View Ridge Elementary is one of Seattle’s highest-rated public elementary schools. Eighty-five percent of View Ridge students demonstrate or exceed grade-level proficiency on math and English standardized tests, well above the state average of 55 percent. But despite being a public school, it tends to be expensive to attend View Ridge—prohibitively so. There’s a structural reason for this: the city has zoned 93 percent of the school’s attendance area single-family zoning. Unless a family is wealthy enough to afford a house in the neighborhood, where home prices average $850,000, or lucky enough to find an affordable rental (only a quarter of dwellings in the surrounding census tract are renter-occupied, and rents average $3,000 per month), the chances of attending this school rest on the whim of the district lottery via the open enrollment process. This school year (2016-2017) just four out-of-area students won admission to View Ridge, and all of them already had siblings attending the school.

View Ridge Elementary School, image from Google Maps.

The story of View Ridge is not uncommon in Cascadia’s largest city, nor in other cities across the region. Though Seattle boasts many high-performing public elementaries, most of them sit in the city’s most expensive and restrictive residential neighborhoods—places where zoning regulations prohibit nearly any housing that isn’t a single-family, detached structure. On average, single-family zoning covers 72 percent of land in attendance areas of Seattle’s 13 top-rated, non-option, public elementaries. (The city has 16 schools that received a perfect 10 score on the GreatSchools rating system. Three of these schools are option schools, which don’t have typical attendance areas, and so these are excluded from this calculation.)

When communities impose this kind of restrictive zoning pattern, it results in only a small slice of the city’s families being able to afford homes within most of the top schools’ attendance zones. Housing prices average over 20 percent more in neighborhoods surrounding the city’s top 16 elementary schools—all those that received a 10, the highest score possible, on the GreatSchools rating system—than in the city as a whole. In addition, these neighborhoods offer a lower proportion of rental units than the city average. And, in many cases, this cycle reinforces itself: wealthier neighborhoods pour private funding into their public schools via PTAs and other fundraising, paying for things like added tutors, smaller class sizes, and after-school enrichment programs. These private dollars likely boost school performance and in turn, the presence of a top-ranked school further boosts real estate prices in the vicinity.

Families are so limited in their housing choices surrounding Seattle’s top public elementaries that for some who can afford the tuition, it may actually be cheaper to pay for 13 years of education at a parochial school than to buy into these increasingly exclusive enclaves. Families unable to look outside the public school system are left with a school district that is increasingly segregated along both economic and racial lines, a result partly fueled by zoning decisions that determine what kinds of housing are allowed in what parts of the city. (The racial resegregation of Seattle public schools is powerfully illustrated in this article.)

Improving schools across the district, in every neighborhood, is necessary to achieve equitable education access. This article does not address best practices in education policy for Seattle. Instead, I focus here on an often overlooked structural factor contributing to school segregation: exclusive zoning regulations that continue to exacerbate and perpetuate existing inequities for students in Seattle schools. Making city zoning more flexible and dynamic is one key part of the suite of policy changes the city and school district can implement to ensure opportunity and access for all Seattle students.

The city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda recommends expanding the range of housing types in single-family zones to include more small duplexes and triplexes, modest rowhouses, and stacked flats, along with mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages—all within the existing building size allowed for single-family houses. By legalizing a broader spectrum of housing options in single-family zones, and therefore a range of price points, more students with diverse economic backgrounds could attend Seattle’s top public schools.

The map layer reveals that ADUs and ‘plexes add nearly 2,500 additional homes within a half mile of the district’s high-performing elementaries.
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In December, Sightline published a map showing all multi-family homes in Seattle’s single-family zones, including ‘plexes, townhomes, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs—a.k.a. mother-in-laws or granny flats). In this article, we are introducing an additional layer on this map showing all 71 of Seattle’s public elementaries, including its kindergarten-to-eighth-grade (K-8) schools. Each school icon is color-coded according to its rating on the GreatSchools index, a rating system based on average student performance on standardized tests that has been widely used in research related to primary education. While student performance on standardized tests is by no means a perfect or complete method of evaluating schools, we use this metric in this report as a way to compare schools across a common measure. Schools that perform above the state average receive a rating between 8 and 10; schools scoring below the state average rate at 3 or lower. The map layer reveals that ADUs and ‘plexes add nearly 2,500 additional homes within a half-mile of the district’s high-performing elementaries—those rated 8 or higher. These varied housing options give us a taste of how Seattle can create a wider range of home price points in all of its neighborhoods to open the city’s highest-rated public schools to a more diverse student body.

