Say It With Me Now: Single-Family is NOT SACRED

Anyone who pays even the slightest attention to such issues in Seattle has doubtless heard the oft-repeated edict: Our single-family zones are sacred. Discussions of future growth are almost invariably predicated in a tacit assumption that single-family is untouchable, that Seattle’s single-family zones will remain as they are from now until the end of time.

At the mere suggestion of even the most minor tampering with single-family zones, everyone from politicians to planners to developers and designers will nod heads in resigned agreement–just don’t go there, it’s not worth it, you’ll get yelled at, and you might even wake up to find a severed horse’s head in your bed. I’ve even caught myself mindlessly repeating the mantra.

But who decreed that this is so? Or more to the point, who cares who may have decided that this was so at some point in the past: Just exactly who still believes, given current conditions and prospects for the future, that all single-family zones in Seattle must be preserved at all costs?

Two of Seattle’s most outspoken voices for the sanctity of single-family are Chris Leman and Irene Wall, both of whom are members of the City Neighborhood Council. Both are quoted in this recent PI piece covering the Northwest Ecobuilding Guild’s recommendations for modest modifications to the single-family zoning code. Wall regrets that “there never seems to be a point where we say we say: ‘Hey, we’re full.’” In other words, shut the door, problem solved.

For Leman it’s actually neighborhood planning that is sacred above all else, and therefore he opposes any code update that has not been fully vetted through a full-blown neighborhood planning process. It may seem like a reasonable position, until you stop ignoring the fact that no neighborhood is an island. In the real world of interconnected planetary ecosystems, conditions may arise in which the interests of the many outweigh those of the few. Two words: climate change.

And here’s Wall laying out her case for preserving single-family in this DJC opinion piece, along with an opposing view by Roger Valdez. Roger is too nice. Wall’s arguments, many of which I previously addressed in this post, consist of the usual mix of biased sentimentality and sloppy analysis. I’m tempted to parse it out, but better yet, perhaps some of you commenters would enjoy taking a crack at it.

Getting back to the original point: The first step in freeing oneself from an unhealthy myth is to stop repeating it. Then you refute it. Like so: Given the current state of Seattle and the planet, and considering our most credible projections for the future, it is blatantly irresponsible city planning to keep single-family zoning off limits.

20 Responses to “Say It With Me Now: Single-Family is NOT SACRED”

  1. Tony

    There is very little connection between SF zoning and climate change. The negative impact of SF zoning comes in the form of housing scarcity, not climate change.

    The major impact on climate change is transportation, and building townhouses in remote single family zones far away from rapid transit only puts more people in auto-dependent places. If you want to fix the problem of climate change, we need to put as many people as possible within walking distance of rapid transit (because absent $20 gas the bus ain’t gonna cut it). Ironically, the urban village strategy, though it was developed primarily to “protect” SF zones, has the affect of packing people in these walkable centers. Connect these centers with rapid transit and you have a recipe for a major mode shift and a positive impact on climate change, but spread them out in townhouses built in existing SF zones and they will still drive.

    Now, the one situation in which there is a strong need to kibosh the untouchable of SF zones is if a Light Rail station happens to be in an SF zone, e.g. Beacon Hill.

  2. joshuadf

    You know, I like walking through single-family housing streets, especially ones full of houses of a similar era like Ravenna or the North Slope in Tacoma. It makes me feel like I’m just off Main St USA. However, you mention townhouses, Tony, and I don’t like those. They all look the same and are too tall.

  3. joshuadf

    Whoops, didn’t mean to hit submit yet. Anyway, most supposedly single-family housing areas in Seattle are not like that. It’s usually like along 12th Ave NE in the U-District (north of NE 50th) you get this ugly mix of older houses, townhouses and short apartment buildings. No one is happy with that and the whole area should just be upzoned.

  4. Dan Staley

    Tony in 1 claimed:

    There is very little connection between SF zoning and climate change. The negative impact of SF zoning comes in the form of housing scarcity, not climate change.

