This month, Seattle city council will take a vote that illustrates how ludicrously difficult it is for cities to change their own rules to welcome more new neighbors. 

The vote is one tiny but important step in the dragged-out bureaucratic grind Seattle will have to go through to loosen the stranglehold of zoning that locks up three quarters of the city’s residential land for expensive stand-alone houses with big yards. 

The council vote would ensure that Seattle’s next 20-year plan for growth includes the option—just the option—of opening up detached house neighborhoods to “middle housing” such as duplexes and rowhouses. It’s a vote to agree to talk about something eventually. 

Even if it passes, that growth plan won’t be done until four years from now. Enacting the actual changes to zoning—assuming the final plan does end up calling for them—could swallow another two years. That means re-legalizing middle housing likely won’t happen until a full decade after Seattle’s 2015 affordability plan first recommended it.

In a city with soaring rents, on a planet in a climate emergency, this is utterly insane.

How many families will be forced to the urban fringe by rising rents and prices because Seattle is maintaining its invisible walls of exclusion for an extra ten years? Thousands, if not tens of thousands. 

Adding compact homes to job-rich, growing cities like Seattle is also a critical path to reining in climate pollution, by reducing car dependence, and cutting home energy use. And the science tells us that to avoid catastrophic warming, we have 11 years to halve carbon emissions

It’s the same story for most North American cities. They can’t get out of their own way and enact reforms that would allow what they badly need: more homes. This failure of local government demands state-level solutions. 

So far, one state has stepped up in a big way. Last summer, Oregon legalized fourplexes in all large cities and duplexes almost everywhere in the state. In a move almost as bold, California just legalized two accessory dwellings on every house lot. 

Most North American cities won’t be lifting their bans on modest housing choices any time soon unless these two state wins become a national trend.

Exclusionary zoning is no ordinary law

Imagine there was this law commonly on the books that acutely worsens housing affordability, carbon emissions, sprawl, and economic opportunity. And let’s say this law was originally conceived to segregate neighborhoods by class and race. And let’s say wonks and advocates from across the political spectrum shared a strong consensus on getting rid of this law. And let’s say the deep flaws of this law had been covered in lots of major media outlets like the New York Times

One might think city leaders would be rushing to repeal that law. But prohibitions on everything but detached houses on large lots are no ordinary laws. Few cities have touched them, and those that have acted have only scratched the surface. Why? 

Part of the problem is self-imposed bureaucracy that turns each zoning change into an excruciating multi-year marathon. Another part is overreliance on public engagement typically dominated by a small minority of wealthier, older, whiter, homeowners. The voices heard most invariably oppose allowing more homes

The core reason, though, is politicians know that most residents who vote in local elections don’t want their neighborhoods to changeit’s human nature and there’s not much city officials can do about it. In most cities, the depth and pace of zoning reform needed won’t happen without intervention from higher levels of government—that is, from states.

Seattle can’t afford ten years to make room for new neighbors

Seattle, as I described above, is on track to squander a decadeor perhaps longer if obstructionists file legal appealsbefore re-legalizing small-scale multifamily homes citywide. A groundbreaking city plan instigated by former mayor Ed Murray first proposed it in 2015, but the mayor quickly distanced himself from his own plan’s recommendation after it stirred the ire of lawn-and-driveway zoning preservationists.

In 2019, Seattle, after a three-year process, adopted a package of rezones in that included legalization of middle housing in six percent of the city’s land zone formerly reserved for single-detached houses. It was a minor change relative to the legislation’s other rezones that affected every multifamily area in the city, yet still it was the most controversial piece because it dared to meddle with “single-family” zoning.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Planning Commission in 2018 published an in-depth report making the case for re-legalizing middle housing. But unlike some cities, Seattle’s Planning Commission has zero authority to shape policy. Electeds can use it for political cover or ignore it as they see fit.

Seattle’s current mayor, Jenny Durkan, has shown little enthusiasm for opening up more neighborhoods to middle housing. To make sure the idea stays alive, Councilmember Teresa Moqueda proposed a budget “proviso” that would deny funding for an upcoming environmental study unless it analyzes rezones that would permit middle housing in single-detached house zones, along with related anti-displacement measures. The environmental study is a prerequisite for a state-mandated update to the comprehensive plan—the city’s 20-year roadmap for growth. 

In other words, the budget proviso would put the city in a legal bind if officials drag their feet even more on middle housing rezones. It’s an insurance policy against can-kicking.

