A day after approving a $7.4 billion two-year budget, on Wednesday the Seattle City Council heard a mildly wonky presentation from the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) about the City’s next comprehensive plan.

Wait, wait! Before your eyes start to glaze over, it’s important to note that the next 10-year growth plan could be just as influential as the biennial budget in shaping the future of the city–especially if we’re going to fix the racist, classist legacy of single-family zoning.

If you’re annoyed by Seattle’s expensive housing costs, disturbed about the ongoing homelessness crisis, or fed up about the Route 8 bus always being late, then you should know about a guy named Harland Bartholomew.

The Legacy of Racism in City Planning

Bartholomew was a city planner in St. Louis during the first half of the 20th century. After a Supreme Court ruling in 1917 outlawed the practice of banning people of color from owning or renting property in certain neighborhoods, Bartholomew devised zoning laws that permitted nothing but single-family homes to be built in certain areas of cities. The goal, Bartholomew admitted, was to halt movement into the “finer residential districts ... by colored people.”

Bartholomew took his idea all over the country. Before Seattle passed its own exclusionary single-family zoning laws in 1923, the City Zoning Commission met with Bartholomew for three days

Suresh Chanmugam, a software engineer who volunteers with the organization Tech 4 Housing, says the 100th anniversary of Seattle’s racist zoning laws would be a great time to start repealing them.

“I moved to Seattle in 1999. My rent was $250 a month,” Chanmugam said. “We've had about 150,000 people move to the city since then, largely highly compensated folks in the tech industry. And we have this legacy land use policy that says it’s illegal to build anything other than a house with a yard around it, which is luxury housing.”

Planning for a Better Future

The state’s Growth Management Act requires cities to write up plans every eight years that account for growth, and Seattle’s process got underway earlier this year. The plan will lay out a 10-year framework to guide the City’s approach on housing, transit, bike lanes, and sidewalks.

Earlier plans led to Seattle’s current urban villages strategy, which slightly increased housing density in neighborhood centers and along arterials. It also led to the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which helps fund affordable housing through a fee on developers who want to build beyond existing height limits.

Over the next two years, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s planning office will draft the plan and then submit it to the city council for approval in 2024. Right now, we’re in the early stages, but the draft scoping plan offers five options. Those options range from doing nothing to Alternative 5, which would allow duplexes, triplexes, and–on larger lots–six-unit apartments in zones currently reserved for single-family houses. It would expand allowed housing options (including apartment buildings) in areas within a 10-minute walk of frequent transit and also expand and create additional “urban centers” where high-rise apartments are allowed. The U-District and Ballard would get the new urban centers. 

“We have this amazing opportunity to undo those racist land use policies and make Seattle more affordable,” Chanmugam said of the plan’s potential.

Urbanists Rise Up

In the past, city planning meetings have been NIMBY fests where wealthy homeowners dominate the conversation with visions of scary apartment buildings and buses full of serial killers. But at Wednesday's meeting, the vast majority of comments on the plans supported bold action on housing density, transit, and walkable neighborhoods. (Okay, one commenter did complain that, “We have lost birds because their habitats have been taken from them. The quality of life is more important than housing.” But they were one of just a few NextDoor outliers.) 

OPCD also summarized what it heard in more than 1,000 public comments received earlier this year. According to an analysis of those public comments done by the housing affordability organization Share the Cities, between 63 and 69 percent of commenters supported Alternative 5–the most bold, housing-dense option–or even stronger reforms. 

Michael Hubner, the city’s project lead for the comp plan, said his office noted that a solid majority of comments were in favor of robust action on density and transit. “We heard an overwhelming sense that the city needs to do more–and do a lot more.”

In response, OPCD beefed up some of the options–the most notable being the addition of six-unit apartments in some of the more density-friendly alternatives. A lot of activists, however, believe the City could still do much more. 

This Should Not Be Hard, But It Will Be

A group of activists led a movement for a sixth alternative that called for jettisoning single-family zoning altogether, which Minneapolis, Portland, and even Walla Walla have already done. That option called for building social housing that would benefit low- and middle-income residents, allowing 6 to 8-story apartment buildings in all Seattle neighborhoods, emphasizing 15-minute walkable neighborhoods, converting large publicly owned spaces such as golf courses into housing, and eliminating the completely pointless aesthetic exercise known as design review.

“Alternative 5 is the bare minimum, and even that doesn't really completely undo it,” Chanmugam said. 

It’s doubtful Mayor Harrell will get behind completely eliminating single-family zones. During a debate in his 2021 campaign for the job, he openly wooed NIMBYs, saying, “My opponent is fond of supporting the total elimination of single-family zoning, which is just not my narrative or approach.”

Still, OPCD seems to at least be paying lip service to calls for more meaningful zoning changes. And on the issue of preventing displacement of people of color as density increases, the City is currently seeking comments and has a survey open to encourage input on the racial and social equity components of the plan. In December, a series of public meetings will allow people to continue to offer comments. 

Chanmugam, who’s also on the board of the effort to pass Seattle Initiative-135, which will be on the ballot in February and would take steps to create a social housing program for low- and middle-income renters, thinks keeping the pressure on the Mayor’s office and supporting progressive council candidates in 2023 might push the City to finally repeal Bartholomew’s racist zoning policies.

“We should permit a three-story residence of any kind anywhere that homes are allowed,” he said. “That's what we had 100 years ago. A three-story apartment building next to a three-story mansion. A lot of folks in Laurelhurst or Magnolia might be concerned about that, but it’s actually desirable. I'm sure a lot of those people have been on a vacation to Paris, and I’m pretty sure they did not stay in a hotel in the suburbs.”