    No (but yes to scarcity).

    o As you contradict yourself in the below italicized, sprawled SFD increases TPD and VMT and their attendant CO2, NOx, SOx emissions and other precursor chemicals for formation of low-level O3..

    - The extra VMT creates a demand for pavement, which absorbs heat (exacerbating urban heat island and altering precip patterns) and clears carbon-sequestering trees and soil for infrastructure.
    - Tree cutting and soil disturbance release CO2, in addition to heavy equipment emitting pollutants mentioned above.
    - Not to mention the alteration of in-stream flow and peak flows from increased impervious surfaces and the increased eutrophication from pavement and other pervious surfaces.

    o And in addition, large-lot SF alters local climate by dint of lawns, which are effectively semipervious surfaces (via compaction, esp in PacNW where people cut lawns when soil is moist)

    The major impact on climate change is transportation, and building townhouses in remote single family zones far away from rapid transit only puts more people in auto-dependent places.

    No (yes to auto-dependency).

    The major contributor to man-made climate changeacross the globe is energy. Transport is 13% (~26 in US IIRC).

    I believe, IIRC, Matt the Engineer had nice contributions to a thread here not too long ago that explained how, in the US, buildings are a larger potential contributor to efficiency gains than transport (negawatts).

    ————

    Now, I’m all for getting rid of Euclidean zoning and letting it all work itself out. This is good for environmental health, QOL, efficiencies, financial discipline, social reasons (related to env health), psychological reasons, ecosystem health, etc.

    But let us, as Dan’l implores, stop spreading myths when spreading the message.

  5. kweeket

    @joshuadflog “It’s usually like along 12th Ave NE in the U-District (north of NE 50th) you get this ugly mix of older houses, townhouses and short apartment buildings.”

    Speaking as someone who lives on 12th Ave NE, the mix of houses, townhomes, and apartments was one of the more desirable features of that location. Although I would like to see taller apartments, I like the diversity that comes into play when you get housing that caters to a wide variety of socioeconomic types.

  6. joshuadf

    Hey, I lived on 12th Ave NE myself for a couple years! That’s sort of what I was trying to say. Some of these Single Family areas are worth preserving–North Slope is actually a National Historic District–but other SF areas are desirable because they’re not actually what NIMBYs think of as SF!

    So why allow (ugly) cookie-cutter townhomes or View Ridge McMansions that happen to be under 50 ft (or whatever) but not allow an 80 ft apartment building?

    Perhaps we could have tightly defined special districts (much smaller than neighborhoods, with full design review), which would provide an outlet for people like Irene Wall, but otherwise relax zoning. Of course I’m talking off the top of my head here, I haven’t really thought this through.

  7. Matt the Engineer

    I think the best path to follow is slow but steady zoning increase. This way we keep some SF homes for the foreseeable future, just less of them over time. Take any streetcar neighborhood’s main street. It’s dense commercial, and likely has recently added condos on top. Beyond that are apartments and townhouses. Past that are single family homes with small property areas (mine is 30′x120′). Past that it’s SF homes with larger property areas.

    Now, if we simply move the zoning lines outward from that main street, new developments come in at a slightly larger scale than the existing ones, and nothing is too different in the neighborhood. Over time this increases density, and increases density where it’s most useful (near that main street with several good bus routes).

    Of course the exception to this should be new Link stations. Here we need rapid growth and the sky should be the limit anywhere within easy walking distance (though I’d follow the same tall to short strategy for zoning beyond that). Effectively we’ve created a new streetcar neighborhood, but instead of a streetcar it’s a much higher capacity light rail that’s a point instead of a line.

