More zoning demystifying: trying to read the “MHA upzone” maps

The city released the “final” EIS recently with “mandatory housing affordability” upzone maps. Part of the plan is to allow greater density in existing urban villages with optional even higher density if a developer builds more affordable housing. Predictably a group is already planning to appeal or somehow stop the proposal, which still has to go to the city council and the earliest it’s likely to pass is next summer in 2018. Meanwhile we have 1000 people moving to Seattle every week and a huge gap in housing units being built to keep up which drives up rents (supply and demand is really a thing). Anyway, I tend to think the upzones are incredibly conservative but maybe I should look really closely. Perhaps those people planning to stop the plan have a point.

So let’s zoom in on my neighborhood on the map! We live just south of I-90 and just west of Rainier. Unfortunately, the alternative maps are kind of painful to understand. You’d think by looking at “Preferred Alternative” map that there’s a large amount of area being upzoned in my neighborhood. But if you go back and forth between the current zoning and the preferred alternative it becomes a little clear how little there is.

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Slightly Demystifying Zoning Not Really

Zoning is one of the big topics in Seattle right now. We’ve been bogged down in a multi-year – I am not joking – process by which we figure out ways we can change zoning and other rules and programs related to housing so that we can make Seattle more affordable and livable. At one point, it looked like we might change the zoning on large swaths of Seattle to re-legalize pretty non-dense, by world city standards, increased housing density in much of the city. That upset a lot of people. So they went back and did some stuff and recently released some recommendations to expand where we (in theory) incentivize more affordable housing with a package of recommended zoning changes to go city-wide with. It includes a very handy map on the proposed increased zoning density and easily lets you compare existing zoning to the original proposals and the new ones.

Here in Seattle, we have a lot of fancy dandy maps. You can see current zoning in an interactive map here or in static PDFs. One thing you’ll immediately note is just how much of Seattle is “Single Family”. This is theoretically one house per lot with a limit on how many unrelated adults can live in the same dwelling. In theory “mother-in-law” units (“accessory dwelling units” or “detached accessory dwelling units”) are allowed, but the restrictions make them very hard to build. Vast portions of the city are zoned for single family but have non-conforming (but grandfathered) features (duplexes, multiple accessory dwelling units). But if you tear them down, you can’t rebuild them the same way.

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