In Seattle, 75% of land is dedicated to single-family zoning. Only 3 in 10 households are owned by folks under 100% AMI
In Seattle, 75% of land is dedicated to single-family zoning. Only 3 in 10 households are owned by folks under 100% AMI Lester Black

The Seattle City Council did not abolish single-family zoning yesterday afternoon, but they did vote to rename it “neighborhood residential zoning.” It’s not much. It’s almost nothing. But council members are looking forward to what may follow this semantic reform.

“The legislation passed today brings us one step closer to a more inclusive Seattle,” Councilmember and bill sponsor Teresa Mosqueda said. “We have heard loud and clear from housing, environmental, small business advocates, community members, leaders across our region, and our city’s own Planning Commission: it’s past time to move forward with a name change to update our language so that our planning documents reflect the true character of Seattle neighborhoods, diverse housing, small businesses, and many different types of households.”

This ordinance does not change any zoning laws – in fact, the text of the legislation clearly states that this change is “not intended to have a substantive effect on the uses permitted” in the renamed zones.

In councilmember and cosponsor Dan Strauss’s words, it’s all about reflecting the “vibrant neighborhoods we already have.” He said the bill changes the name – “it does not change the zoning. It does not change the uses, the height, bulk or scale of buildings in these areas – it simply changes the name.”

Housing justice advocates also have a different name for single-family zoning. They call it “exclusionary zoning.” Seattle first established single-family zoning ordinances in 1923 to keep poor people and people of color out of wealthy white neighborhoods under the guise of maintaining the neighborhood’s character. The racist and classist exclusionary legacy of redlining continues today as the white and the wealthy still own most houses in Seattle.

When word got out that council members wanted to get rid of single-family zoning literally by name only, urban planning enthusiasts were not pleased. Twitter memes followed.

“Language matters. ‘Single family’ zoning may seem to some as merely a planning term, but we know historically it has been used to further exclusionary practices and discriminatory policies of the past,” Mosqueda said. “If Seattle is going to be an equitable and just city, then we must also apply that same lens to our zoning code. After years of discussion, we are acting on what we know is right to undo the legacy of exclusion that exists within our planning documents — starting with how we talk about our neighborhoods.”

A name change would not address harmful zoning or bring forth the mixed-zoning plans many housing justice advocates swear by. But Mosqueda’s office said that updating to more accurate language is an important step in grounding future, more meaningful changes to zoning laws in anticipation of the Comprehensive Plan update. This way, “everyone is singing out of the same song book,” Strauss said.

“Exclusionary zoning has had such a negative impact on our city that it cannot be undone with a name change or one major update to the comprehensive plan,” Strauss said.

Strauss hopes we will see neighborhoods with more duplexes, triplexes and corner stores, to achieve the residential urban concept known as the 15-minute city – where all the facilities a person would need are just a walk or bike ride away – but would not commit to the term “mixed-zoning.” He preferred “vibrant neighborhoods.”

The rebrand of single-family zoning was not Mosqueda or Strauss’s original idea. They’re following a recommendation laid out in a 2018 report from the Seattle Planning commission called “Neighborhoods for All.” The report, which aimed to “increase housing choices by returning to the mix of housing and development patterns,” called single-family zoning a misnomer because nuclear families do not populate all the households in these areas, which ultimately take up about 75% of the land in Seattle.

The commission recommended the term “neighborhood residential” to more accurately describe what those areas look like.

The Seattle Planning commission calls for more than just the name change: it also recommends that more housing types be allowed within single-family zones. Again, this legislation does not do that.

Legalizing apartments citywide appears to be catching on with more mainstream politicians. In a pre-primary mayoral forum sponsored by the MASS Coalition, every one of the five frontrunner mayoral candidates in attendance said they support ending exclusionary zoning.

Mosqueda told the council that while this policy is “narrow and scoped in its effect,” she is excited for broader discussion to combat exclusionary zoning. It just did not happen today.