City Hall

Planning Commission Pushes for More Family Housing

The city's Planning Commission is pushing for more "family-sized" housing—meaning three bedrooms or more—in Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett February 4, 2014

The city's Planning Commission is pushing for more "family-sized" housing—meaning three bedrooms or more—for low- and middle-income residents in Seattle. The lack of larger apartments and houses affordable to low-and moderate-income families in Seattle is pretty startling—as of 2009, just 2 percent of market-rate apartments in the city had three bedrooms or more, and just 1 percent of the total were affordable to low-income people—those making 80 percent or less of the Seattle median. 

Meanwhile (lest you assume that lower-income families are just moving into single-family homes), here's another disturbing stat: Just 5 percent of single-family homes with three bedrooms or more are affordable to low-income households, and just 30 percent are affordable to middle-income families. 

Those low affordability levels are one reason that Seattle has the second-lowest percentage of families with kids in the nation—19.2 percent, second only to San Francisco, whose population of families with kids is just 18 percent. (For comparison, 30.5 percent of households in New York City include kids; 33.4 percent of households in Los Angeles do; and 29.6 percent of households in Chicago do.) 

Why does Seattle's lack of family-sized housing matter? Two reasons: First, if the city lacks housing that's affordable to families with kids, those families move outside the city, to suburbs—creating more sprawl (and highways), which is contrary to the kind of smart-growth goals cities like Seattle espouse. Second, if larger, less-affluent families are forced to live outside city limits and drive into Seattle to work, that creates a social-justice problem, where the city becomes a place only for the affluent. 

I sat down with members of the planning commission and some of their staff last week. Here's what they're proposing. It includes ideas that are both practical and, in the current anti-density climate at city hall, likely fanciful: 

• Allowing more "low-density housing" options in single-family areas, including duplexes, cottage housing, and courtyard housing, in single-family areas, as well as allowing single-family homeowners to build both an attached accessory dwelling unit (an ADU, or a mother-in-law unit) and a detached accessory dwelling unit (a backyard cottage); currently, homeowners can only build one or the other. 

• Permitting the conversion of some zones that are currently single-family (60 percent of Seattle's residential land is currently zoned single-family) to low-rise multi-family, which would allow townhomes, row houses, and low-rise apartment buildings in areas that are currently single-family but located near frequent transit service. 

• Allowing "stacked flats," or three-story townhomes, in low-rise areas (like the flats you see in cities across America, but especially on the East Coast). 

• Exempting three-plus-bedroom apartments from restrictions on floor area ratios (FAR)—a calculation of density used to determine which apartment developments get financial incentives from the city—to make it easier to build larger units for families. 

• Giving developers a density (or height) bonus if they build apartments for larger families at ground level, where they'll have access to a courtyard or playground. 

• And creating tax incentives for developers to build larger units. 

Read the whole white paper, which also includes an incredibly-Seattle proposal to promote "Grow Homes" that can accommodate babies, adult kids living at home during grad school, and seniors who need an elevator late in life, for yourself here

It's unclear how many of these recommendations will see the light of day; upzoning single-family neighborhoods, in particular, seems like a stretch at a time when people are losing their minds over the addition of a single story in zones that already allow three-story apartment buildings. But it's a promising start, especially for the Planning Commission's new director, Vanessa Murdock, who took over from longtime director Barb Wilson late last year.

As Murdock puts it, "Children are the indicator species of the health of a community."  


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