Single-family zoning is a racist policy. That’s the biggest takeaway from Seattle Planning Commission’s latest report, a study that paints the racist effects of single-family zoning in stark detail.
Exclusionary zoning—which makes small-scale multifamily units like rowhouses or small courtyard apartment buildings illegal in the majority of our city—is making our city whiter while reinforcing Seattle’s segregationist policies of the past.
“The impacts of redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and disinvestment remain today and perpetuate racial segregation in Seattle,” the Seattle Planning Commission (SPC) authors write. “The growing economic exclusivity of detached housing in single-family zones contributes to disparity along racial lines by continuing the legacy of excluding all but those who have the economic resources to buy homes” (emphasis added).
Single-family zoning evangelists like the Seattle Times Editorial Board will argue that this is a problem of economic opportunity, and not one of racial equity. The SPC report makes it very clear that this argument is bullshit. If you create a system (single-family zoning) where the majority of the city is arbitrarily restricted to only the richest, and wealth in our city is a proxy for race, then you have created a racist system. Single-family zoning laws might not make any mention of race, but they sure look a lot like modern day segregation.
The city has essentially set aside the majority of our city for the wealthiest and whitest group of people, according to SPC’s analysis. Around 75 percent of the land available to housing in the city is zoned for single families. And the majority of people who have access to these neighborhoods are white and rich. Of the white people who live in Seattle, 51 percent are homeowners. Meanwhile, homeownership is only half that for black and Hispanic people (Asian people are closer to white ownership rates, although still smaller at 44 percent). And most of those white people who compromise the majority of these exclusionary neighborhoods are wealthy. The median annual income for homeowners was over $122,000 in 2016, for renters it was only about $57,000. Only 20 percent of single-family homes are renter occupied.
Let’s connect the dots here: We are living in a system where the majority of our city is reserved for mostly white, mostly rich people.
Single-family zoning is only making these policies worse. Anyone that has spent time in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods can see that they are changing rapidly, but instead of growing denser to accommodate a diverse population, they are just getting whiter and richer. Some of the biggest changes in neighborhood character are the appearance of massive millionaire homes on once modest properties, or what Mike Rosenberg at the Seattle Times describes as “McMansions.”
And these larger McMansions don’t house more people, they just provide bigger segregated housing for rich mostly white people. The number of people living in these walled-off rich person enclaves is actually decreasing even while our city adds more than 20,000 people over a year. Neighborhoods like Magnolia, Crown Hill, Leschi, Madrona, and parts of Wallingford are actually decreasing in housing density. These are the neighborhoods with the most green spaces and schools, according to the SPC report, and we’re making them available only to the richest and mostly white people who can afford them.
One of the SPC report’s recommendations is to reduce the amount of single-family zoning in the city and encourage small-scale, multi-family units. They are not arguing for building glassy towers in Wallingford, they’re arguing for building the so-called “missing middle” housing. These are the types of low-rise apartment buildings and row houses that can easily incorporate into single-family neighborhoods while also providing dramatically more housing per square foot. Lowrise zoning can accommodate 27 units per acre, whereas a single-family zoning can accommodate only six.
These types of courtyard apartments are already in the very neighborhoods that the Seattle Times and other anti-density zealots want to keep poor people out of. Most of the city was open to multifamily units until the late 1950s, and you can still see these lowrise multi-family buildings across Seattle. In fact, these very apartment buildings are what make some of these neighborhoods like Wallingford so attractive and livable. The SPC authors believe that if we brought more of these types of units back they would make Seattle of today more hospitable to more a diverse group of people.
Anti-density zealots like the Seattle Times employ particularly stark and violent terminology when they address the idea of building a two-story courtyard apartment in Seattle’s neighborhoods. In a recent foul editorial the Times said Mayor Jenny Durkan would be remembered as a politician that “took an ax to single-family neighborhoods” if she implemented an extremely modest zoning change that recently won a lengthy court battle.
Monday’s SPC report demands that we ask what it is the Times is describing in such violent terms. They don’t simply mean that Durkan would be responsible for bringing construction to these neighborhoods if she modestly upzoned certain areas. New construction is already happening in these neighborhoods and their character is changing; the houses are getting larger and more of their occupants are white. This process is what the Times is defending and the opposite—a change that would make it more likely that a brown family or poor family could move into Wallingford—is taking an ax to the neighborhood.
That sounds pretty racist.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Mike Rosenberg of the Seattle Times as Mike Baker.