Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city’s goals for equity and affordability. In a city experiencing rapid growth and intense pressures on access to affordable housing, the historic level of single-family zoning is no longer either realistic or sustainable.
Strong words from the 2015 Seattle Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) report in support of its headline-grabbing recommendation to “increase access, diversity and inclusion within single-family areas.” Media reaction was incendiary, with commentators rushing to take sides over the historical claim made in the first eight words: “Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion.” (Here, here, here, here, here.)
What drew far less attention—and what is ultimately far more important—is the rest of HALA’s assertion. Those other 43 words point directly at local restrictions on housing construction in Seattle, prominently including its vast allocation of land to single-family lots as “among the largest obstacles to equity and affordability.”
Across North America, such statements are vanishingly rare in the official pronouncements of policymakers. Zoning, especially single-family zoning, is presumed sacrosanct. What may be surprising to those not steeped in land-use and urban economics, however, is that HALA’s words are not strong at all in light of the growing body of evidence that restrictive zoning undermines equity and social justice.
“HALA’s words are not strong at all in light of the growing body of evidence that restrictive zoning undermines equity and social justice.”
Indeed, as the magnetic attraction of successful cities continues to intensify over coming years, dismantling the apparatus of exclusionary zoning may be our most acute urban public policy challenge.
Urban exclusionary zoning in today’s cities
Exclusionary zoning was a defining feature of the 20th Century North American exodus to suburbia, where municipalities commonly imposed zoning that only permitted single-family homes on large lots as a thinly veiled means to keep out poor people and people of color. But over the past two decades, as the demographic tide has shifted back toward cities, an analogous story of exclusion is unfolding. And while policymakers’ intentions may not be as blatantly exclusionary as they often were in the suburbs, the result is the same: regulations that restrict the production of new housing cap the number of people who can live in a desirable urban area, the wealthy outbid the poor for homes, and high prices and economic exclusion ensue.
New analysis by economist Jed Kolko comparing 2000 to 2014 confirms that on average across the United States, newcomers to urban areas fall predominantly on the upper end of the income spectrum: “While well-educated, higher-income young adults have become much more likely to live in dense urban neighborhoods, most demographic groups have been left out of the urban revival.”
In “The New Exclusionary Zoning,” an exhaustive academic review of urban exclusionary zoning published in 2014 in the Stanford Law and Policy Review, Georgetown University Law Center Fellow John Mangin summarizes: “The anti-development orientation of certain cities is turning them into preserves for the wealthy as housing costs increase beyond what lower-income families can afford to pay.”
The single-family shut-out
The most egregious offenders in this new exclusion are single-family zones that impose extreme density limitations relative to their more intensely developed surroundings, yet are often the most desirable areas in the city—not least because they are likely to have the best public schools. The equation is simple: because valuable urban land is in short supply and city codes require large lots, single-family houses are inherently expensive. They also tend to be occupied by wealthier residents who have the resources to engage in political fights against the relaxation of zoning.
Exclusionary zoning afflicts West Coast cities in particular because they typically reserve an exceedingly large portion of their land for low-density single-family houses—a common trait of cities built out during the automobile age. In Seattle, for example, 54 percent of the city’s land (excluding public rights-of-way and parks) is zoned single-family.
Moreover, from the 1920s through the 1980s, most cities followed a general trend of ratcheting down housing flexibility in single-family zones, including prohibitions on mother-in-law apartments, duplexes, and corner stores, along with requirements for parking. In recent decades, city planners have won modest reversals to this trend in many North American cities, though most proposals to loosen restrictions in single-family areas still incite storms of resistance from residents.
Height and density hold-ups
But it’s not just single-family zoning. The height and density limits we impose on apartment buildings can also cause exclusion if they reduce the number of units that otherwise would have been built. In cities where lots of people want to live, less new housing means more upward pressure on prices. And one fewer housing unit built means one fewer household that can live in a place with good access to opportunity.
A 2007 study led by Gerrit Knaap, director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, verified that exclusionary zoning blocks the production of multifamily housing:
[We] focused on this issue—limiting multifamily housing through exclusionary zoning—because it is one of the most common and most pervasive barriers to affordable housing in America. This study provides the documentary evidence that exclusionary zoning is in fact a significant barrier to higher-density, multifamily housing in major metropolitan areas throughout the United States.
While zone-based regulations that limit housing density are the primary culprits of exclusion, “exclusionary zoning” is a blanket term that also covers other types of rules that stymie housing production, including parking requirements, building setbacks, environmental review, historic preservation, design review, and impact fees.
