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By Ludwig Hurtado
Maher Abed works as a security officer at the Space Needle, Seattle’s signature landmark.
He moved to Seattle with his wife and four sons in 2017, after years of persecution from the Islamic State group and Iraqi militias in Baghdad, his hometown.
Abed worked as a liaison officer between the U.S. and Iraqi armies. He moved his family around as he was being persecuted by the Iraqi militias. His brother was kidnapped by a militia.
Abed finally came to the United States as a refugee and chose Seattle because it was the only city in the U.S. where he had any family or friends. He was hopeful, knowing that the city was ripe with work opportunities. But he would soon come to learn that Seattle’s supply of employment was not matched by a supply of affordable housing.
“When I climb to the top of the Space Needle and look out at the city, I see a lot of construction, but I see it’s all for working,” he said. “Not for living.”
In an effort to address the issue, Mayor Jenny Durkan, a Democrat, signed a Mandatory Housing Affordability policy into law in March that would change zoning rules in 27 neighborhoods. The policy is expected to generate 6,000 new homes over the next decade.
Due to the success of tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft, the city has attracted more than 105,000 new residents since 2010, a population increase of 16 percent.
Real estate in the city is booming. But almost none of the new developments in Seattle are affordable to the majority of residents.
As is the case in most cities, Seattle sets specific zoning rules that dictate what can or can’t be built in each of its neighborhoods. That’s why a skyscraper won’t be built in the suburbs nor would a sprawling suburban manor in the heart of downtown.
However, with 75 percent of its residential land zoned for single-family use, a substantial majority of Seattle’s land is rendered essentially unavailable for development of apartment complexes, duplexes and other kinds of structures that could help meet the city’s high demand for housing.
This means that denser housing is limited to small pockets of the city. For working-class families like Abed’s, this scarcity makes it practically impossible to find affordable, multifamily housing in the city.
Zoning a neighborhood from single-family to multifamily is what city planners refer to as “upzoning.”
Teresa Mosqueda, a City Council member and labor activist, has been one of Seattle’s most prominent advocates for diversifying zoning throughout the city.
Mosqueda said that the city’s massive population growth has not been coupled with an effort to house its newest residents. In fact, Mosqueda said, Seattle has zoned backward, defensively downzoning even more land to single-family use as the population grew.
Mosqueda says she believes that the main reason Seattle’s zoning has stagnated is that its neighborhood councils are run primarily by homeowners, whereas the general populace is mostly renters.
“We want more people of color. We want more women. We want more renters. We want more youth. We want more LGBTQ populations to sit on these neighborhood councils and really inform the city’s policies,” Mosqueda said.
From Philadelphia to Portland, housing advocates all over the U.S. have gained momentum in their push to reduce single-family neighborhoods. In December, Minneapolis became the first major U.S. city to eliminate single-family zoning altogether, voting to allow for complexes with up to three dwelling units in all of its neighborhoods. In California, a large piece of housing legislation reducing single-family zoning across the state has made progress through the state Senate.