Let’s look again at View Ridge Elementary. Current zoning allows almost exclusively single-family housing within the school’s attendance zone. But there are in fact 22 duplexes, 1 quadplex, and at least 19 permitted accessory dwelling units within this attendance zone. Together, these units create 67 unique homes that are smaller and typically less expensive than the area’s detached, single-family homes. These additional home options create the potential for families that can’t afford the neighborhood’s average home prices to live there and benefit from this school, which earned the highest possible score, a ten, on the GreatSchools index.

In this screenshot from the Sightline map, View Ridge Elementary is represented by the green schoolhouse, indicating its top performance on standardized tests. The light red outline shows View Ridge’s attendance zone. Orange dots represent ADUs, green polygons represent duplexes, and yellow rectangles represent 4-plexes. The light gray map background indicates single-family zoning and the dark gray indicates low-rise zoning.

In this article, I’ll delve into the data on the housing price gap between Seattle’s highest- and lowest-performing public elementaries, and unpack how a more flexible zoning code could be one important tool in reversing segregation among Seattle’s public schools. I’ve also included an appendix at the end of this article that explains how to navigate this new map layer.

Homogenous housing makes for homogenous neighbors: The story of View Ridge Elementary

Housing in the View Ridge neighborhood is as expensive as it is homogenous. As mentioned, the city has zoned 93 percent of the land within View Ridge Elementary’s attendance area as single-family. Home values in the area are 36 percent higher than the Seattle average. Rentals are hard to find, with only a quarter of the area’s housing units occupied by renters, far fewer than the rest of the city where more than half of housing units are renter-occupied. And rent is high, averaging $500 per month more than typical Seattle rent. The neighborhood’s high price tag results in part from the lack of diversity in housing types.

One result of homogenous housing options is a homogenous neighborhood. View Ridge’s expensive housing scene means that many families living on average or modest budgets don’t even look at the neighborhood when they’re looking for a place to live. In fact, the average household income in the View Ridge census tract is $124,000, more than 25 percent higher than the average Seattle household income.

The economic homogeneity of the neighborhood is reflected in View Ridge Elementary itself. The school is far from reflective of the diversity of the city. Of the almost 600 students enrolled at the school last school year, only 10 percent were eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program—a proxy that’s often used to measure the number of low-income students within a school. That’s a far cry from the district as a whole, in which more than a third of elementary school students qualify for the program. Not surprisingly, View Ridge also suffers from a lack of racial and ethnic diversity. Just 2 percent of the student body during the 2015-2016 school year reported being Black and 5 percent Hispanic. Those numbers are far below the school district’s overall demographic makeup in which nearly 27 percent of students reported being Black or Hispanic last year. Just 5 percent of the student body at View Ridge last school year were English Language Learners (ELL). That number is also much less than the 16 percent of students in Seattle public elementaries who took part in the district’s ELL program last year.

How the school housing gap is fueling a segregated school district

The View Ridge story is reflective of the housing gap and growing segregation across the Seattle Public School district. Though the district as a whole boasts many strong schools, most of them sit in an east-west strip north of downtown and south of 85th Street, as shown in the map below. Another small cluster is in the northern half of West Seattle. Both of these areas are also sites of much of the city’s most expensive residential real estate, restricted by single-family zoning.

This screenshot of the map shows the public elementary school divide across Seattle. The school icons are color coded by their GreatSchools rating, ranging from 1-10, with 10-rated schools being the highest performing. Seattle’s most highly-rated public elementaries are shown in green and concentrated north of downtown. Lower rated schools, shown in red, sit primarily to the east and south of downtown. Yellow schools rate in between. The two schools with gray icons were not rated by GreatSchools.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Zoning decisions shape more than building types; they decide who lives where. Restrictive zoning results in less diversity in the housing stock near these schools: more than two-thirds of the dwellings in census tracts surrounding the city’s 16 10-rated schools are single-family homes. In comparison, about half of the city’s overall housing stock is single-family homes. And home values in these schools’ neighborhoods reflect this crunch, averaging 20 percent more than the estimated value of the typical Seattle home. For example, the figure below shows that the average home price in the neighborhood surrounding Montlake Elementary surpasses $1 million. For families that can’t afford to buy a home, it’s also particularly difficult to find and afford a rental near the city’s top schools. On average, census tracts surrounding 10-rated schools have 11 percentage points fewer renter-occupied units than average in the city, and rent is $334 more per month near those schools.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

