NW REporter

Urban Institute says much of Puget Sound region is “unwelcoming” to housing development

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Local land use rules, including restrictive zoning, are limiting the creation of new housing in the Puget Sound region, according to research by the Urban Institute. In a recent report, researchers with that nonprofit organization and think tank suggested state legislation and local zoning changes could improve housing accessibility in significant ways.

“If the single-family zones allowed multi-family housing development, the region could add up to 65 percent more housing permits – equivalent to 120,000 homes – depending on developer interest,” the authors of the zoning policy report stated. They believe policy changes may mean housing could be constructed “at an adequate scale to create more livable, walkable urban neighborhoods that are popular and environmentally sustainable. “

Creation of new housing in the region is constrained by zoning that mandates large lots and single-family homes.  Urban Institute researchers found that:

  • Population in the greater Seattle area increased by more 700,000 (up 26%) between 2000 and 2020, while housing construction declined and housing costs escalated by double digits. The report noted almost half of Seattle renters pay more than 30% of their income on rent, which makes them cost-burdened by industry standards.
  • More than 70% of all residential land in Bellevue and Seattle is reserved for single-family homes.
  • About a third of the land near transit is restricted to single-family home construction, yet less than 5% of housing permits are located in such zones.  
  • Some suburban communities, including Kirkland, Lake Forest Park, Mercer Island, Newcastle, and Normandy Park zone 95% or more of residential land for single-family units.
  • Seattle and Tacoma allow only single-family homes on many transit-accessible properties, such as the majority of those in West Seattle and South Tacoma.

Multi-family housing development is allowed on about half the land near transit in the Puget Sound, but the Urban Institute found conditions vary among localities. Everett and unincorporated Snohomish County are among jurisdictions that allow multi-family housing construction, but there is less demand to build in those areas according to Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and a co-author of the report on Puget Sound’s zoning policies.

Notably, Tacoma is in the process of rezoning single-family neighborhoods to allow “low-scale” developments such as duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes.

The Institute’s report on this region’s zoning also discusses recent bills introduced in Washington’s legislature, including measures that would have overruled local obstacles to housing construction. The report notes California and Oregon have passed similar legislation, but efforts in Washington lacked necessary support.

The referenced bills would have allowed construction of “modestly scaled and affordable infill housing,” including provisions to legalize two-to six-flat apartments, reduce parking requirements statewide, create housing benefit districts, and allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in many cities.

Even if passed, such measures may not be enough, according to the report’s authors. They concluded high-density, mixed use, and multi-family developments are not always allowed in some transit-connected communities and would require zoning changes.

Funding for the research for the Urban Institute’s report was provided by a grant from Amazon. Its Housing Equity Fund is providing more than $2 billion in below-market loans and grants to preserve and create more than 20,000 affordable homes for individuals and families earning moderate to low incomes in three of its “hometown” communities.  Of that amount, $374 million is earmarked for the Puget Sound region.