We need to end the apartment ban, now.
We need to end the apartment ban, now. Getty

Seattle bans apartments in the vast majority of our city’s residential areas, allowing only detached homes under the guise of “single-family zoning.” This apartment ban is worsening our housing crisis, quickening climate change, and reinforcing the racial segregation of Seattle’s neighborhoods. But, thanks to one detail in this year’s city budget, the city council is on the verge of taking one tiny step towards ending the apartment ban.

Council Member Teresa Mosqueda added a seemingly minor detail to this year’s budget that will require the city to study the effects of allowing small-scale apartments inside Seattle’s single-family zoning. This requirement, called a proviso, was included in the budget package that was unanimously passed by the Budget Committee on Tuesday and will likely be approved by the full council when they vote on the budget this coming Monday.

Now, this isn’t the change that urbanists dream of.

If we were a smart city we would follow Minneapolis’s lead and eliminate single-family zoning immediately. But that isn’t going to happen, so Mosqueda’s budget proviso might be the next best thing. By forcing the city to study effects of legalizing middle-density housing like rowhouses, we will likely end up with profoundly strong evidence that we need to go ahead and end the apartment ban already.

Mosqueda’s proviso requires the city’s Office of Planning & Community Development (OPCD) to study the issue in their upcoming update to their Comprehensive Plan. The OPCD is in the early stages of preparing Seattle’s next Comprehensive Plan, an almost 600-page document that guides nearly every aspect of the city’s policies, from utilities and housing to parks and the arts. Mosqueda’s proviso requires that the office include a growth alternative in the plan’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) where single-family zoning is modified to allow “duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and row houses.”

These are the types of housing that make up the so-called “missing-middle”—residential buildings that are not large apartment buildings but also allow far more people to live per square acre than detached single-family homes, which are currently the only type of housing allowed in Seattle’s single-family zoning.

Mosqueda’s proviso also requires the OPCD to develop strategies to minimize the displacement of low-income people and communities of color. Considering single-family zoning bans new housing from being created in most of our city, those strategies will likely include a look at how the apartment ban affects marginalized groups.

Mosqueda’s proviso is supported by the Sightline Institute, a local think tank, and they recently wrote a much longer post arguing for the proviso and highlighting the sad reality that even this good step forward is hardly the urgent action we need.

Even if it passes, that growth plan won’t be done until four years from now. Enacting the actual changes to zoning—assuming the final plan does end up calling for them—could swallow another two years. That means re-legalizing middle housing likely won’t happen until a full decade after Seattle’s 2015 affordability plan first recommended it.

In a city with soaring rents, on a planet in a climate emergency, this is utterly insane.

Mosqueda’s proviso also requires the OPCD to consider renaming “single-family zoning” to something like “neighborhood residential.” That points to a time in the hopefully not-too-distant future where we can rid our city of single-family zoning entirely, end the apartment ban, and fight climate change and our housing crisis in the process.