Look! Preserving single family zoning preserves affordable housing!

mike eliason
4 min readMar 4, 2018
1936 aerial, wallingford

In the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, just three blocks north of Gas Works Park, is a detached home on a lot that is, today, zoned single family.

Now, I’ll get to how much that home is for sale in a minute. But first, a recap of where we’ve been. Prior to the 1923 zoning ordinance, apartments, duplexes, and detached houses were all legal here — these were all the wood framed district of the building code that I previously wrote about.

enlarged segment of 1923 use map

Seattle’s 1923 zoning ordinance downzoned most of the land where housing was legal to single family — including in Wallingford. However, much of this area, just north of Gas Works Park, was zoned ‘Second residence district’ — that is, multifamily was legal, up to three stories. No parking was required. The shore along Lake Union sported a gas plant, lumber mills, asphalt plants and other industrial undertakings.

seattle 1947 zoning map

The ’47 zoning ordinance still had this as ‘second residence district’ — meaning apartments and such were legal.

1973 zoning map

By ’73. this block had been downzoned to duplexes only. It was shortly after this, when houses in the Wallingford began being carved up into duplexes, many for students. So what did Wallingford homeowners do? They got the city to downzone to single family.

The 1990s saw the development of the Wallingford Neighborhood Plan. Less than 1% of Wallingford’s population (>12,000) were ‘very active participants’. Ironically, many of the folks who oppose housing call this process ‘democratic’.

Today, most of the land around this house, that once allowed multifamily, is zoned single family. It is also not part of the urban village. Now, a few interesting notes on the Wallingford urban village. It is majority renter in both households and population. Bigly. But you wouldn’t know that given the actions of the local community club, the Wallingford Community Council. This is a group that is far from known for being tenant-friendly. Its board is largely homeowners, it has come out against MHA and HALA, and against every proposed change to increase ADU and DADU production. One of its board members also penned the argument against the housing levy in the 2016 voters guide (it passed, bigly). And just last year, they submitted a comp plan amendment to remove half of the present urban village — and you’ll never guess what it was all zoned! (Hint: the yellow doesn’t allow multifamily).

Now… I know what you are thinking. HALA surely upzones this to allow multifamily housing again! Nope. Almost none of this area, which once allowed apartments and now is reserved for homes increasingly selling for beyond a million dollar, is being upzoned.

MHA preferred alternative map (grey is single family, no contribution to MHA)

60 years ago these homes could be bought for $10,000. Over the years, downzones, setback requirement increases, height reductions, and increased parking requirements — all tools used to preserve zoning rooted in exclusion — have done nothing to preserve affordability. This is true for Wallingford, and any other neighborhood in Seattle. These things are in fact antithetical to affordability — especially in the face of increasing demand. Today, the median home value in Wallingford is $930k, well above Seattle’s median.

HALA’s Mandatory Housing Affordability is a nominal increase in allowed development for thousands of units of affordable housing, but 96% of the city’s single family zones contribute nothing to MHA. Given that single family zoning exacerbates our housing crisis by severely constraining where multifamily is legal, this is a massive inequity. We should look to the flexibility and ingenuity of the pre-1923 land use code for how we move forward. Allowing new housing in single family zones will not destroy neighborhoods. Not allowing new housing? Well… That home I mentioned in the beginning? It could be yours for a cool $1.25 million dollars.



mike eliason

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