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.

Take these two images. The first is the current zoning, but with the proposed new urban village boundary included. The second is approximately the same region under the “Preferred Alternative”.

image of current zoning, North Beacon Hill / Rainierimage of poposed zoning, North Beacon Hill / Rainier

The urban village expansion mostly just converts single family zoning into “Residential Small Lot” or RSL. The “too long, didn’t read” summary of RSL is that it makes it slightly easier to build duplexes and accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”), assuming the lot is big enough (you can’t build duplexes even in RSL unless you have 2500 square feet each currently though under the new proposed rules it would go to 2000 sq ft each).

Within a five minute walk of our house, there are no blocks that I can find where an existing single family lot is converted to even Lowrise 1 (LR1) zoning. The commercial on Rainier is converted to “Neighborhood Commercial” which is great, but not exactly a huge upzone since you could build housing there already and NC doesn’t really allow greater housing density. The base zoning seems to be largely staying the same, aside from the RSL designations.

The magnitude of change is indicated by the code in parentheses and controls how much affordable housing is “supposed” to be required. You can find a discussion of this in one of the PDFs. But this one table summarizes it:

table summarizing MHA requirements

Now we’re getting somewhere. But what does this mean exactly? Take the “LR2 (M)” zone just to the southwest of the “train” symbol at the intersection of I-90 and Rainier Ave at the very top of the second map above. That’s where I live. It’s currently LR2 and the proposal changes the rules for LR2 to increase the height limit and the allowed FAR1, as well as removing some parking requirements. So that’s an “M” change — the most modest change. If you’re a developer, you’ll be required  to build a certain percentage of rent-restricted affordable units (or pay a fee) in this zone. Figuring out exactly which one applies requires going to Appendix E and determining which area we’re in. Because I now everyone is lazy (I am!), here’s a screenshot of the relevant map:

MHA Areas Map

My neighborhood is clearly in a green zone or “medium.” So that means in my currently LR2 zoned area,  developers will have to build 5% as affordable units or you pay $7 per square foot of the building they do build if not. When you realize what those parentheses mean then all of a sudden the upzone maps seem like they might actually result in slightly more density, but the vast majority of them are “(M)” which is very minor increases. And, of course, it’s only if developers are willing. All of these changes are in areas that are mostly already heavily under development which means even in the (currently) single family zones, the property prices are really high. Will people be willing to sell? Will developers be willing to build affordable units if the property price was really high or will they just pay the fees and build more “luxury” housing?

Those are the worries I have about these zoning changes. On paper, it seems like maybe a lot of change, but in practice I know only a fraction of lots will be developed and only a fraction of those will be developed to a higher density than they could now. After all, my neighborhood has been LR2 for at least a couple decades and there were almost no multi-unit properties when I moved in seven years ago and only maybe 20% are multi-unit now (counting up about two blocks). The main change to LR2 zoning is just 10 more feet in height (see appendix F for details). My neighborhood right now mostly gets three story row or skinny detached houses. Will that extra floor encourage actual apartment buildings? Can they really get that many more units on the same lot sizes in a way that still makes money? They could be building apartment buildings now, but aren’t and I wonder why. Even under the preferred alternative, the EIS only predicts around 5600 affordable units built in the covered areas in twenty years. 😦

But this post is already way too long. If you live in Seattle, have a look at your neighborhood and really try to understand what the proposal means in practice. How many blocks near you could actually allow more density? Is it just due to the height and FAR limits or did the zoning designation actually change? Is your neighborhood like mine where the changes seem very small?

  1. FAR is a super confusing term that gets mentioned a lot in stories about zoning but I don’t think it has any reality to most people. It stands for “floor to area ratio” and is “just” the ratio of built floor area to the area of the lot. That link has a good illustration. The main confusing part to me is that it’s used for all kinds of buildings resulting in very similar looking numbers for vastly different buildings. There are a number of tall skinny buildings in my neighborhood that have FAR values around 1.0. A giant “McMansion” single family home might also have a FAR pretty close to 1.0. In one case it’s skinny buildings with three stories only “occupying” maybe half or a third of the lot at ground level, versus a large two story house that’s has ten feet in back, ten feet in front and like six feet on each side. Visually the two types of buildings look very different. And, of course, the only way we get to greater density is more units, not just greater floor to area ratios, so it’s a very peculiar metric. For example, this new proposal includes LR2 zoning changes to allow, for rowhouses, a FAR of 1.4 rather than 1.3. What does that actually mean in practice? I can’t really visualize it and I suspect I’m a lot more engaged on this topic than most people.