The case against exclusionary zoning
A wave of academic research has in recent years convicted exclusionary zoning of a litany of offenses, forming a case against the practice far more damning than HALA’s restrained accusation. Had HALA written its 8 + 43 words as a summary of the research literature, it might have said something like:
Seattle’s zoning system, which like all zoning partly arises from impulses for exclusion by class and race, continues to severely limit housing construction, widening the gap between supply and demand. A large and growing body of empirical research has now demonstrated that Seattle-style housing limits cause unexpected, unintended harms. They radically inflate housing costs, segregate neighborhoods by class, displace longstanding residents by pricing them out of their rented homes, amplify economic disparities between rich and poor, eliminate opportunities for working people to improve their lots in life, trap poor children in poverty, bar the doors to good schools for those who most need public education, reduce society’s overall prosperity, and push more people into homelessness. The evidence is irrefutable. Seattle can become an equitable and affordable city, or it can continue its current pattern of exclusionary zoning. It cannot do both.
Here is a rundown of these academic findings:
1. Tight regulations radically inflate housing costs
A 2016 literature review titled “How Land-Use Regulation Undermines Affordable Housing” provides a good starting point on the core issue, namely, that regulatory restraints on housing production boost prices:
Because land-use regulations tend to limit housing supply and drive up the price of housing, current homeowners tend to benefit while renters and new homeowners are harmed. This burden falls disproportionately on poor households.
This assertion builds on earlier work by Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko, who in 2003 described how restrictive land use regulation acts like a tax on housing that significantly hikes prices. Glaeser and Gyourko estimated effective “zoning tax” rates as high as 53 percent in San Francisco. In other words, if a San Francisco house was worth $1 million in 2003, Glaeser and Gyourko’s research showed that the price in the absence of zoning limitations would have been around $654,000. The “zoning tax” was the other $346,000.
Since then, prices in San Francisco have roughly doubled, so the house would now be worth about $2 million, and the zoning tax would account for much of that escalation. That is, as unmet demand grows and prices are bid up, the share of a house’s cost that is simply the result of scarcity increases. Few policymakers likely anticipate that such high cost premiums may result from the regulations they impose on housing.
Brand new analysis by Zillow confirms that not only home sale prices but also rents appreciate faster in cities with restrictive land use regulations (although other factors also contribute to rent escalation): “On average, rents in the nation’s least restrictive cities rose 6.1 percent over the past five years, while rents in the most restrictive cities rose 16.7 percent.” In other words, rent on a $1,000/month apartment in a highly restrictive city such as Seattle or Austin would have risen by an additional 10.6 percent—$106 a month—over rent increases in a less restrictive city such as Cincinnati.
These findings on regulation and housing prices are relatively new, but the idea is not. For example, in 1982, the Report of the President’s Commission on Housing stated:
Growth controls can artificially enhance the financial well-being of the resident community at the expense of newcomers by increasing the cost of producing housing. Studies show that minimum house and lot sizes … and regulation of the density and location of multifamily development can contribute substantially to housing-cost inflation.
Lastly, while the consensus is strong, in 2005 University of California researchers John Quigley and Larry Rosenthal identified several shortcomings in the empirical evidence, including the potential for “endogeneity,” that is, the possibility that wealthier communities simply have stronger tastes for regulation.
2. Housing restrictions segregate neighborhoods by class
If exclusionary zoning drives up housing prices, then it should come as no surprise that it induces segregation by wealth. Over recent decades, researchers have identified numerous social harms caused by economic segregation, summed up by UCLA economists Michael Lens and Paavo Monkkonen:
The segregation of the rich—which is growing rapidly in U.S. metropolitan areas—results in the hoarding of resources, amenities, and disproportionate political power. The segregation of the poor often creates neighborhoods besieged by crime and severely limits life chances in schooling, employment, health, intergenerational mobility, and other vital outcomes. More pragmatically, it is not sustainable or efficient for low-wage workers to travel long distances to work where higher-income households spend money.
Using data from the 95 biggest US cities, their 2015 study showed that restrictive zoning breeds segregation by income:
Density restrictions are associated with the segregation of wealthy and middle-income households. Such restrictions do not appear to lead directly to the concentration of poverty but rather to the concentration of affluence, a finding which adds important nuance to the way in which exclusionary zoning techniques isolate the poor.
The above results reinforce the 2010 findings of the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan T. Rothwell and Princeton University’s Douglas S. Massey, who studied the suburbs of 50 US metropolitan areas and found higher levels of income segregation in places with more restrictive zoning:
The evidence is consistent with the idea that restrictive density regulations prevent the construction of high-density, multifamily housing, and thereby limit the supply of affordable housing by increasing the average price of units in affluent neighborhoods to the exclusion of lower income people. This arrangement perpetuates and exacerbates racial and class inequality in the United States.
3. Tight housing regulations kill opportunity
In 2016, Harvard researchers Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz published some of the most compelling evidence yet that the neighborhoods in which children grow up dictate their chances of future success. They compared the outcomes of children who moved to better neighborhoods with those who didn’t: “Every year of exposure to a better environment improves a child’s chances of success.”
In this context, “better environment” means a neighborhood that provides robust opportunities for upward mobility. Previous work by Chetty and colleagues published in 2014 identified economic integration as one of five key characteristics of places with upward mobility. Their analysis of the records of 40 million US children verified that segregation is toxic to disadvantaged children’s futures: “Areas that are more residentially segregated by race and income have lower levels of [upward] mobility.”
