Will upzoning Seattle resemble no-zoning Houston?

upzoning SeattleSome 35 years ago in 1980, I moved from the East Coast to Houston as it was experiencing an epic boom. Houston was (and remains) the largest city in the U.S. without zoning. So in some of the older neighborhoods, I saw all kinds of anomalies, but especially multiple town homes or multi-family housing crammed onto a single lot. It didn’t always make for a pleasant streetscape. Few lists of well-planned or scenic cities have included Houston.

upzoning Seattle

Downtown areas of Houston (top) and Seattle

I’m wondering if Seattle–also in the midst of an epic boom–is about to go the way of Houston when it comes to land-use planning. A proposal leaked to The Seattle Times and now confirmed by city officials would do away with a central tenet of traditional zoning: Single-family-home areas in which just one living unit can be on a single lot.

A Seattle panel is recommending an almost-anything-goes approach. In effect, the plan would give a green light to developers to, say, buy and tear down an small, older house–or maybe a string of them on a block–and put up higher-density housing. Ed Murray, the liberal mayor, seems to have given this “upzoning” scheme his blessing, although it would need City Council approval.

Seattle is contemplating doing this at least partly because–unlike Houston then and now, a giant blob of land with vast expanses of empty prairie to the north, south and west, and the ability to annex acreage and collect property taxes–it’s running out of buildable empty space within the city limits (although not immediately). Seattle, whose population now is about 650,000, projects another 200,000 residents here (thank you, Amazon) over the next two decades. Nearly 22,000 came just in the last year alone. With about 65% of land in the city earmarked for single families, city planners don’t want newcomers to settle in the suburbs. So the idea is to increase the density of that 65%.

One big difference might help Seattle planners (and developers), if not the neighborhoods. In zoning-less Houston, much of the land, especially in newer subdivisions, is covered by deed restrictions prohibiting anything but single-family residence housing, and imposing strict rules on how buildings can be built. This reins in things a bit. So while Houston, which now has 2.2 million residents, looks like a city that hasn’t had zoning, it doesn’t look outrageously like a city that hasn’t had zoning.

From what I have been told, Seattle land is not nearly as much covered with such deed restrictions (aside from old ones, now unenforceable and a stain on Seattle’s past, barring black, Japanese and various other minorities from buying land). So the free market would be more unfettered once the rules are changed.

Still New To Seattle, I have never been in a major city where developers didn’t use their clout–and political contributions–to have their way beyond public expectations. Why would Seattle be any different?

But this promises to make Seattle quite the urban laboratory. The city is already a giant construction zone with scores of high-rise, or at least higher-rise, buildings full of tiny rental apartments going up along major streets. Many of these units are so small that the per-square-foot rental prices rival parts of New York City.

One stated goal of any upzoning would be to lower the cost of new units, and thus rents. Really? As a long-time writer on economic topics, I’d suggest that the zooming rents in Seattle, where there is no rent control, are at least partly caused by the perception that the city’s much-vaunted $15-an-hour minimum wage, which is having the effect of boosting all salaries, is emboldening landlords to ask for the moon. If you know your customers are more flush, wouldn’t you?

Also under the urban laboratory microscope in Seattle is an age-old issue: class struggle between those with real estate, and those without.

City leaders are putting on the fall ballot a measure to raise $930 million over nine years for various transportation projects. But the money would come only by raising property taxes, rather than, say, increasing parking taxes or imposing an employee head-count tax on employers (Washington State, like Texas, has no state or city income taxes). The cost of the levy would fall exclusively upon property owners, especially homeowners, and only indirectly upon renters. The property tax on a typical $450,000 house would rise immediately by about $275 a year, roughly 6%, although a little less than half would be offset by an existing transportation tax that expires this year.

Now I’d say Murray and the City Council made a calculated and even crass decision that they have a better chance of passing this tax increase by appealing to the tens of thousands of new residents who won’t see it pop up as a line on their property tax bills because they own no property here and don’t get property tax bills. Whether the homeowners of neighborhoody North Seattle–who vote in disproportionately high percentages–will put up with this strikes me as an open issue.

But if the proposed tax increase gets balled up in their minds with upzoning Seattle, look out.

No matter what happens, there will always be at least one difference in the look of Seattle and Houston.

Houston will never have a clear view of Mount Rainier.

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Will upzoning Seattle resemble no-zoning Houston? — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Seattle upzoning proposal collapses like the Mariners | New To Seattle

  2. Very interesting post, Bill. I didn’t know this was happening. As Barrett the polymath probably already knows, Houston is in the midst of its own efforts to increase density, expanding shrunken minimum lot size rules from inside the Loop to inside the Beltway. We have six-story wooden apartment and condo complexes on old, narrow streets without curb and gutter. Sometimes the fire department expresses concern. Get ready for another Woodway Square multi-block fire! As you know, Houston building codes always lag building trends. That’s why drainage is so poor in areas well outside the flood plain. Stormwater-handling is a developer-driven patchwork. It will take a big fire to trigger appropriate regulation for the new density. In Houston, commercial pressure on neighborhoods — even those with deed restrictions — is relentless. God save Seattle neighborhoods unused to having to defend themselves. It is true that there are pluses — a gas station or convenience store within easy reach of every resident — and that much of Houston looks like a zoned city. But individual homeowners investment of their life savings in a house is constantly at risk. Urban Land Institute held its annual meeting here not long ago and published a glowing article about Houston’s “wise” approach to land use. I guess planners and developers expect tenants and homeowners to change their ideas about quality of life and tolerate a diminished living experience so developers can cram more stuff into smaller spaces — at a profit. Dyspeptically yours, Bruce Nichols, who has lived and prospered in Houston since 1976 and loves it despite its warts.

    • Funny you should mention streets without curbs and gutters. A huge chunk of North Seattle–far away from the glitzy downtown and waterfront areas–lacks such an infrastructure. Sidewalks and other expensive stuff were sort of promised when the area was annexed into the city decades ago, but never delivered.

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