Rezoning a city to make Denser Neighborhoods is an idea with growing appeal.The question is whether it works.
Seattle’s housing market has been red-hot for almost a decade. Across the Northwest’s largest metropolitan area, real estate is not only expensive, upward of a million dollars for homes in some of the nicest enclaves, but often sells in a matter of days.
A complex of forces -- the growth of Amazon, the technological might of Microsoft, the jobs those companies bring and a dearth of available real estate -- has made Seattle one of the costliest housing markets in the country. Only San Francisco and Las Vegas have outpaced Seattle in rising home prices in the last six years, according to the Case-Shiller Home Price Indices report. It’s not just home-buying that has been expensive, but also renting. The rental market may have cooled some in the last year, but that’s after years of increases that outpaced inflation. From 2015 to 2016 alone, Seattle saw an almost 10 percent jump in rental prices. The tight market is part of the reason for the city’s surging homeless population.
Seattle is a small city, wedged between Puget Sound and Lake Washington on 83 square miles of land. It’s about the same size as Madison, Wis., but with about three times as many residents -- more than 700,000 by the most recent count. In just the past decade, more than 115,000 people have moved to the area. All that growth is taking place in a city that, like those all over the West, has long relied on single-family homes to meet its housing needs. More than two-thirds of the city is zoned single-family. The result is that Seattle simply is not dense enough to cope with the surging demand. When a multi-unit project is built, it’s usually a luxury apartment building. “While there is more supply,” says Andrew Lofton, executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority, “it’s not coming online for moderate income earners.”
In April, Seattle followed the lead of Minneapolis in enacting a zoning reform law. But where Minneapolis approved sweeping changes that eliminated exclusive single-family zoning in many of its neighborhoods, Seattle scaled back its own ambitions. City planners originally wanted to up-zone 50 neighborhoods. That idea was opposed by a coalition of 26 neighborhood groups, and the fight was fierce. One public comment submitted to the city read: “The density Bolsheviks are coming to town, and they’re gonna burn your single-family house to the ground.”
Seattle settled on what locals call “The Grand Bargain.” Twenty-seven neighborhoods will be up-zoned, allowing for greater density and looser height restrictions, but only if developers agree to either build affordable housing on the new site or pay into the city’s affordable housing fund. Seattle estimates the plan will bring an additional 4,000 affordable units to the city.
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