The link between economic segregation and exclusionary zoning discussed in the previous section completes the connection back to upward mobility. In a 2015 paper on rising inequality in the United States, Jason FurmanChairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Brookings Institution Fellow Peter Orszag spelled out this potential for housing regulations to put the brakes on economic mobility: “Zoning and land use restrictions can potentially discourage low-income families from moving to high-[upward] mobility areas—effectively relegating them to lower-mobility areas, reinforcing inequality.”
In a related speech to the Urban Institute in November, Furman asserted, “While land use regulations sometimes serve reasonable and legitimate purposes, they can also give extranormal returns to entrenched interests at the expense of everyone else.”
Meanwhile, University of Utah professor Reid Ewing, who has published extensively on sprawl and climate change, observed a strong correlation between upward mobility and higher density development—that is, the type of development that exclusionary zoning prevents. In this 2016 analysis, Ewing and colleagues utilize their previously developed “sprawl index” to determine that:
Upward mobility is significantly higher in compact areas than sprawling areas. The direct effect of compactness is attributed to better job accessibility in more compact areas. As compactness doubles, the likelihood of upward mobility increases by about 41%.
Conversely, exclusionary zoning that freezes affluent, low-density neighborhoods in amber also traps a larger share of low-income families in deprivation and hopelessness.
4. Restrictive zoning keeps good schools out of reach of those who most need them
In a 2012 Brookings Institution study titled “Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools,” Jonathan Rothwell looked at data from over 84,000 US schools and found strong evidence that regulatory limits on housing can deprive underprivileged families of access to high-quality public schools:
Eliminating exclusionary zoning in a metro area would, by reducing its housing cost gap, lower its school test-score gap by an estimated 4 to 7 percentiles—a significant share of the observed gap between schools serving the average low-income versus middle/higher-income student. Public policies should address housing market regulations that prohibit all but the very affluent from enrolling their children in high-scoring public schools in order to promote individual social mobility and broader economic security.
Recent data suggest that housing costs exacerbated by exclusionary zoning in Seattle are inhibiting equitable access to, and boosting segregation in, the metro area’s public schools. Between 2007 and 2015, the percent of students of color and the percent of students living in poverty declined in Seattle’s schools, while both metrics rose in less wealthy surrounding suburbs. As Seattle educator Sean Riley observed in The Stranger, “Instead, people of color are being priced out and ending up in South King County, in schools that are approaching apartheid status.”
Find this article interesting? Support more research like this with a gift!
Furthermore, the 2014 study by Chetty cited above found that access to “better primary schools” was one of the five main factors that correlate with upward mobility.
5. Housing supply restrictions price people out of their neighborhoods
Another potential result of the higher housing prices induced by exclusionary zoning is displacement of renters priced out by rent hikes. Economists with the California Legislative Analyst’s Office observed this effect in low-income Bay Area neighborhoods between 2000 and 2013, finding that displacement was more than twice as likely in census tracts with little market-rate housing construction than in census tracts with high construction levels. They conclude:
Construction of market-rate housing reduces housing costs for low-income households and, consequently, helps to mitigate displacement in many cases. We suggest policy makers primarily focus on expanding efforts to encourage private housing development. Doing so will require policy makers to revisit long-standing state policies on local governance and environmental protection, as well as local planning and land use regimes.
This finding belies the common assumption that market-rate housing development is the primary cause of displacement. More specifically, it shows that upzoning to allow higher density housing is not a threat to low-income renters but rather a strategy to keep more of them in their homes. The report also noted that regulatory barriers to private development also hinder the development of subsidized housing.
6. Exclusionary zoning increases homelessness
That high housing prices cause homelessness is intuitive—and also documented. In a 2012 study, Thomas Byrne and colleagues with the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans estimated that a $100 increase in median rent causes a 15 percent increase in homelessness.
To put that in perspective, between 2014 and 2015—a period of abnormally high rent inflation—the average rent in Seattle rose $97, reaching some $1,266 per month. If Byrne’s estimate is accurate and had nothing else changed in Seattle that year, homelessness in the city would have increased by 15 percent. (In fact, the best available data indicate it did, or worse: the one-night homeless count in Seattle grew by 22 percent from 2014 to 2015.) More generally, the huge “regulatory tax” cited above—the spike in housing costs caused by the scarcity resulting from zoning barriers to residential construction—is so large that it may be a major cause of homelessness in many cities.
In 2009 Steven Goldman at the University of California, Berkeley, detailed the direct connection between restrictive regulations on housing and homelessness:
Regulated markets experience slower growth in housing, produce less higher-quality housing, experience higher housing price appreciation, and experience much larger increases in the budget shares that renters (and in particular, low income renters) devote to housing expenditures. The data reveal a striking positive relationship between the degree of homelessness across states and the stringency of local housing market regulation.