  8. Tony

    Re: DanS

    I may have misused hyperbole in making my point. You are correct that the construction, maintenance and heating of a 2000 sqft SF house requires more energy than a 1000 sqft townhouse. However, the primary culprit is the size of the house, not the size of the lot. Though there likely are some energy savings due to adjacent walls in town houses, the building energy difference between a 1000 sqft townhouse and a 1000 sqft single family bungalow is negligible. The small SF house actually results in a lower percentage of impervious surfaces than the townhouses.

    You make several point that do specifically refer to density such as VMT, tree cutting etc. All of these are true, but they are driven by the overall density of the city, not by the distribution of that density within the city.

    Let’s say that, for climate change sake, we want to set the growth targets for Seattle to double our current population, thus accommodating 600,000 new people and preventing the expansion of the outer suburbs and the attendant soil disturbance, tree cutting and VMT increase. There are two ways this could be done, the first would be to upzone all or most SF zones to L1 (townhouses). The second would be to preserve most SF zones and substantially upzone a network of urban villages connected by rapid transit to mid-rise and high-rise. Both of these approaches would achieve the same average density throughout the city and have the same effect on the sprawl impacts you identified.

    The difference is that the urban village strategy puts more people in walking distance of rapid transit, allowing more trips to be replaced with transit. While the citywide townhouse strategy may result in people driving shorter distances than sprawl, it still result in driving as the primary mode of transportation for a larger portion of the population, thus, in comparison to the Urban Village strategy, it has a higher climate impact.

    My overall point is: why pick a miserable fight with Seattle neighborhoods in order to achieve a relatively poor solution when the Urban Village strategy is win-win? UV is better for climate change than SF upzones AND it also preserves SF zones. Everybody wins.

    I strongly believe our efforts are best spent advocating for the policies that will make the urban village strategy work (such as the construction of a rapid transit network that connects the villages and the focusing of amenities in these areas) rather than picking an unnecessary and counterproductive fight over SF zoning.

  9. Matt the Engineer

    [Tony] You make some great points about the urban village idea, and I agree with your strategy. But I disagree with some of your arguments:

    //the primary culprit is the size of the house, not the size of the lot// I’d say the primary culprit is the square footage per person. We really need to compare the average size of single family homes (I’d say around 2000 SF) to the average size of townhouses (I’d guess 1500) to the average size of condos or apartments (1000?). Sure there are some small bungalows, but they are the exception.

    //The small SF house actually results in a lower percentage of impervious surfaces than the townhouses.// Considering townhouses are typically 2-3 floors, that’s 1/2 to 1/3 the roof area. Since they’re on smaller properties and the garage is usually built in, that’s even less impervious area.

    //the building energy difference between a 1000 sqft townhouse and a 1000 sqft single family bungalow is negligible// Again, I’d disagree. A 1-story bungalow compared to even just a 2-story duplex has twice the roof area (where you lose a lot of heat). Plus see my first comment about the usefulness of even making this comparison. The average townhouse is much smaller than the average house.

  10. old timer

    I think the largest constituency for single family is those who actually
    spent the money to buy there and provide the energy to maintain what they have bought.
    Sure, there may be speculative purchases for some kind of potential ‘density upgrade’, but, in most single family areas, the house is bought for use as a home, or sometimes, as a rental property.
    Single family may not be sacred to those who are outside, but for those within, I’m not so sure.
    They’re wise to the coyotes circling their land parcels.
    I think they will continue to fight upzoning for the sake of their kids, their pets, and their lawns.

  11. dan cortland

    “And in addition, large-lot SF alters local climate by dint of lawns, which are effectively semipervious surfaces (via compaction, esp in PacNW where people cut lawns when soil is moist)”

    SF houses are being replaced by multiple townhouses, and the area of truly impervious surface is generally increased. Large trees are lost with no opportunity for replacement in kind, as there usually isn’t enough open space configured for a large tree. Townhouses are allowed greater lot coverage than apartment buildings in Lowrise 3, where lots of them go. More bacteria in the Sound.

    What drives townhouse as opposed to small apartment/condo building construction? Do the economics really preclude the latter?

