economically and racially.

      Hoover (as Coolidge’s Secretary of Commerce) organized an “Advisory Committee on Zoning” that distributed manuals to localities outlining the benefits of single family zoning in creating “homogeneous” and “harmonious” communities.

      Fredrick Law Olmstead Jr directed the Town Planning Division of the federal government housing agency directly said good zoning policy should create racially homogenous communities while avoiding constitutional restrictions on discrimination, and put forth single family zoning as a way to do that.

      FDR appointed Alfred Bettman as head of the National Land Use Planning Committee. He subsequently stated that “Zoning was necessary to maintain the nation and the race.” The was after the supreme court has outlawed racial zoning.

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