These findings corroborate a 1991 paper by William Tucker published in The Public Interest. Using data from 40 US cities, Tucker studied numerous variables and determined that median home price was the strongest predictor of homelessness:
High median home prices are usually found in cities with strict zoning ordinances and a strong no-growth effort. The most plausible explanation of the relation of homelessness to high median home prices … seems to be what might be called ‘intense housing regulation.’
7. Housing restrictions make everyone poorer
Exclusionary zoning also drags down national economies. In 2015, Chang-Tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago and Enrico Moretti at the University of California, Berkeley, estimated the loss of US economic output caused by regulations that limit housing development:
Lowering regulatory constraints in New York, San Francisco, and San Jose to the level of the median city would expand their work force and increase U.S. GDP by 9.5 percent. Incumbent homeowners in high wage cities have a private incentive to restrict housing supply. By doing so, these voters de facto limit the number of US workers who have access to the most productive of American cities.
While this study is only a thought experiment that assumes tens of millions of people could move to new housing in the nation’s most productive cities, it does illustrate the immense potential for zoning restrictions to hold back prosperity for everyone.
In 2015 Harvard researchers Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag documented the root cause of this loss of economic productivity, namely, that housing price escalation caused by exclusionary zoning quashes opportunities for people to move from poor places to wealthier places: “Housing supply constraints reduce permits for new construction, raise prices, lower net migration, slow human capital convergence and slow income convergence.”
These striking macroeconomic findings are continent-scale analogs for the way exclusionary zoning deprives disadvantaged people of access to opportunity at the neighborhood-scale. By restricting housing supply in cities as a whole, we price out people who would contribute more to national prosperity if they could work in the continent’s most productive and innovative metro areas, which include not only the California Bay Area and New York, but also Cascadia’s trifecta: Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.
8. Exclusionary regulations on housing widen income inequality
Last year MIT grad student Matthew Rognlie made waves with a research paper arguing that housing costs are among the main causes of rising income inequality in the United States. Specifically, Rognlie demonstrated that a rise of income flowing to housing largely accounted for the loss of US income flowing to labor since the onset of the Great Recession. Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jason Furman called out the direct connection to exclusionary zoning: “Increased rents in housing markets due to land use restrictions that create artificial scarcity may be part of the cause of the rise in the share of income going to housing and land.”
Or, as Vox commentator Matthew Yglesias made the point:
Across the vast majority of America’s valuable land we’ve made it illegal to build rowhouses or apartment buildings. And so the land’s value only increases, the rents going to its owners accumulate, and workers lose out.
Or, stated even more succinctly by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman:
Building policies in our major cities, especially on the coasts, are almost surely too restrictive.
A cost we all pay, an opportunity we should all embrace
In growing cities where we choke housing supply with zoning restrictions, finding housing becomes like a game of musical chairs—but a twisted version in which when the music stops, the person with the emptiest wallet automatically ends up on the floor. In prosperous cities, any regulation that thwarts the creation of more housing causes exclusion of the less privileged. This is not to say that all zoning should be deleted. It does mean that city policymakers have an obligation to carefully reassess restrictions on housing according to who wins and who loses, with special attention given to the people with the fewest resources—including those who hope to be future residents.
With the HALA roadmap, Seattle has the opportunity to be a leader in a movement to eradicate urban exclusionary zoning and empower equitable access to the city. It won’t be an easy political battle. But it’s the only path that doesn’t lead to the transformation of Seattle into an enclave for the wealthy. The same goes for Cascadia’s other major cities, Portland and Vancouver, as well as high-demand cities throughout North America and across the globe.
Fortunately, if cities succeed in opening their doors to all, they will also reap the many other social, economic, cultural, and environmental rewards of compact urban development. Zoning that enthusiastically welcomes housing can undo the ills of exclusion. It can help make homes affordable, neighborhoods integrated, good schools accessible to many more children, opportunity-rich neighborhoods available to the less privileged, homelessness less common, income disparities smaller, prosperity more shared, and everyone richer in the qualities of community and vibrancy that really define a city.
This developer’s screed ignores the unpleasantness that living in a truly dense environment like Manhattan (of which I am a 19 year veteran) actually involves. Limited density is one of Seattle’s charms and it shouldn’t be sacrificed simply because the city is recording record growth. The challenge should be to build new, desirable, mixed use neighborhoods of moderate density, not to strip existing users of the benefits of the bargains they have struck in order to feed that un-monetized wealth into the maws of the rentier class.
Keeping “charm” at the expense of housing for people, better schools for kids, and income equality sounds exactly like the kind of NIMBYism that is holding our communities back from a more equitable and affordable future.
Forcing this type of change down people’s throats will – as it always does – result in an exodus to greener (or some such color) pastures.
Also, based on the idea that everywhere is for everyone, I’m guessing the author is hot for gentrification.
