Councilmember O'Brien left office on December 31, 2019. This website is for archival purposes only and is no longer updated.

Proposed Changes to Single Family Zones

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There has been a lot of discussion and disagreement about some of the recommendations that came out of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee (HALA), specifically around the recommendations regarding the future of our single family zones. It appears that even among some members of the HALA committee there are different interpretations about the single family zone recommendations. Regardless of the intent of the members of HALA, the recommendations are now before the City Council, and we will be making decisions on which recommendations we will be moving forward and in what form and on what timeline.

I am writing today with my position on the recommendations and the role that single family zoned land should play in addressing affordability.

  • On Backyard Cottages: The HALA report suggests expanding opportunities for backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in our single family neighborhoods. I support this recommendation. These housing types are already allowed in all single family zones in Seattle and often provide more affordable opportunities for people to live in our great neighborhoods without dramatically changing the physical scale of the neighborhood. Last fall the council passed Resolution 31547 asking DPD and HALA to explore ways the encourage more of these housing types in our single family neighborhoods.
  • On Rezoning Single Family lots to Multi-Family: The report also suggests rezoning a small portion of single family property within our urban villages and along arterials with frequent transit to multi-family or mixed-use zoning (see this map of proposed changes). This would amount to a change to only 6% of all of the land currently zoned for single family use. Along with Downtown and South Lake Union, our urban villages throughout the city are where we have chosen to direct the vast majority of our growth in Seattle. Most land in our urban villages is already zoned commercial or multi-family (see this map for detail), and I believe that in order to provide additional zoning capacity for multi-family uses, it makes the most sense to first look to our urban villages.

The idea of rezoning single family properties along arterials with access to frequent transit is intriguing and requires further exploration and study. I can envision areas where this would make sense and areas where it would not. I believe this portion of the recommendation should be examined on a case by case basis with particular focus on ensuring that areas where we decide to allow multi-family housing are well served by transit and other amenities that residents would need.

  • On other changes to Single Family Zones: Many people are concerned that the HALA recommendations call for rezoning all single family zoning to multi-family zoning. I do not support zoning changes that would lead to rapid redevelopment of our single family zones and the replacement of existing single family housing with newly constructed multi-family housing. I don’t believe this will help with affordability. However, if there are creative ways to allow families to convert existing housing in single family zones to allow families to share a house, beyond the mother-in-law apartment model we already have, I am open to exploring that. On properties where redevelopment makes more sense for structural reasons or out of necessity, I would like to see the new buildings take the same size and scale of buildings already allowed in the neighborhood, even if it means more people live in those buildings.

A critical factor for me in evaluating policies in these areas will be supporting policies that maintain existing structures in single family zones and opposing policies that encourage replacement of existing housing stock within the single family zone.

I want to also share a bit about process going forward. None of these changes will happen without significant City Council deliberation and public input. This fall, the Council plans to craft and pass a resolution that would identify which of the recommendations from HALA we plan to prioritize in our upcoming work, what committees that work will go through, and what the anticipated timeline for that work is. We may also use the resolution as an opportunity to clarify the Council’s interpretation of any HALA recommendations that are causing confusion. This resolution itself will go through its own public process which will include at least three special committee meetings and a public hearing between now and the end of September. Our first meeting of the Select Committee on Housing Affordability will be this coming Monday, July 20, where we will receive a briefing on the whole HALA package of recommendations. You can sign up here to receive the agendas for these meetings via email.

With the exception of the ordinance to create the Commercial Linkage Fee for Affordable Housing, which I intend to pass in 2015, all other ordinances will happen in 2016 or later.

I will soon have another post describing the historic agreement we reached in the HALA negotiations that will sets a progressive new paradigm for development in Seattle—soon all new buildings in the city will include or contribute to affordable housing.

Thanks and let me know if you have any additional questions, comments or concerns.


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Comment from tj
Time July 17, 2015 at 7:56 pm

I want to share some of my comments/concerns regarding items above.
1. Backyard cottages. I was all for backyard cottages until I read the fine print. The HALA proposal recommends that the owner no longer needs to live on the property. That concerns me. Making the owner live on the property gives the owner an incentive to put up something attractive that would fit in with the neighborhood. Not making the owner live on the property encourages the owner to just put up something cheap that they can put up fast and rent. I am also concerned about green-lighted backyard cottage permit proposals. Modular housing was suggested as a quick, cheap design for backyard cottages. A modular home was recently build a block from where I live. It is one of those ugly, cube like structures that doesn’t match the neighborhood at all. Is that what we really want to encourage?
2.I continue to be concerned about the rezoning of single family housing. Adding duplexes, row housing, and multiplexes changes the neighborhood. Why can’t these multi-family units be build where they is already multi-family zoning? How much density do you think that urban villages can take? I was so disappointed by the representation on the HALA committee. I feel like the developers and the low-income housing advocates were well-represented and came up with a great deal that works for them, but what about the middle-income folks. We’re not rich. We live in Greenwood. We saved and worked really hard to buy our home. There is no representation for us.
3.Parking. You didn’t mention parking, but I want to say that we need parking to be included as part of development. Most people in the city own cars. Not including parking, makes a neighborhood less livable and family friendly. It’s really hard to not have a car when you have little kids. At some point kids get hurt and end up needing to go to the emergency room or to the doctor. Mass transit does not work to get them there fast enough.