  12. Tony

    Re: Matt the Engineer

    You make some good points and I do have to admit that even small SF houses are probably more energy intensive than most multifamily.

    I also hope I’m not coming across as an SF purist. I live in a midrise apartment on capitol hill, so I’m doing my part. I also think that there are certain SF areas that do need to be upzoned, particularly those near rapid transit stations and streetcar lines (if they are ever built).

    I think we should also remember that not all SF zones are created equal. I find SF 9600 a lot more offensive than SF 5000, and most SF zones in the suburbs are even larger. Single family is fine with me, but half-acre lots are ridiculous.

    So I really agree with DanB’s post, SF is not sacred. I just think we should pick our battles and there may be other targets that yield a higher return on our efforts, such as the UV strategy and limiting lot size in the suburbs.

    Re: DanC

    Wow, there are so many Dans on this blog. There are two major factors that distort the market in favor of townhouses rather than small apartment/condo buildings:

    First, and most significantly, townhouses fall below the SEPA and design review threshold. Both these processes are costly, so Seattle exempts small projects. Obviously there should be some cutoff where design review kicks in (you wouldn’t want to force somebody to go through design review to build a tool shed in their back yard for example), but by placing the cutoff where it is, it makes townhouses (below the threshold) cheaper to build than condos (above the threshold). There are two solutions: lower the threshold so that any multifamily construction requires design review, or raise the threshold to exempt small condo/apartment projects. Because design review (and SEPA) is SO expensive, we will always see a bunching up of projects just below the line, wherever we draw it, but draw it low enough and you will actually encourage higher density development, because if a developer has to do design review anyway, they may as well spread the cost out over a larger number of units.

    The second reason developers like townhouses is that because they are not stacked vertically, you don’t have to deal with the joint ownership hassles of a condo building. Essentially, for a four-pack, the developer just subdivides the land into four super-small lots, each of which is taxed and owned separately. It’s like quasi-single family from an ownership perspective. This saves administrative hassles for both the developer and the homeowners initially (which is why they like it), but creates all sorts of problems in the long run because the owners of townhouses do in fact share walls, but they lack the joint ownership agreements that come with condos. So what, do you do if you need to replace a roof? This rule also needs to be changed so that all owner occupied multifamily housing is structured the same way.

    Changing these two policies (which are arbitrary, city policies set by the City Council) would eliminate the artificial bias toward townhouses and allow the market to function without distortion. The result would be fewer townhouses and more stacked flats. There would still be some townhouses because some people really do prefer them, but most of the townhouse construction owes to the market distorting policies described above rather than true market demand.

  13. Steve

    12th NE north of 50th provides a particularly interesting example, because it looks mostly SF but is a probably only half SF — a bunch of its formerly-SF houses are now shared rentals. The rentals accomplish some of the goals both sides of this argument want (dense living, low environmental impact related to construction, preservation of neighborhood character, yard space, etc.).

    It seems to me there’s a middle path to preserving SF neighborhood structures and character while allowing increased density. Suppose new construction in SF zones must be single-family, but houses in SF zones that have stood for 20 years or more may be converted to duplexes without requiring zoning changes. Historically, this has been allowed — there are duplex conversions all over lower Wallingford — and units in such duplexes make comparatively affordable housing.

    I suspect the biggest objection to this would come from neighbors who see street parking as their Deity-granted right and assume that conversion will remove street parking (which, in fairness, it probably would on the average). Maybe some kind of education or other mitigation (e.g. a duplex conversion must be accompanied by a $2000 donation to a neighborhood fund) would be this acceptable.

  14. Steve

    Tony’s description of why townhouses rather than condos get built in lowrise zones is spot on. I’d also add that there are currently zoning bonuses associated with townhouse style units — if I recall correctly, the developer is allowed to go a little taller and/or cover slightly more of the lot if the units are built as townhouses.

  15. joshuadf

    I agree with the “wolves” comment to some extent. Let’s see if I can be more coherent this time. I’ll use two examples that look the same on paper–small lots, single family houses built before the Depression.