It seems to me that in Seattle’s case a big chunk of the “rentier class” you are concerned about is current homeowners whose property values are skyrocketing due to artificial scarcity caused by exclusionary zoning.
In Portland, the UpZoners and Densifiers are absolutely ignoring the Urban Growth Boundary and market forces as a supplier of scarcity. Upzoning without creating Transportation Oriented Development is more of an exercise in social engineering. Our close-in urban schools are already at capacity (after the district closed and sold off properties in the 90’s because people fled the city) – where will the new students be educated? In new, transportation oriented schools.
Matt the Engineer
Thanks for putting this together Dan.
A comment on the 53%+ “zoning tax”. At least if it were a real tax it would go to the government to improve everything from schools to transit. But this zoning tax goes into the pockets of those that happened to own property in a city already. As affordability goes down and people have to stretch further to pay for the same home this amounts to a wealth transfer from the less rich to the more rich. And when the zoning tax is applied to rental units it goes directly into the landlord’s pocket.
So I guess we should just eliminate zoning, and the planning which underlies it, and allow anyone to build anything, wherever they want. Because any density limits, all density restrictions are “exclusionary.” And somehow this magic pill would lead to affordable housing for all. The author sounds like a card-carrying Libertarian.
Roger, perhaps you missed this sentence in the conclusion: “This is not to say that all zoning should be deleted.”
Do you have any evidence or a reasoned argument that you could share for why you disagree with the points made in the article?
Indeed I did miss your sentence about not deleting all zoning. Missed because it’s so inconsistent with your theme, your premises.
You criticize zoning codes that limit building heights, impose setbacks, require parking, or require environmental review. You also knock historic preservation, design review, and impact fees. You complain about Capitol Hill buildings being limited to 6 stories. You even knock downtown zoning that limits some towers to “only” 240 feet.
If you support or accept *any* zoning code restrictions, you’ve done a damned fine of obscuring them.
The point of the article is to point out some downsides of zoning that in my opinion have not been given enough consideration in the past. My assumption was that the potential benefits of zoning are already understood given that we already have zoning.
I have to agree with RDPence on this one… the juxtaposition of your last sentence makes it feel like, “I’ll add it in there just to make sure people don’t flame me”. It didn’t succeed.
What is your opinion then? In light of the information presented in the article, do you believe that there is any need to reassess restrictive land use regulations?
As one of the co-owners of the duplex that was pictured at the beginning of this post, I would strongly like to disagree with the author’s perspective. I have never seen a builder put a one-story, multi-family structure in any of the Ballard neighborhoods that are not protected by single-family zoning. Instead there are most often four, three story structures wedged as close as possible to the property lines on all sides. This is the type of construction that makes the most money for developers.
When we purchased the duplex we reside in, we selected it because it allowed each of the units a small patch of private outdoor space that receives sunshine and air circulation. The common multi-family build in Ballard allows no outdoor space for the new residents and destroys the possibility of even a small, sunny patio space for its neighbors.
There are ways to increase density in residential neighborhoods without destroying their character. These include things like mother-in-law apartments in basements and small cottages in yards. There seems to be no clamor for these solutions by developers, perhaps because they are not so lucrative for them.
Terry, the HALA recommendation for single-family zones is to permit duplexes like yours without changing the rules for setbacks or how big the building can be.
It sounds like your concern is you don’t like what’s being built in lowrise multifamily zones, which is a different issue.
Not really a different issue, Dan. No one is building neighborhood-friendly duplexes in Ballard these days, in the areas where new duplex construction is allowed. And until or unless the zoning is put in place to ensure reasonable setbacks and height restrictions for them, the best way to keep from destroying our neighborhoods is to continue to zone them out of our single family neighborhoods.
The reason I say it’s a different issue is because the areas where duplexes are allowed are lowrise zones that have more lenient restrictions on setbacks, height, and density compared to single-family zones. Most of the buildings that you don’t like could not be built under the HALA proposal to allow duplex/triplex in single-family zones, because the rules on building form wouldn’t be changed from what they are now. No duplex could be built that was any closer to the lot line or bulkier/taller than a single-family house could be under current zoning.
Good stuff, but zealous and overly positional. Not a good idea to extend the “exclusionary zoning” term to unintended consequences without a hell of a lot more nuanced research that examines intent, impact and how best to proceed.
All those exclusionary zoning rules, racist policies and restrictive covenants drawn up and promoted in the last century by lawyers, realtors, architects, developers, politicians, city planners and bankers had terrible implications. Good thing we learned our lesson and that the HALA committee did not include these same disciplines while charting our path to a better future. …hey, wait a minute.
Max, which HALA recommendations do you believe are misguided and why?
What, it’s not enough to point out that the same people making recommendations now are the same people who made the recommendations that got us into this situation in the first place?
Let’s begin with the low hanging fruit. The recommendation that the city expend resources to assist in the creation of Sharia compliant loans is a blatant violation of the first amendment separation of church and state.
