policy background

The Problem

High housing costs cause many people to spend too much on housing and/or live farther away from work. When people have to spend more on housing or on transportation they have less money to spend on other goods and services, weakening the economy and strain on the social safety net.  By forcing people to live farther out it lengthens commutes and increases congestion on our roadways. This also leads to pressure on our natural areas beyond the growth boundary and increased pollution from auto emissions.  Clearly it’s in no ones interest for large numbers of people to have difficulty affording housing.

Currently we create housing via two methods: privately financed market rate housing, and publicly funded subsidized housing.  Both are important and necessary parts of our housing supply, but by themselves not sufficient. We have seen increased demand outpace our ability to create both types of housing, leading to rising prices and more political conflict over development.  We are also unlikely to see a shift in the political and legal constraints on taxes for more subsidized housing any time soon. Meanwhile, even though much of the new privately financed housing being constructed will eventually “age into affordability”, that doesn't help low income people who need housing now.

Zoning Laws

In Seattle we have a variety of land use laws (aka "zoning") that restrict the types of buildings that can be constructed on a given plot of land.  With a few exceptions, multi-family and mixed use buildings (aka, apartment buildings) are only allowed in what are called "urban villages". As you can see on the map below, these urban villages are only a small portion of the city. In contrast, we are far better at providing frequent transit. The second map shows in green where we provide frequent transit during weekday peak demand periods. (Click on the images to see a larger version)

 Urban_Villages.png  frequent_transit_small.jpg

The urban villages correspond closely to where we've zoned for multifamily and single family housing types. The following map shows that Seattle is predominantly zoned for single family (shown in yellow). Indeed, according to the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD), over 64% of Seattle is zoned single family with less than 22% zoned for multifamily and mixed use.




Despite the fact that roughly three times as much of the city is zoned single family as multi-family, according to the 2010 census over half of Seattle housing units are renter occupied.


 With the recent building boom in Seattle adding over 29,000 housing units since 2004, our existing multi-family areas are increasingly built out (DPD). If we don’t increase the supply of buildable land then we’re going to find this city become increasingly unaffordable as landlords are able to exact higher and higher prices from developers and tenants.

In order to plan for this housing we need Neighborhood Affordability Plans that look at how each neighborhood can contribute to citywide affordability goals. Citywide programs such as our proposal for direct financing of affordable housing will play an important supporting role, but each plan will be different just as each neighborhood is different. 

For more on these proposed plans, check out our neighborhood affordability plans section.

We're also going to need to change the way we relate to each other as residents, whether we're new or old and renters or property owners. Towards this end we will be starting the Welcoming Community Project.

Thank you for reading this policy background, if you have any questions, comments, or want to get involved, please contact us.

Data sources:

DPD About Seattle, Land Use Statistics
Accessed 11/7/2014




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