As a result of this zoning—which makes it illegal to build more affordable kinds of homes in certain places—wealthier families that can afford entrance into these expensive single-family neighborhoods have greater access to the top schools (and, in turn, have more resources to invest via PTAs and other contributions to the health and success of those schools—private funding from families that isn’t necessarily available or as ample in other school zones). The average household income near one of Seattle’s 10-rated schools is more than $20,000 above the city average. For example, the figure shows the average household income in the census tract that includes Montlake Elementary is $172,000, while the citywide average is $98,000. Meanwhile the many families living on tighter budgets routinely find themselves in the attendance zones of the district’s mid- and low-rated schools—in part because that’s where they can find housing that is somewhat more affordable.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

In fact, by way of illustration, a private school education could even be cheaper than buying into a neighborhood surrounding one of the city’s top public elementaries. For example, with the annual savings a family could accrue from renting an average home in the Dunlap neighborhood rather than in Montlake, near 10-rated Montlake Elementary, they could cover tuition for one child at the Seattle Waldorf School with some change leftover. Renting in Roxhill or Highland Park rather than in North Queen Anne, near 10-rated school Frantz Coe, amounts to savings worth the tuition at a parochial school such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, Hope Lutheran, or Fairview Christian.

Of course, private school is not an option for many families. In any case, housing—and more particularly the city’s choices about zoning—is one factor that yields a school district that is increasingly segregated by income and race. A few facts from the district’s latest school reports illustrate this point.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

How broader housing options could help combat school segregation

Click here to see full size map

Research from Tennessee to Chicago to Harlem links high-quality early education with lifelong benefits: higher adult salary and education level, greater likelihood of owning a home, having a 401(k) and saving for retirement, as well as lower likelihood of teenage pregnancy, incarceration, tobacco use, and depression. Unfortunately in Seattle, the benefits of a top-notch elementary education are disproportionately available to children from white, English-speaking families with high incomes. For decades, most public policy efforts to redress this inequity have focused on transporting some children daily to integrate schools, and such approaches may deserve fresh attention in Seattle. Zoning is just one piece of a complex puzzle, but a modest additional contribution to school desegregation by race and class could come from allowing more duplexes, cottages, and other housing choices in the single-family zones that surround many top schools.

Zoning is just one piece of a complex puzzle, but a modest additional contribution to school desegregation by race and class could come from allowing more duplexes, cottages, and other housing choices in the single-family zones that surround many top schools.

Multi-family homes in Seattle’s single-family zones create nearly 2,500 additional homes within easy walking distance, a half-mile, of Seattle’s 37 high-performing public elementary schools—those that hold a rating of 8 or higher on the GreatSchools index for performing above the state average on standardized tests. More than 2,000 of these homes are duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes and are the result of Seattle’s historically more flexible zoning code (in other words, they would not be legal to build today). The remainder of these units are ADUs—backyard cottages or mother-in-law apartments within a house. These data comes from Sightline’s map of all multi-family housing units in single-family zones. (For a primer on how to read the base map see this previous article; for more information about how to navigate our added schools layer, read the appendix below.)

Each of these multi-family units in single-family zones surrounding the Emerald City’s top public elementary schools represents much-needed diversity in the housing stock. Accessory dwelling units and many of the ‘plexes are rental options in rent-parched neighborhoods. They create housing options for families not able to purchase a home at the city’s high asking prices. The townhouses and rowhouses may be owner-occupied and often come with a lower price tag than a typical detached single-family home. Allowing more of these kinds of homes in single-family zones could create a greater range of housing prices, potentially welcoming more families to rent or own homes near top-notch schools.