Hi Dan, as I wrote last summer, no studies needed to show how zoning was first perceived. Remember Euclid 🙂 http://crosscut.com/2015/07/guest-opinion-seattle-should-welcome-new-zoning-ideas/
Thanks Chuck, I just took a look at the Sutherland decision linked in your piece. Wow, some amazing language in there:
“With particular reference to apartment houses, it is pointed out that the development of detached house sections is greatly retarded by the coming of apartment houses, which has sometimes resulted in destroying the entire section for private house purposes; that, in such sections, very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district. Moreover, the coming of one apartment house is followed by others, interfering by their height and bulk with the free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon the smaller homes, and bringing, as their necessary accompaniments, the disturbing noises incident to increased traffic and business, and the occupation, by means of moving and parked automobiles, of larger portions of the streets, thus detracting from their safety and depriving children of the privilege of quiet and open spaces for play, enjoyed by those in more favored localities — until, finally, the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences are utterly destroyed. Under these circumstances, [p395] apartment houses, which in a different environment would be not only entirely unobjectionable but highly desirable, come very near to being nuisances.”
Sometimes regulation serves to preserve affordable housing. I used to live in a neighborhood that had a great school system, and as a result, speculative developers moved in like vultures and started tearing down all the more affordable, “smallish” housing – you know, the charming well-built houses from the 1920s and 30s, and started to build huge houses that maximized the allowable FAR. These houses were built for single families, and were very desirable to the market that wanted 4-5 bedrooms and bathrooms, a family room, and a “media room.” Housing prices as a whole have skyrocketed in the neighborhood as a result, and smaller homes are disappearing rapidly. In this case, historic preservation regulation would have preserved history and culture, but also affordability.
In the case of Seattle, preservation regulation could save small houses like that but it wouldn’t help affordability for the city as a whole. That’s because if there are no new houses built, then the people with money who want a single-family house in Seattle will end up bidding up the prices for other existing houses.
What does help affordability and reduce displacement is when single family houses are replaced with multifamily housing, which is inherently cheaper than single family, and also makes room for more people, so that fewer people get displaced.
This means that poorer people, working people, teachers especially, at their shrinking wages — should now philosophically accept that they must accept that they will now and forever more be relegated to high density, high rise apartment buildings while richer people get SF dwellings. Can you imagine something even MORE equitable? Let’s get out of the capitalist box that is killing the lower classes. Even with the coming “guaranteed basic income” people aren’t going to sit around passively as they realize their future is tightly constrained by too many factors beyond their control. Can you be more creative here? More equitable, somehow, in your imaginings?
Please study Miami, Florida. A place where you can buy extra floors when building a high rise – unlike Seattle which you claim has exlusionary zoning that doesn’t allow this.
What happens in Miami? Glittering skyscrapers with condominiums aimed at the investor class. Prices starting around $1M per condo, the condos are mostly sold out in preconstruction. Who are the buyers? Wealthy out of town speculators who are investing in real estate in order to diversify their portfolio. They will attempt to sell their property in a few years, OR rent it at market rates to luxury renters.
This study seems tinged with a concept that has proven wrong time and again. You can’t simply make more housing in order to make things more affordable. There is just too much speculative money trouncing around the globe to prove your theory wrong.
A solution COULD be to require any extra floors or density to be devoted to permanently affordable housing. And have restrictions on property ownership, requiring residency before purchasing. Let’s see how the realtor class will stop this from happening, because of how it would ‘restrict the market.’
Yes, foreign investment has been an issue in recent years in select cities such as Miami, but my belief is that any price inflation in the overall market is likely to be temporary, because like all bubbles it will pop. This new article suggests that the bubble is already beginning to burst:
Though there is some amount of foreign investment happening in Seattle, I haven’t seen any analysis showing that it is having a significant effect on prices in Seattle’s real estate market as a whole.
Generations of tenants die while waiting for that bubble to pop. People need to be more in touch with tenants and low income life. It’s becoming the norm. Look at USA income data.
Although I would question whether race is at issue in Wallingford (I have a bunch of non-white neighbors here in my exclusion zone who seem to enjoy life here) the real problem is that HALA’s upzoning has no relationship to the principles outlined here. This article makes a compelling case against SF zoning. But there is nothing in it to justify only upzoning small slices of the city. I can’t think of a justice issue that applies only to part of an area. And if you don’t make that case, then what you are advocating is that a small minority of us should carry the water for you. It’s like: “Hey we need to fix this injustice, and, uh, you do it, the rest of us will stick to the old unjust ways.
HALA would not pass if it included upzoning the entire city, but by pushing this pseudo-principled stand the majority who are unaffected can be relied upon to accept what is effectively, one might say, oppressing a geographic minority. You push this out of a sense of justice, and I commend that. But what is being proposed is not itself fair. This is a case for upzoning the entire city or it is a ruse.
It most definitely is a case for upzoning the whole city! That is why I pointed out that zoning limits on multifamily buildings can also be exclusionary.
