Last week, Real Change answered the first of two questions put to us by our readers about whether or not people nearing retirement age become homeless and if long-term care, such as nursing homes, are available to them (quick answer: Yes and not often enough).
This week, you asked us to look into one of Seattle’s favorite topics to sue over: Zoning.
“How much of the problem is residential zoning?” a reader asked, adding that they’re “often hearing that as a core problem, increasing housing prices by reducing availability.”
The answer is, of course, complicated, and likely going to get us in trouble with somebody. How the city of Seattle is zoned has long been a point of contention for neighbors, City Councilmembers, developers and other interested parties. And, despite copious statistical and, theoretically, objective evidence, the way that the information is interpreted has led to heated disagreements about what role zoning plays in the city’s larger economic future.
It’s important to clarify that there is no metric that we have found that directly links exclusionary zoning to an increase in homelessness. However, there is plenty of evidence that demonstrates that exclusionary zoning leads to a restriction in the number of housing units (particularly apartment and multifamily home buildings), which leads to higher housing prices, which contributes directly to homelessness.
There is also evidence that this kind of regulation doesn’t just hurt poor people — instead, its impact is broader. In one study, exclusionary zoning brought down the economic output of the productive cities by reducing the number of people who can live and work there. Economist Ed Glaeser has argued that the practice presents a substantial environmental impact, which does disproportionately harm marginalized communities. But more on that later.
It’s also true to say that Seattle is a major offender when it comes to exclusionary zoning. According to the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulatory Index — referred to in studies with the very helpful acronym WRLURI — Washington state was in the top 10 most-regulated states, and the Seattle area was among the top five regions.
So, what does that all mean, how did we get here and what are we doing about it?
Not in My Backyard or Economy
Exclusionary zoning — when government restricts what a person can do with a piece of property — is not all bad. In theory, it’s designed for the protection of communities. For example, governing bodies typically don’t want people living near industrial plants that may slowly poison them, and many places have rules about the proximity of schools and churches to uses like strip clubs or pot shops.
These kinds of laws are ubiquitous in the United States. Of the largest cities in the country, nearly all have some kind of zoning code. Houston, Texas, famously does not, although some properties are restricted in their use anyway. This lack of an official zoning code, however, has recently also come under scrutiny, blamed for the massive flooding that displaced hundreds of thousands of residents last summer.
However, since the turn of the 20th century, communities have used exclusionary zoning laws for different purposes — specifically, to cordon off entire sections of cities from dense housing and effectively enshrine the American Dream of white-picket-fence home ownership in law.
Also White? The people who live inside those single-family homes. Exclusionary zoning was, from the beginning, a racist idea meant to keep people who could afford such luxuries — White people — away from those who, by dint of a history of oppression, could not. When Black families had the temerity to overcome those obstacles and do well enough to buy into predominately White neighborhoods, they were harassed by literal mobs until they left.
That kind of racial violence not made illegal until 1968. Unfortunately, other laws have not caught up.
Roughly 65 percent of the city of Seattle is zoned for single-family homes, meaning it is illegal to put apartments, duplexes, triplexes or other kinds of housing in those areas.
Though proponents of this kind of neighborhood will tout the “character” or appearance of a street, the fact is that the kinds of residences that are barred from most of the city are the exact kinds that are typically more affordable for marginalized folks, low-income individuals and seniors. This leads to an economic striation within the city; wealthier folks get the run of most of the city, while those who can’t afford a single-family, stand-alone home have fewer options.
According to Nick Welch, a senior planner with the city, this is largely the result of three major pushes.
The first came in 1923, roughly seven years after the first zoning code was adopted in the United States. According to the City Clerk’s office, Seattle had some rules, but they more resemebled what we would think of as building code regulations, rather than true zoning laws.
The second came in 1957, when officials repealed and replaced the 1923 regulations, and the third took place in 1973.
“1973 was when we put in place the zoning regime that we have today,” Welch said.
Seattle has been indelibly shaped by its choice to carry the same basic zoning structure from the time of the mainframe into the era of cloud computing.
It is no secret that this city is de facto segregated along lines created in part by the decision to prevent the kind of housing that lower-income people can afford, and in part by the federal government’s redlining, which subsidized White homeownership and left Black people and other minorities in redlined districts with no support.