Increasing the diversity of housing options in the vicinity of high-performing schools and therefore boosting the number of kids who live in these schools’ attendance zones might seem like a recipe for crowding the schools. While this analysis does not include an assessment of space for additional students in each building, nor options for expanding that space through things such as the portable classrooms that Seattle used extensively during the baby boom, it’s relevant to examine the number of children in the neighborhoods in question. This figure below shows the population over time of children under the age of 18 living in the census tracts that hold today’s highest-rated Seattle elementary schools.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Though the overall populations of children in most top schools’ neighborhoods have bounced back from their lows in the 1990s, they remain far below their levels in the baby boom years of the 1960s. Opening up more housing options in these neighborhoods could provide an opportunity for a more diverse group of children to gain access to these top educational opportunities—without adding more children than these neighborhoods have accommodated comfortably in past decades.

Diversifying housing options in single-family zones near public elementary schools across Seattle would make a difference for one of the city’s most vulnerable, and precious, populations: its kids.
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Currently housing diversity found on most land surrounding the top schools is either a fluke of zoning codes past or a result of ADUs that were built by owners willing and able to surmount steep regulatory barriers. Different choices—and attitudes—about zoning are one key for the city to open up its best schools to more children. Current regulations excessively limit and slow ADU construction. Removing these policy barriers could provide more housing options in more neighborhoods. In addition, the proposal in the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda to permit a greater range of housing options in single-family zones, including small ‘plexes and townhomes, could create housing that fits a range of family sizes, styles, and needs.  

Seattle has the opportunity to foster more welcoming neighborhoods and in doing so help dismantle a structural factor in the resegregation of its schools. Diversifying housing options in single-family zones near public elementary schools across Seattle would make a difference for one of the city’s most vulnerable, and precious, populations: its kids.


Thanks to map maker Jeffrey Linn of Spatialities for his tireless work to make this map as accurate as possible; to CartoDB for providing Sightline with a grant to use its map hosting services; and to the Brookings Institution. The institution’s 2012 report Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools provided inspiration for this article. Finally, thank you to Dr. Natasha Rivers, Seattle Public School District’s demographer, and Dr. Jonathan Rothwell, senior economist at Gallup, for their thoughtful feedback on a draft of this article.  

Appendix I: Residential zoning in attendance areas of Seattle’s public elementary schools


Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Appendix II: Navigating the schools map layer

The new schools layer on Sightline’s map of multi-family homes in Seattle’s single-family zones tracks multi-family housing surrounding each of the city’s 71 public elementary and K-8 schools. (For a primer on how to navigate and understand the base layers of the map refer to this introductory article.)

The map shows a schoolhouse icon at the site of each of these schools. Icons are color coded according to GreatSchools ratings. The GreatSchools rating system rates schools on a scale of 1 to 10 based on student performance on standardized math and English exams. On our map green icons indicate that the school is rated 8-10, meaning that students performed above the state average on standardized exams. Yellow icons indicate a rating of 4-7, indicating performance consistent with the state average, and red icons indicate a rating of 1-3, indicating below state average performance on those same exams.
Hovering your mouse over a schoolhouse icon will trigger a pop up box including the school’s name, GreatSchools rating, and percent of both single-family and multi-family zoning within the school’s attendance area. Clicking on the schoolhouse icons reveals a pop up box with a little more information including the school name, status (whether the school is an option school or standard school), GreatSchools rating, and website. Below this the pop-up box shows the percentage of single- and multi-family zoning in the attendance area. For example, in the screenshot below the hover pop up box for McGilvra Elementary, in Madison Park, shows that the school holds a rating of nine on the GreatSchools system. Eighty-one percent of the land in the school attendance area is zoned single-family and 10 percent is zoned multi-family. The multi-family zoning category includes several zoning types: lowrise, neighborhood commercial, residential commercial, master planned community, and downtown.

The map includes the 14 option elementary and K-8 schools in the Seattle Public School district. The pop up boxes indicate whether a school is an option school under the status section. These schools don’t have defined attendance zones and students from across the city attend them. We’ve included these schools in our analysis in this article as geography is a factor in admission decisions. Since the option schools do not have defined attendance zones their pop up boxes show null values for percentage of land of each zoned type and our analysis of percent of zoning type by school attendance zone does not include option schools.

The orange lines on the map show the school attendance zones for each school. You can use these lines to get an idea of how many multi-family housing units exist within each school’s attendance zone.