HALA proposed allowing duplexes and triplexes in SF zones citywide. HALA also proposed the grand bargain, which would upzone multifamily zones citywide.
It sounds like you may be talking specifically about the proposed upzones from SF to lowrise multifamily inside urban villages? Those particular upzones are primarily motivated by the city’s long-established urban village strategy, i.e. to focus density in hubs with services and transit.
Regarding race, the exclusion caused by zoning is economic, but because wealth and income are correlated to race, exclusionary zoning is also a racial issue.
You imply that some zoning is OK, but I’d like to know, given what you present here, how you justify any zoning at all, and how you’d justify different zoning in different areas.
And, although it is off the main point, while I agree “the exclusion caused by zoning is economic” and indeed “wealth and income are correlated to race,” I think whether zoning is a “racial” issue depends on the actual motivation of the people involved. If it’s classist, that’s bad enough, it doesn’t need a dubious “racist” label tacked on.
After more searching I see that my questions were naive. In terms of policy, we need densification. And the courts made it clear a century ago that it’s all legal.
I am pro-densification for environmental reasons — sadly, there are always more people and it’s better to stack them on top of each other in already-developed areas, and I like a lot of what I see around town. But now my own ox is being gored with the idea of losing the SF zoning I enjoy. It’s a bitter pill and I am losing something – my view and significant real estate value (Please don’t repeat the pablum that values go up with upzoning – land value, sure, but not if you have a nice house on it, especially one with with a view that will be lost. No developer is going to pay me what my house is now worth for the lot.)
The courts long ago said zoning changes are (usually) not unconstitutional takings, but they are often takings nonetheless. HALA probably is good for the city as a whole, but there are costs and it looks like people like me in urban village areas that are going from SF to LR will be paying much more than our fair share.
Low income people are paying so much more than you, as relates to what is a “fair share”.
I don’t like claustrophobic feel of NY City. That’s why I moved to Seattle 10 years ago and not. NYC
This screed is a wonderful example of fitting the facts to fit the conclusion.
If one follows the arguments to their logical conclusion, we should do away with zoning altogether. Zoning is intended, for good reason, to exclude some forms and uses from some areas.
In recent times, many residential or mixed-use developments from middle-income up have established private covenants and restrictions that impose limits to ensure the zoning code isn’t changed under foot.
What is needed with respect to zoning code isn’t mindless, sweeping changes to density, lot sizes, building heights and other development standards.
What is needed in established neighborhoods — which were once provided some stability from zoning code, and which don’t have CC&Rs — is local (neighborhood generally), fine-grained (block or site) planning to ensure appropriate uses, scale and character for the specific locations.
— Paul Conte, Eugene
Accredited Earth Advantage Sustainable Homes Professional
Michael H. Wilson
I want to thank Dan Bertolet and Sightline for this piece. I referenced it last night when I spoke at the Olympia city council meeting.
This analysis suffers from two or more errors in argument. We are reminded that correlation is no causation. If all the correlations were struck, the article would shrink by about half.
Second, zoning does not cause housing shortages. Job creation does. Amazon alone has added 28,000 jobs. They tend to bid up rents. All other implied causes are, actually, correlations.
Good schools are not caused by high-income neighborhoods, though they are highly correlated. Instead poor schools, as represented by poor test scores, are most highly correlated with poor incomes. It’s poverty that is the root cause. Changing zoning really doesn’t address family and generational poverty.
What’s the difference between “zoning” and “exclusionary zoning”? Your writing would be stronger without all the incendiary rhetoric.
Yes, correlation is not causation, but causation is usually difficult to prove, except in a laboratory–and often even there. Real-world decisions, from the individual level to the global, almost always have to be made based on inferences from correlation and other arguments that cannot provide conclusive proof. And inferring based on correlation is exactly what you have done with your pointless statement that poverty is the root cause (of what, specifically?). Furthermore, your merely assert a few correlations, but the author has actually provided ample data to establish his correlations. What is even more ridiculous is that you have asserted poverty as a cause in critique of the author’s argument, which treats poverty as an effect. Poverty might be a cause of many things, and such an argument could be made strongly, it just has no validity in critiquing the author’s argument about what housing factors have an effect on poverty. You also do not seem to pick up on the rather clear inference that the author’s recognition of the negative effects of poverty is a major reason for compiling his arguments against certain patterns of zoning restrictions. The point at issue in this article, regarding poverty, is whether and how zoning impacts poverty (in terms of inequality), not whether poverty is a cause or effect. It’s both of course, but the author is arguing that zoning is a major factor in increasing poverty in dense, high-growth areas. Which is to say that the author takes for granted your point about job creation “causing” housing shortages. The author is arguing that, given job creation and other factors driving up residential demand in a given area, zoning restrictions increase economic inequality, and thus poverty, as well as exacerbating the burdens and restrictions imposed on the less affluent. And of course lack of job creation is a major factor in increasing poverty, so it’s not as if job creation can, on the whole, be blamed for increasing poverty because it creates housing shortages. Contrary to what you say, the author makes a strong argument using available data. Which is much more than can be said for your implied assertion that poverty is primarily attributable to intra-familial factors.
