Seattle’s revised housing plan is still too restrictive

Middle Class California Suburbia

In March, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell released a draft update to the city’s comprehensive plan for housing construction. Called the “One Seattle Plan,” the proposal makes a number of changes to both the nomenclature and substance of the city plan, some of which appear to be steps in the right direction.

Harrell describes the plan as “bold” and says it takes a “deliberate and tailored approach – bringing a greater diversity of housing types to every neighborhood, uplifting the voices of neighbors and vulnerable communities, and building a city where teachers, baristas and working families can afford to live.” To its credit, the proposal does contain a number of positive developments for the city.

For one, it integrates Washington State’s “missing middle” housing law into the city’s planning, which is designed to encourage medium-density housing in walkable neighborhoods. That law allows four to six housing units to be built where single-family housing currently exists. Under the draft One Seattle Plan, the city projects it will be able to accommodate 100,000 new housing units over the next 20 years. That’s up from the 80,000 housing units projected under the current city plan.

The plan also would permit the return of small businesses in residential neighborhoods. Once commonly seen in residential neighborhoods throughout the city, heavy-handed government regulation crushed these businesses, leaving “ghost corner stores” scattered around neighborhoods. Small grocery stores and coffee shops could be legal again under the One Seattle Plan. That could be a win for small business and true community building.

While this all sounds good, the devil is in the details.

Upon closer inspection, the draft plan is far from “bold” and doesn’t quite live up to the hype of Harrell’s initial pitch, which is largely the fault of the mayor’s office itself. Reporting by PubliCola based on public records requests found that a draft planning update from the city’s planning department would have “allowed more density near bus lines, more apartments in areas historically reserved for single-family houses, and more housing of all types in the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods.”

But then the mayor’s office scaled back the loosening of regulations in favor of largely preserving the status quo. While the initial proposal, for example, identified 48 neighborhoods as possible “neighborhood centers” where residential and mixed-use buildings would be allowed, the mayor’s office cut down the number of such neighborhoods by half.

If the city wants to truly bring a greater diversity of housing types to every neighborhood and make it possible for more people to live and thrive in Seattle, the city needs to loosen regulations much further. On the housing front, while it is true that the draft plan can yield 20,000 more housing units compared to the status quo, that’s relatively little over a 20-year timeframe and inadequate to meet demand in a city that has seen surging rents and housing prices.

As Dan Bertolet of the Sightline Institute has noted, “Over recent decades, the vast majority of Seattle’s new housing has come in the form of apartment buildings, four stories and up.” However, according to Bertolet, “the draft Comp Plan proposes only a modest amount of upzoning for apartment buildings in new areas, and leaves zoning almost completely untouched in the limited places where they are now allowed.”

Further, while the draft plan does accommodate state law legalizing more units on lots zoned for single-family homes, that doesn’t mean such housing would be financially viable under the city’s regulations. Instead of permitting additional indoor space to accommodate greater units, the plan “instead would impose the same cap on buildable capacity as what currently applies to single-detached houses with accessory dwellings,” according to Bertolet.

In their own analysis of the city’s plan, Tobias Peter and Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute similarly observed: “Seattle can legalize the building of more housing by embracing the lessons of its past and expanding on them. During the 1990s, Seattle upzoned parts of the city and over the years, it has made other smaller reforms that have resulted in more housing construction. These reforms brought forth substantial new supply when zoning is made by-right and regulations are kept short and simple. On the other hand, when Seattle introduced complexity, homebuilding faltered.”

Instead of trying to micromanage what can be built where, the city needs to broadly make it legal to build different sorts of housing throughout the city, ensure that regulations facilitate rather than arbitrarily constrain housing projects, and not saddle builders with counterproductive mandates.

While the city has wisely rejected rent control as a possible solution, the city has embraced inclusionary zoning through its Mandatory Housing Affordability program. According to New York University’s Furman Center, the program “acts as a tax on some additional development” in the city. Taken together with restrictive zoning and you have the reasons why Seattle has a housing shortage.

To circle back to the corner stores, the city’s proposed regulations have been described as “very vague” by one Seattle YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) leader and “seems to only apply to corner lots, which reduces the number of properties that could be redeveloped into stores or cafes.” Further reporting by KUOW indicates that while the draft One Seattle Plan “would also allow construction of new corner stores … city officials say that will probably not happen often, for economic reasons.”

As with housing, this all comes back to the city’s restrictive approach to planning. Instead of micromanaging, the city should loosen its grip on entrepreneurs and make it easier for small businesses to open up in residential areas.

While the draft One Seattle Plan does, on paper, improve on the status quo, it doesn’t do nearly enough to accommodate what the city actually needs.

If city leaders are serious about getting more housing and expanding economic opportunity in Seattle, they need to ensure that more housing can actually be built. At minimum that should mean broadening the number of neighborhoods where mixed-use development is allowed, allowing bigger apartments to be built in more parts of the city and making “missing middle” housing viable not just technically legal.

Sal Rodriguez is opinion editor for the Southern California News Group and a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of Dynamism or Decay? Getting City Hall Out of the Way, published by the Pacific Research Institute.


Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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