March 16, 2017

Daily Durning: A Single Block in Seattle

From Sightline: Returning Seattle to Its Roots in Diverse Housing Types 

This is the story of a single city block in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood … bordered by North 36th and 37th Streets and Burke and Meridian Avenues.



The city has zoned the block single-family, allowing only one detached home per lot (plus accessory dwelling units, should residents choose to build them). Under this zoning, this little block should only be able to host 24 households–one per parcel. Yet in reality, the block provides shelter for 37 households, more than one-and-a-half times its zoned capacity. …
To what do these 13 households owe their housing in this coveted neighborhood?
To Seattle’s zoning history. The block includes 5 duplexes, a quadplex, and a 6-unit apartment building, which together host these 13 additional households.
Here’s the catch, though: none of these structures could be built today. They are remnants of the neighborhood’s more flexible zoning history, which permitted a greater diversity of housing types, making room for more people to enjoy and bring life to this corner of Seattle. …
Why does this all matter? Because Seattle now has the chance to once again open its single-family zones to a broader mix of housing, including duplexes and triplexes. Returning the city to its more flexible zoning past could provide housing for thousands of additional families.
Full article here.

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  1. This is an astute post on the creativity achieved by builders / owners / architects before zoning bylaws were enacted. Seattle is by no means unique. Vancouver has at least four older neighbourhoods liberally sprinkled with small lots that were carved off the standard model of 33′ x 122′ CPR platting. The resulting housing accommodates more people per block on average on some very unique and charming streetscapes, but which are unfortunately technically illegal today.
    One answer to our land affordability and housing shortage challenges has been staring at us for 110 years now, roughly a half century before the zoning bylaws came into existence.

  2. Two things
    1 Smart housing policy
    Seattle has had for several years a new zoning law that says an owner occupied single-family house on a lot that is I think is a min. of 4500 ft.² can build a fully detached self contained accessory dwelling unit that can be rented ( as an Airbnb, as a monthly rental, whatever ). The idea is that more housing is created, but that it is well-managed because the main house is occupied by the owner. This makes housing affordable into ways: (1) the owner can create a cottage to generate cash flow, making her mortgage more affordable, and her property worth more, and (2) the addition of these very small units throughout will create additional housing units for the rental market, which again increases supply, which tends to blunt rents running away Sky high.
    2- something to know about Wallingford, Seattlites have disproportionately moved there because Seattle public schools offers 2 language immersion elementary schools there, which are extremely rare and highly, highly sought after. That makes this particular neighborhood’s housing prices NOT reflective of the general equilibrium around that region, known as North Seattle, which corresponds to the area north of the ship Canal ( The ship canal goes from Puget Sound, through the Ballard locks, through Lake Union, through Union Bay, to Lake Washington ) . This gives families living in those few blocks give families access to a scarce and incredibly valuable resource — for which they are willing to pay a high premium over and above intrinsic property value

  3. Vancouver zoning and housing policy is schizophrenic.
    With the stroke of a pen many properties in Joyce/Collingwood have gone from being valued at $1.3M to $3.5M – reflected of higher-best-use by increasing density, while a property within spitting distance not only doesn’t enjoy the same lift, but is depreciated by the backsides of multiple dwellings.
    As I inderstand it, Toronto’s zoning is based on precedent – that if the adjacent property builds townhouses or towers, you can too. That’s fair and logical – a kind of pro rata approach – not like the free-for-all that characterizes Houston.

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