Evan R. Murphy
Thanks for the well-written and well-researched article, Dan.
I don’t agree.
While I appreciate being educated on how zoning affects housing prices, I feel like this author is lacking at seeing the whole perspective. Just as you can zoom a camera in and out, people tend to fall into certain perspective tendencies. I feel like this author is missing both the close-up picture of the actual residents presently living in these areas, and perhaps a bigger picture than Seattle as well. (There are also some oversimplifications of social dynamics, like ignoring how economically diversifying an area likely affects things like the quality of the schools, but I won’t get further into that now.)
A person chooses where they live in part based on where they feel comfortable. While I wouldn’t mind a roomier suburb, I live in the middle of the forest in part because of how I am affected by population density. When I was gifted a ride on a cruise ship, I loved the convenience, and experiences but have been reluctant to repeat accepting the same offer because I felt out of my mind by the end of the week from the inability to escape the density of people. It doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with me, but just the way I was designed, that I need a lot of mental space. I’m sure some of it is what I’m used to, but I’ve lived in the suburbs, and a dorm while at a small suburban college, and though I managed there, I still do much better with more mental space. While I therefore wouldn’t choose to move to Seattle, it similarly is likely to cause problems to residents there to have their home environment’s population density altered, with this being just one issue of many that zoning changes would affect the current residents.
Others include things like parking demands, crime rates, sunshine and view, neighborhood cohesion and culture. While these may sound frivolous or biased, they really are not. While I can only compare to my rural neighborhood, I can illustrate some of these. Here everyone pretty much knows everyone else because most families have lived here for decades, something that wouldn’t be likely to happen if our zoning became fourplexes (unless you want to zone them no moving out for 20 years 🙂 ). Here no one would ever fight over parking because everyone has sufficient room, but my mom still jokes about the guy out aggressively defending a tiny plot of land from anyone who dare park there, when we attended a party in North Seattle last year. We have a thriving garden and fruit trees because we have sufficient space for lots of sunshine, which is also needful for one’s mental health with our rainy region. The views from our home add value to our lives. When an infrastructure problem sprung up in our community, it pulled together to tackle it together, and neighbors have collectively looked out for each other, essentially acting as an unofficial neighborhood watch when crime has sprung up. On the other hand, when our own have had issues, it isn’t just some kid, it’s the young man up the street that lost his dad at a young age. If our zoning suddenly changed even to suburban density, the character and beauty of our neighborhood would be destroyed. And some of the issues like parking are probably more contentious in Seattle already. (Sorry if this isn’t well organized; it’s rather late.)
On this note, I have a proposal, though. A person who buys a home should reasonably expect it to meet their needs and be what they signed on the dotted line to get, for a good long time. While some hope to stay until they die, the issues this article express have weight too, so perhaps a compromise could be struck of a rezone at a future date. Something like 10 years in the future which is long enough to enjoy a home while making other plans if it will no longer meet your needs. It also means that the sale of a home early in this time period would give enough enjoyment of the home in the current state to the buyer, that the home wouldn’t have to suddenly lose value at the announcement of rezone if the neighborhood thereby becomes less desirable.
As for the opposite perspective fail, the author fails to consider that people can live somewhere other than Seattle itself. It may not be as desirable, but that doesn’t make it unreasonable. The question then changes from something like “How to make Seattle available to all?” to something like “How can we as a region/state/country/world best meet the needs of the population?” When I studied city planning in an Ecology course, I learned that traffic magnets should be spread out throughout a city rather than concentrated in one spot. Why not apply this on a larger scale? For example, instead of trying to jam ever more people into a limited and established space, why not create new places that meet their needs that aren’t already established? This could be redeveloping an underutilized section of the city, or making nearby cities that have the space to newly zone a higher density, more sustainable. This would also give the humans, rich or poor, what is likely a healthier habitat size than trying to squeeze them all in together, contrary to their personal needs. One way to do this is for tax policies to aggressively make different cities more desirable for employers and businesses to set up shop. This, however, requires people to give up the prestige and power of growing their own kingdom, something I hope they are willing to do for the greater good.
Sharing articles to people isn’t working because something is disabled with the captcha
2 content comments:
1. This article seems mostly full of tautologies: Multi–family dwellings are illegal in single family zones. Or Econ 101: Scarcity increases prices.
2. Opening the floodgates by relaxing zones ignores the question of limits to development. Most cities don’t have public, science-based plans about how many people that environment (Land/water) can support.
No doubt that US housing (and other policies) are grounded in historic racism. But erasing zoning laws is not the solution. Anti-racism is part of a much larger national dialog. LImits to growth is the underlying issue in the global climate crisis and whatever limits are chosen, the fruits must be equitable. This may include preserving low-income housing, etc.
How do you propose to limit growth?