On the top left of the map there is a map legend with check boxes near each component of the map. Checking or unchecking these boxes allows you to select which types of information the map displays. For example, by checking the School Buffers box you can view the quarter and half mile buffer areas around each school. When this box is checked two light red concentric circles surround each school. These circles indicate a quarter-mile and half-mile radius from each school and reveal how many multi-family housing units exist within the single-family zoning surrounding each school. City planners often use a half-mile as a benchmark for accessible walking distance, so students living within a half-mile of a school likely can walk to that school.

The screenshot below of Catharine Blaine K-8 in Magnolia shows two orange dots within the first red circle, indicating that there are two ADUs within a quarter mile of the school. Farther out, there are four green polygons and seven additional orange dots. These represent duplexes and ADUs, respectively, that are more than a quarter-mile but less than a half-mile from the school. Together these units represent the potential for thirteen additional families to live within easy walking distance of this top-notch school.

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

    Thanks to Mitch Friedman for supporting a sustainable Cascadia.

  • Finally, we’ve included three widgets with this map layer, visible to the right of the map. The widgets allow you to filter information on the map based on criteria that interest you. The first widget (top right) allows you to search for a particular school by name. The second widget (middle right) allows you to filter schools by their GreatSchools ratings. You can select the rating you are interested in by using the sliding bars on the histogram. In the example below, the map is displaying only those schools rated 1  to 3.

    The third widget is also a histogram and allows you to filter schools by the percentage single-family zoning in the attendance area. By moving the sliding bars you can narrow or expand the range of single-family zoning you are interested in.   

    By exploring the map, you can learn more about multi-family housing options near Seattle’s public elementary schools.


    Notes on Methods:

    This report examines impacts of restrictive zoning on attendance at Seattle Public School district’s 71 elementary and K-8 schools.

    We calculated the percentage of land of each zoning type in school attendance areas using GIS to layer school attendance area maps on top of a map of city zoning. Attendance areas for each school come from the Seattle Public School district website and can be downloaded here. We used the city’s zoning maps which include public (non-residential) lands, such as parks and schools, in both single-family and multi-family zones. This may somewhat inflate the percentage of land zoned single-family, though this effect is partially offset by the similar public lands included in areas zoned multi-family.  

    All data for average rents and home prices by neighborhood in this article come from the Zillow Home Value Index for February 2017. Data are available on the Zillow website here. Data regarding household income comes from the 2015 American Community Survey data five-year estimates at the census tract level. Census tracts and Zillow-defined neighborhoods do not follow school attendance zones; they are used as a proxies in this article.

    The Great Schools system assigns schools ratings based on school performance on statewide standardized tests in mathematics and English language arts. Schools in which the majority of students test at or above grade-level proficiency receive scores of 8 and higher. Schools in which students test within the range of average performance on these standardized tests score between four and seven. Schools in which students score below statewide average score between one and three on the scale. Performance on standardized tests is only one metric of school strength and other metrics could reveal somewhat different results. We chose to use the GreatSchools index as it’s a commonly used index across the United States, and it has been used in other similar studies examining links between zoning and school access, such as this national report published by the Brookings Institution. School ratings in this article are as of March 2017. School ratings are periodically updated and so may differ slightly from the data cited here.

    Fourteen of the schools on this map are option schools, meaning that attendance is by application only. Admission decisions to these schools give preference to geographic proximity to the school, and so we are including them in this analysis. Many of these option schools are high-rated on the GreatSchools rating system—three have a rating of 10, and nine received a GreatSchools rating of 8 or higher—and attract high-achieving students from across the district. They are located in neighborhoods with lower average home prices and household incomes. Had we excluded these schools from our study we would have likely found attendance at Seattle’s top-rated elementary schools to be even more homogenous and exclusive to white, English-speaking students from households with high incomes. Option schools are clearly marked on the map under the status section of each school’s pop up box. Because attendance at option school is not restricted to any attendance zone we are not including option schools in our calculation of percentage of single-family zoning surrounding top-rated schools.

    As noted in other articles in this series, the map only shows about 70 percent of Seattle’s ADUs since addresses of ADUs permitted prior to 2005 are not in the public record. As a result, there are likely some additional ADUs not represented on this map near top-rated schools.