The fact is, failing to consider opening up detached house zones to middle housing in the plan for Seattle’s next 20 years of growth would constitute urban planning malpractice. Still, city council felt the need to wield a funding threat to keep that from happening. Bureaucratic hurdles not only suck up time, but they also make zoning reform all the more vulnerable to obstruction.

Last summer, Seattle adopted the most progressive rules for secondary cottages of any major US city. But it took five years from when Councilmember Mike O’Brien first proposed it! Five years just to enable the gentlest possible incremental neighborhood change in one of the fastest growing, most forward-thinking cities in the nation.

Other major cities have also been mired, with one exception

Minneapolis is so far the only big US city to authorize middle housing citywide, and the process was exceptionally fast. The alignment of many stars enabled electeds to legalize triplexes after only two years of wrangling. In practice, though, triplex zoning isn’t much different from Seattle’s recent allowance for two accessory dwellings per house lot. 

Portland launched its planning process to re-legalize middle housing in September 2015. A city council vote is expected in early 2020. It’s a cutting-edge plan that would permit up to fourplexes on all lots, including crucial size bonuses for projects that create more or cheaper homes. But getting there has already devoured four and a half years.

  • Vancouver, BC, has long been the North American leader on accessory dwelling policy. In June 2018, the city launched a new effort to open up low density neighborhoods to middle housing. A few months later, it took a first step, re-legalizing duplexes citywide (though only 72 permits for duplexes have been filed). After that, however, officials decided to fold the middle housing effort into a long-range plan that isn’t scheduled for implementation until spring of 2022.

    In 2012, Austin launched CodeNEXT, a major rewrite of the city’s zoning rules. Early proposals for robust middle housing rezones got watered down over the years, and then in August 2018 the city council scrapped the whole thing. Austin has since launched a new code update that proposes allowing duplexes citywide and higher unit-count middle housing near transit. 

    Atlanta, Washington DC, and Charlotte are contemplating middle housing zoning reform as part of broader planning efforts, but action—if any comes of it—is several years off. And at least one major city—Philadelphia—has been going backwards.

    Almost invariably, the process is ridiculously slow, at best. In the vast majority of cities, including exclusive, job-rich suburbs, the conversation is barely happening at all.

    A few smaller US cities have dabbled 

    In perhaps the best US example of a smaller city taking action, in late 2018, Tigard, Oregon, a Portland suburb, legalized courtyard apartments, cottage clusters and de-facto duplexes on almost every lot, plus fourplexes on almost every corner. 

    Around the same time Olympia, Washington, demonstrated how absurd things can get. City council adopted a modest set of zoning changes to permit middle housing in more neighborhoods. A local anti-housing group filed an appeal with the state’s growth management hearings board, and in July 2019 the board invalidated the new zoning (see correction note, below). In a bizarre twist, a state law passed earlier this year enacted a new ban on such appeals, but since it’s not retroactive, Olympia must now re-adopt the exact same zoning ordinance. 

    In 2008, Grand Rapids, Michigan, passed new rules that permit some middle housing types in low-density areas, but only with special approval. Durham, North Carolina, recently legalized duplexes, but only in neighborhoods near downtown. Kirkland, Washington, Bloomington, Indiana, and Charlottesville, Virginia, have middle housing plans in the works. 

    Local control isn’t working, but states can step up

    Seattle’s city council will do right to proactively check the budget proviso box so that middle housing zoning reform doesn’t get stalled by a technicality. But a decade to open up neighborhoods to much-needed middle housing options is way, way too long to wait in the face of our dual affordability and climate crises. 

    Likewise, across North America, city governments that stick their necks out to take on exclusionary zoning struggle mightily to overcome the gauntlet of their own bureaucracy, combined with the fear of neighborhood change that drives stiff political resistance. The challenge is so formidable that most cities don’t even bother trying.  

    As the evidence for intractable local dysfunction piles up, the solution becomes more evident: state legislation.

    Oregon showed how it’s done last summer by legalizing duplexes and fourplexes. California got part way there this fall by requiring cities to allow two accessory dwellings on every house lot—effectively triplexing the state. Last spring, Washington tried and failed to pass accessory dwelling reform. Just last week, a newly elected member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Ibraheem Samirah, promised state action against exclusionary zoning.

    Next state for middle housing, please?

    Seattle city council will vote on the middle housing budget proviso on November 25. Sightline’s letter of support is here.

    Correction 11/18/19: In the original version of this article I wrote that Olympia’s missing middle rezone was invalidated because of a “minor technical flaw in the public process.” This was incorrect, as commenters on the article pointed out. The growth management hearings board found inconsistencies with the city’s comprehensive plan and flaws in the environmental analysis.