Even with the Central District gentrifying at a rapid rate and losing Black residents, these divisions remain. The northern end of Seattle is predominately White, and the southern end is more diverse.
This has impacts on the city at all levels. In a controversial editorial in the Aug. 1 issue of Real Change ("A ban on apartments hurts public education"), Seattle Public School board member Zachary DeWolf argued that the zoning code impacts local schools.
Some people pushed back on this idea, but the data is clear. Research by Tomas E. Monarrez, a U.C. Berkeley Ph.d. student cited in a Vox article by Alvin Chang showed that if every child in Seattle went to the elementary school nearest to them, our schools would be heavily segregated, with a few elementary schools in the south end educating a student body that’s almost 50 percent Black, despite the fact that Black people made up 7.1 percent of the population in 2016 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Most of the impacts of restricted housing production are local, but there is a wider welfare argument to be made.
In 2015, economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti found that despite their productivity, cities that specialize in finance and technology — like New York, San Francisco and San Jose — accounted for considerably less of the national economy than cities in the South.
They chalk that up in large part due to the cities’ zoning policies. It is difficult to build housing, creating an environment in which an apartment costs so much that wages have to be high to keep up. According to Hsieh and Moretti, that means that high wages go to fewer employees rather than creating the space to accommodate more workers. This creates an economic inefficiency and leads to what economists call “leakage.”
By these results, reducing the number of zoning regulations leads to a significant bump in the economy. Hsieh and Moretti found that if workers were reallocated, U.S. GDP in 2009 would have been $1.9 trillion higher.
If those gains accrued to the workers responsible for them in this counterfactual, they would see their wages increase by $8,775 per year. That is a significant number of avocado toasts.
While we’re on the subject, exclusionary zoning is theoretically bad for avocados.
According to M.M. Mekonnen and A.Y. Hoekstra, growing avocadoes requires 74.1 gallons of water per pound. Water is only one of the natural resources at stake as we push development out of cities — specifically California’s coastal cities — and into farther environs.
In a 2017 article published by the Brookings Institute, noted economist and city evangelist Ed Glaeser wrote that “[c]arbon emissions per household are lower in coastal California than elsewhere in the country, primarily because of a benign Mediterranean climate.
“California’s land use restrictions don’t eliminate new construction, they merely move it elsewhere, so it isn’t enough to have a purely local perspective,” Glaeser writes.
Glaeser points to areas like Las Vegas and Houston as places that accept the development that California won’t. Those areas require more resources and are also less dense, meaning people are more likely to need a car to get around. Sierra Club donations will not offset those carbon emissions.
An inconvenient truth
If zoning perpetuates racial injustice and environmental issues, what is its use?
The Norman Rockwell painting of an American Dream is alive and well for many people, and understandably so. We have been conditioned to believe that homeownership with the nice yard and fence is the ideal, the thing to aspire to.
That thinking stands out in one of the original Supreme Court cases that defended exclusionary zoning.
Ambler Realty owned a 68-acre piece of property outside of Euclid, Ohio. The village of Euclid feared that it would turn into a new industrial area of Cleveland. The village adopted a zoning code that prohibited industrial uses to prevent that.
Ambler Realty felt that this impacted the value of its land, dropping it from $10,000 per acre to $2,500. So, it sued.
The case made it to the Supreme Court, which decided in 1926 that Ambler Realty didn’t have a leg to stand on.
In his decision, Justice George Sutherland said that there were some uses precluded by the ordinance that just made sense, including “apartment houses.”
“… very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district,” Sutherland wrote. “Moreover, the coming of one apartment house is followed by others, interfering by their height and bulk with the free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon smaller homes.”
He goes on.
This rhetoric echoes the verbiage used by people opposing developments up and down the West Coast.
In liberal Berkeley, California, a commissioner on the Zoning Adjustment Board spoke against a proposed five-story apartment building on Shattuck Avenue, a street dotted with auto dealerships, a Staples stationary store and a Dollar Tree, and adjacent to hospitals. Her reasoning?
It was an “invasion of privacy” and would block sun to eastward houses.
