Are Historic Districts a new variation to Restrictive Covenants?

mike eliason
6 min readFeb 7, 2021

If Seattle’s MHA set a city-wide precedent, then a push by wealthy Wallingford homeowners to turn single family zoned areas into federally designated historic districts could be a new variation on restrictive covenants. The city’s MHA overview document contains a note on just this issue, stating MHA would, ‘Make no zoning changes in federally designated historic districts and critical shorelines.’

Historic Wallingford’s recommended historic district boundaries

Historic Wallingford’s proposed ‘Historic’ District boundaries encapsulate nearly 50% of the Wallingford Urban Village planning area, including almost all of the low-rise and single family zoned sections in and around the Urban Village itself.

the proposed historic district overlaid on the zoning map (yellow = single family zoning)

Here’s what the proposed boundary look like over the city’s zoning map — a big yikes. I’ve added a blue fill for the proposed historic districts on the zoning map. The lightest blue? It’s all single family zoning, a designation that should never have existed in the first place (and didn’t in Seattle prior to 1923). The darker blue is the proposed historic district overlaid on low rise multifamily zoning (brown on the zoning map). .

WCC proposed contraction of Urban Village to exclude single family zones

For those of you have been following the exclusionary antics of Wallingford for a few years, this shouldn’t seem a surprise. The ‘historic’ district boundary largely matches an attempt by the Wallingford Community Council, that beacon of diversity and inclusion limited almost exclusively to homeowners, to contract the Wallingford Urban Village boundary by 50 blocks (the dashed red line was their proposed contraction) to exclude all of the single family zoning — a move that would have focused all development on 45th and Stone Way.

Many of the people who support this absurd ‘historic’ district opposed many of the recent land use actions in the city. The WCC vocally opposed liberalizing backyard cottage and ADU land use regulations. The WCC was opposed to any of the changes in the ADU ordinance (including eliminating the parking requirement), sending out a sample letter stating, “I encourage you to keep the current accessory unit rules allowing ADUs & DADUs to remain in place, as is, with no rule changes.” So equitable. So inclusive. So sustainable.

Speaking of parking, WCC et al largely opposed relaxing mandatory parking requirements near transit. There’s also a lot of overlap opposing the incredibly nominal rezones for affordable housing the council passed just a few years ago, using heinous terminology about renters and other folks who supported allowing more affordable housing in more of the city. The WCC also participated in the homeowner’s association that attempted to get the affordable housing killed entirely — delaying it for years, and preventing seven hundred affordable homes from being built, per Crosscut.

Now what about the demographics of the region? This is why I believe that historic districts are being used as a new form of Restrictive Covenants.

Census Tract map, OPCD

Let’s look at the northern section of the proposed district (Tangletown) — the 2017 ACS says this census tract (KC 46) is 91% white, the one to the east of it is 85% (KC 45), and the one to the south, almost fully inside the proposed boundary is 87% white (KC51 — the Seattle average is 69%). The percentage of renters? Despite being near the core city, North Seattle Community College, and the University of Washington —some of these tracts are only 38% renters, also significantly below the Seattle average of 53% (yes, Seattle is a majority renter city, and has been for a while now).

google street view inside the proposed historic district

Now when I look at these streets, which will be a very quick walk, bus or bike ride to the U-District or Roosevelt light rail stations, it is pretty obvious to me why we have a housing crisis, and why we keep failing to meet our climate goals.

google earth images of munich, same distance from city center as wallingford

To contrast, this is what neighborhoods in Munich look like the same distance from the city center — rowhouses, small multifamily buildings, large multifamily buildings, and post war blocks. It should also be noted that social housing would effectively be illegal to build for the *entirety* of the proposed ‘historic’ district. Social housing is legal on every buildable parcel in Munich. Same for Vienna, Freiburg, Amsterdam, Zuerich, Stockholm and Paris. We should probably follow suit.

From a historic standpoint, this is just another attempt by wealthy homeowners — who ironically are a minority of the Wallingford Urban Village — to keep those less well off out of their neighborhood. In the 1990s, Wallingford homeowners abused the neighborhood planning component of the Urban Village strategy — effectively only allowing the loud, dangerous, polluted arterials already zoned for multifamily housing to be the limits of where new multifamily housing would be allowed. Per KUOW, in the 1980s, Wallingford homeowners got the low rise sections of the neighborhood that were increasingly being inhabited by workers and UW students downzoned, to prevent these nominal changes. And Wallingford’s special brand of exclusion also got noted in the UW’s Racial Restrictive Covenants History report:

“The maps suggest little difference in the demography of Wallingford, where no covenants have been located, from the demography of Ballard, Loyal Heights, and Greenlake, where they were common. This reemphasizes the point that social enforcement of segregation was every bit as important as legally enforcing deed restrictions.”

Significant Buildings identified in 1976 study of Wallingford— just 15 are houses.

It should also be noted that these sections of Wallingford have already been studied for historic significance. In 1976, Seattle Architects Victor Steinbrueck and Folke Nyberg completed a study of the proposed ‘historic’ district, and found just 15 homes out of the thousand or so residing in the area at the time, labeling them as, ‘Significant to the city — warrant further evaluation for designation as historic landmark.’ It didn’t even necessarily state these were worth landmarking — just studying that they may be. The study can be accessed here and here.

A few years ago for Sightline, I wrote about how Wallingford’s well off, and well connected homeowners have used exclusionary processes to greatly contribute to our housing affordability crisis. And yes, I do mean well off. The average single family home in Wallingford is 40% higher in value than Seattle’s average, and those who bought a home for $10,000 in the 1960s as stated in the KUOW story above, would have seen their home values grow at 13 times the rate of inflation. As for what you can do — there’s currently a petition opposing this project which you can sign. More importantly, you should contact your council members and ensure that historic districts can not be yet another tool wielded by those living in exclusive enclaves to prevent rezoning for a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable city.



mike eliason

dad | designer | writer | Noted shill for housing. interests: Baugruppen, architecture, passivhaus, mass timber, staedtebau, not for profit housing