Rich people and their single family zoning are destroying the environment.
Rich people and their single family zoning are destroying the environment. Lester Black

The United Nations made front page headlines last week with a new report on climate change, which warned that harmful carbon emissions are continuing to increase by 1.5 percent every year and humans need to immediately reverse course if we want to avoid climate catastrophe. But there was one detail buried about halfway through the 108-page report that got a lot less attention: Seattle’s style of residential zoning is exacerbating climate change.

The vast majority of residential land in Seattle is designated as Single Family Zoning (SFZ), a type of designation that bans apartments, rowhouses, and duplexes, and only allows detached homes. SFZ is making climate change way worse, according to this latest UN report.

In some locations, spatial planning prevents the construction of multifamily residences and locks in suburban forms at high social and environmental costs. A reform of planning rules could bring about multiple benefits in this regard.

SFZ clearly needs to exit our city if Seattle wants to fight climate change, but our mayor doesn’t seem convinced. I asked Mayor Jenny Durkan if she supports ending SFZ, but she declined to offer her opinion about the controversial zoning designation.

Instead of answering the question about SFZ, Mark Prentice, a spokesperson for Durkan, pointed to various climate change proposals Durkan has worked on, including plans to bring more clean energy to Seattle residences, give free transit to young people, electrify city vehicles, and work on implementing congestion pricing for downtown traffic.

“Mayor Durkan believes that climate change is one of the gravest threats facing Seattle and is working to ensure that Seattle continues to be a leader in combatting climate change and addressing environmental inequities,” Prentice said in an e-mail.

Apartment bans like Seattle’s—which covers 75 percent of residential land in our city—are creating more carbon emissions by encouraging people to live in larger homes, which consume more energy per capita while forbidding the construction of more efficient, denser dwellings like rowhouses and duplexes. Rather than merely blocking efficient housing, Seattle’s apartment ban is actually encouraging people to build larger houses, with 47 percent of all homes built in Seattle since 2010 occupying more than 50 percent of their lot size, according to the Seattle Times.
Jenny Durkan
Mayor Jenny Durkan declined to answer whether she supports ending Single Family Zoning. Lester Black

Prentice also pointed to two zoning laws that Durkan has signed into law: Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) and the new backyard cottages law. These two laws did bring more housing density to Seattle. MHA increased the total housing capacity in Seattle from 214,000 units to 286,000, according to Prentice, by allowing taller and larger buildings in Seattle’s urban villages. But MHA left Seattle’s SFZ essentially untouched, with 94 percent of SFZ not seeing any changes from MHA, so MHA did very little to address the environmental impact of SFZ as cited by the UN.

Durkan’s backyard cottage law made it easier for homeowners to build and rent out small cottages in their backyards or mother-in-law style units inside their own homes. The city estimates the law will bring more than 4,400 new backyard units to Seattle’s residential neighborhoods in the next ten years.

But neither of these laws will make significant changes to SFZ in Seattle. Nor will they take the kind of bold action that the UN report says all countries must take to prevent climate catastrophe.

One of the key points of the latest UN report is that wealthy people are responsible for causing climate change. The world’s 20 richest countries are responsible for more than three-fourths of global emissions, yet rich people refuse to take bold action. So despite Durkan claiming to believe in climate change, it’s hardly a surprise that our mayor, who is from an ultra-wealthy family with undisclosed millions, isn’t ready to take a courageous step towards fighting climate change by ending SFZ.