“Berkleyans depend on the afternoon sun. It’s what we live for,” said Commissioner Carrie Olson, as quoted on the website Berkeleyside.
Seattle officials are working on proposed upzones of relatively small parts of the city that would allow taller buildings which, according to opponents, would negatively impact the city.
Welch, the city planner, said that the concept behind the upzone was multi-pronged. The city planned to increase housing density near transit and concentrate that in low displacement areas, meaning places where an influx of moderate- to high-income people would not chase out current residents. That development would be paired with a requirement to include affordable housing in the buildings or to pay into a fund to create affordable housing elsewhere in the city. The point was to correct the racist history of the city, Welch told city councilmembers on Aug. 6.
But opponents aren’t buying it. Seattle Fair Growth, a coalition of neighborhood groups, is fighting the implementation of the plan. They argue that there is plenty of capacity for new housing under the current rules, that relaxed zoning will open the door to the demolition of older units and that the affordable housing fees are too low.
“We’re drowning in new residential construction at unprecedented record levels and that runaway growth is causing an unprecedented level of displacement, gentrification, loss of our remaining existing unsubsidized low income stock, and directly resulting in a precipitous rise of more homelessness in our city,” wrote John Fox, an adviser to the group, in an email.
Welch acknowledged that existing zoning allows for a large number of new units but said that this reasoning doesn’t account for other critical information about their location.
“It is a theoretical number,” Welch said. “It is not meaningful in a number of ways.”
First, saying that there is room for more housing doesn’t tell you where that room is. Areas zoned for multifamily housing — i.e. apartment complexes and other dense uses — tend to be home to Seattle’s marginalized populations. Those are considered at high risk for displacement and would be subject to less intense upzoning under the current proposal.
Second, places eligible for more density are not necessarily places where developers want to build.
“The market plays an important role,” Welch said.
Fighting the upzones
While proponents of increased housing supply – sometimes called “market urbanists” – live by the mantra “build, build, build,” the folks behind Seattle Fair Growth think the strategy will have a negative effect.
Toby Thaler, a board member, recognizes that exclusionary zoning can be used in racist or classist ways, but says that the greatest threat to marginalized communities in Seattle is actually upzoning, which he says leads to gentrification. As an example, he points to the Central District, which was more than 70 percent Black in the 1960s, and is now less than a fifth Black, which is largely attributed to an influx of affluent, White people in the tech fields.
“They were gentrified out through upzoning,” Thaler said. “And that’s the same process that will occur in South Park and Beacon Hill. That’s what upzoning is for. It’s to increase the value of the land and it sets in play gentrification.”
By this logic, just including more apartment complexes in places that they are currently excluded will reduce the existing stock of naturally occurring affordable housing — housing that’s older — and ultimately hurt the communities that the city says it is trying to help.
While it is true that the city is contemplating upzones near transit in the south end, the current plan focuses density to reduce the impact on populations at high risk of displacement, Welch said.
As for the environmental arguments, Thaler, who has a background in sustainability, thinks that the focus on increasing density in the core of the city means ignoring the suburbs. Concentrating development in those farther-flung areas would have a larger impact on the environment than focusing on Seattle, Thaler said.
“Whenever I confront them with the fact that what they’re talking about is reducing political economic imperative to increase density in the suburbs which are the most environmentally destructive compared to the city, the core, I never get an answer,” Thaler said.
Where do we go from here?
Seattle is working to create greater density, but its attempts are under siege.
Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity — SCALE — has challenged the city’s environmental impact statement in order to stop the implementation of the city’s plan to change zoning and increase affordable housing. The coalition lost its first round, but appealed. That decision is expected in the fall.
Seattle officials have continued public comment on the proposal as the court proceedings continue. If the city prevails, it will move forward late 2018 or early 2019, Welch said.
Asked if developers are working to get their projects in under the wire, thereby avoiding fees or the inclusion of affordable units, Welch said it was a mixed bag.
“We’re aware that tens of thousands of units are going forward while we’re talking,” Welch said.
Still, there are a number of developers who want to know when the added height in the upzone areas will come through, he said.
Stay tuned to find out if they’ll see the day.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Check out the full Aug. 15 - Aug. 21 issue.
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