Comment from David schaefer
Time July 17, 2015 at 8:51 pm

Appreciate this well-informed and well-reasoned explanation of the issue, and your positions on them.

Comment from tj
Time July 17, 2015 at 9:19 pm

I left a comment earlier tonight and its gone. Do comments not stay on the page?

Comment from Donn Cave
Time July 18, 2015 at 4:31 pm

I believe there’s a significant amount of support for backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments, maybe not universal but it isn’t hugely controversial. Past this, however, the HALA recommendations quickly run into trouble.

Multiple ownership is one of the things that I believe will be hard to swallow. Also 1b(v) “Make minor modifications to remove barriers within existing development standards for DADUs, such as height limits, setbacks, and maximum square footage to ensure constructibility.” This, and the “small lot” verbiage, sound like a way to indeed make dramatic changes to physical scale, for the sake of high end market construction that will be attractive to developers, in exactly the way that leads to the complaints voiced by One Home Per Lot. The offending results are not hypothetical, there are examples anyone can go look at, and language that supports this kind of thing is going to bring a lot of trouble for you.

I believe that there’s a strong market for modest size accommodations that really fit within what we normally think of as mother-in-law apartments, and perhaps backyard cottages. I know people who’ve lived in converted garages and old coach house structures no larger than a small apartment. It can be very attractive. It might not be attractive enough to be “up market”, but of course this exactly what you need if you’re adding to the affordable housing stock.

Comment from Suzy kellett
Time July 18, 2015 at 8:24 pm

What is so interesting to me is the limited discussion on the impact on parking with the increased density in neighborhoods. Ballard is a case in point. Many of us feel it has been ruined. This is a big deal for many of us

Comment from Mike Rourke
Time July 18, 2015 at 10:57 pm

Please slow this process down. We don’t have adequate infrastructure in our neighborhoods to support the transition from single family to multi family dwellings in neighborhoods like Ballard, where I live. Our streets and bridges are in disrepair, public transportation is minimal and not always safe due to allowing unpaid travel to some, and yet the council is trying to cram more people into already crowded areas. Cart before the horse, and developers aren’t paying their fair share, but residents sure are. If this keeps up I’ll be forced to take my residence and money elsewhere.

Comment from Pam Emerson
Time August 26, 2015 at 11:42 pm

Moving forward, can you please ensure the public has access to higher quality, higher resolution maps? It is nearly impossible to read the two linked maps above at a scale where a resident could actually determine if his/her parcel were included in the areas slated for zoning changes.

I’d like to assume there is no intention to purposefully obscure details (like where, specifically, changes are being considered or proposed) but it does have that affect and therefore raise hackles when this core piece of info (the maps) do not follow basic legibility protocols and lacks street names, landmarks, clear ROW/parcel lines, etc.

Thank you!

Comment from Donna
Time October 11, 2015 at 11:48 am

Why are the Magnolia and Montlake neighborhoods being spared up zoning, while Wallingford looks like a sea of density? I agree with the comment above about infrastructure – developers are not being asked to contribute enough to create what will be needed once they’ve built their unaffordable condo structures.

Comment from Diane
Time November 12, 2015 at 4:37 pm

This map really is obscure. It looks like part of the rezoning for Crown Hill is taking in Whitman Middle School and the Sound View city park. What else is the city being evasive about?

Comment from Gypsy Mandelbaum
Time December 28, 2015 at 11:09 am

Neighborhoods are not fungible except to powerful building interests and the politicians they fund. Instead of HALA, neighborhood resident teams with a representative demographic could have been given time to come up with recommendations to fit the area using developers, their architects and “urbanists” as resources, not as planners. Ballard is a prime example of the many Seattle nabes now ruined from lack of design review – which is clear evidence that developers own this town, its mayor and most of its politicians. You have apodments with no parking requirement, yet homeowners with room for an ADU or DADU face onerous restrictions and equally burdensome code requirements for older homes. No wonder there’s so much unpermitted work. If the mayor and the council really want more density, they should recruit neighborhoods to guide the planning, but as usual, money talks louder than common sense.

Comment from G. Mandelbaum
Time December 28, 2015 at 4:30 pm

9 comments? Surely there were more than that. Is there a limit on number of comments per topic? Or were only 9 acceptible to publish?

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