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It's tough to find family housing in Seattle, new report confirms

Seattle Planning Commission

 A new report by the city of Seattle’s planning commission confirms what many families know all too well: Seattle is severely short of housing for families that are not rich.

According to "Neighborhoods for All" released Dec. 3, the bulk of Seattle’s housing falls into two categories: single-family homes (which carried a median price of $750,000 as of the end of 2018) and apartments in large buildings (which tend to be too small for a growing family). Seattle doesn’t have enough duplexes, townhomes or other similar forms of housing which allow for bigger family-sized units in smaller buildings.

Here’s the breakdown: As of 2016, Seattle had 139,473 single family homes, and 124,696 apartments in buildings with 10 or more units, but only 57,304 in buildings with two to nine units.

After a decade in which the population grew rapidly, but the amount of housing didn’t keep up, skyrocketing prices make it difficult for households earning less than $100,000 a year to find space. Between 2012 and 2018, the price of a detached house in a single-family zone grew 78 percent, putting it well out of the reach of families earning below the median income for the city. And although sales have slowed in recent months, the prices have yet to come down very much. Rents are up too.

The report’s proposed solution: build more of the “missing middle” types of housing in selected parts of what are now single-family zones.

Single-family zones take up 75 percent of Seattle’s residential land, and while the city’s population has increased the zones have seen little growth at all. In many of them, there are actually fewer residents than there were in 1970.

What has grown are the buildings. In 2016, the average size of a new single-family home was 3,487 square feet, about 1000 square feet larger than the average size of anew single family home in 1960.

The report called for building multi-family housing such as duplexes and triplexes in some areas with single-family zones. They suggested those close to transit, and places that are walking distance from schools or parks. (The bulk of Seattle’s schools and parks are in single family neighborhoods). It also called for making it easier to divide large houses into smaller units, and loosen the rules more to make it easier to build extra housing units in single-family zones.

Commission chair Tim Parham wrote in his introduction to the report that the aim was to create diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods.

“The premise of this report is simple: allow more people to enjoy the many wonderful residential neighborhoods Seattle has to offer.”

If the city follows the commission’s advice, it can expect vocal neighborhood opposition, just as there has been opposition to earlier efforts to add density.

Miranda Berner, president of the Wallingford Community Council, a neighborhood group that is often at odds with Seattle city planning ideas, says the city could have prevented some of the current housing squeeze for families by requiring apartment developers to build larger two- or three-bedroom units when building apartment buildings.

“There’s no push to build true family housing in Seattle,” she said. “They should switch their focus, and add more family to multi-family.”

She said even if there were more duplexes and townhomes, they would be at market rate, still out of reach of many moderate-income families, and they would likely replace older, shabbier buildings that are more affordable.

And she did not like how the report’s proposals for increasing density came without recommendations to protect trees and increase amenities such as parks in neighborhoods with increasing density.

She also felt the city has a recent history of overriding neighborhood concerns, citing the 2016 decision by then-Mayor Ed Murray to cut ties with community councils such as hers.

“They do need to restore community trust,” she said.

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