    The U-District is, I believe, a good example of what I’ll call pseudo-single family zoning. Once upon a time (early 20th Century) it was true single family housing. Small lots, small houses. However, more recently a very large percentage of the houses have turned into rental properties. Some are rooming houses that are no better than slums (1 bathroom for 12 occupants, etc). Others are extremely well kept duplexes or triplexes. There are also still some actual single family houses. Lately you can mix in developers who see that townhomes equal dollar signs for the reasons Tony described (at least two sets on 12th Ave NE that I can think of, with more on 11th and Brooklyn and so on). In this context the current zoning makes no sense–especially considering this land will be within walking distance of two stations: Brooklyn Station at 45th and Roosevelt Station at 65th!

    However, a similar distance from Roosevelt Station is the Ravenna neighborhood east of 15th Ave NE that never went through the rooming house transition. The important thing to notice is that on paper it looks the same as the U-District–small lots, houses built before the Depression. In my opinion Ravenna SF (and similar) should be protected. This is a close-in walkable neighborhood that I can’t afford to live in, but I’d love to someday. As far as I know, the only permanent option available is the National Historic District process, but the city design review process provides some help.

  16. Dan Staley

    I also think Tony makes some good points, esp in the 3-4th paras in 12. But there are some incorrectnessesses above that need to be addressed in order to make effective policy:

    the building energy difference between a 1000 sqft townhouse and a 1000 sqft single family bungalow is negligible.

    No.

    The difference is that the SFD uses ~34% more energy due to lack of shared walls, holding sf constant.*

    In addition, one can make light-colored roofs, increasing albedo. One cannot plant light-colored grass to shade the ground; thus heat capacity is increased in a large-lot scenario, increasing the heat island effect.

    We also have the issue of road miles in SFD. If we are going to have suburban SFD, the most efficient way is smaller lot sizes and narrower streets shaded by deciduous trees.

    Both of these approaches would achieve the same average density throughout the city and have the same effect on the sprawl impacts you identified.

    This presumes everyone wants to live this way. This is not the case.

    Maybe when gas is $12.00/gal. or we’re way past peak oil and transportation sector shrinks; both scenarios are a generation away. No narrowly prescriptive policy can get enacted without the flexibility of the ~25% demand for SFD in the future (e.g. Chuck Nelson’s projections).

    Good comment thread!

    ————-

    * Friedman 2007 pg 148 (Fig 5.11).

  17. dan cortland

    Steve wrote “if I recall correctly, the developer is allowed to go a little taller and/or cover slightly more of the lot if the units are built as townhouses.”

    Yes, it’s 60% lot coverage (very often increased beyond 60% through departures in design review) for townhouses vs. 50% for buildings of flats.

    Tony: thanks for explanation. Wasn’t the SEPA threshold recently raised from projects of >8 units to projects of >30 units in at least some zones,including urban villages?

  18. Anon.

    I think everyone deserves to have a single-family….

    apartment.

  19. Matt the Engineer

    This is a great discussion. I’d like to bring up a housing style that I’d love for Seattle to bring into its codes: San Francisco row houses. These are somewhere between a townhouse and a SF house, each with a tiny garage built underneath and with no side yards (each house touches on both sides). At first they’re sold as fairly large houses, but later get subdivided into 2-3 “flats”. Each flat has about the area of a small condo.

    The result is a fairly dense building style that can easily triple in density over time. The developer doesn’t have to worry about land rights, since he sells it to one owner. There are likely land rights issues later, but that can be solved with good codes (maybe copied from San Francisco codes).

  20. joshuadf

    Here’s an example of what I would prefer over townhouses in the U-District: The Park Modern. It’s on the Ave, so it has different zoning than 12th Ave NE. The architect lives there with his wife and two kids. “We’ve put 12 families here on a site smaller than some single-family homes.”

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