Seattle's Child

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Housing proposal ignores the needs and cultures of many Seattle families


Editor's note: Update, July 2: The Seattle City Council approved the plan, with a few changes, on an 8-0 vote on Monday, July 1. Mayor Jenny Durkan has signaled her support, and it would take effect 30 days after she signs it into law.

I’ve been reading about planned legislation the city is considering regarding Seattle housing rules.  The plan addresses a mixed-bag of issues and if passed, will affect multiple areas of housing development including the use of short-term rentals and new construction. It’s a confusing plan in that it both allows and prohibits development. It comes across like a rider placed on a bill, the kind that makes us wonder, “And how are these things related?”

The problem is, they’re not related. Yes, we need backyard cottages and maybe that will help ease the shortage of affordable rentals. But that’s just one part of the plan.

Another part of this legislation is an attempt to limit the size of all Seattle single-family housing development, to a 1:2 square-foot ratio for house-to-lot-size (for example, a maximum 2,500-square-foot house on a typical 5,000-square-foot Seattle lot). It’s this part of the plan that has me perplexed; it wasn’t well thought out. It’s problematic in that it’s a culturally biased attempt that doesn’t take into consideration the cultural needs and practices of many of Seattle’s families, families that live in ways that fit the model of what is known as cultural collectivism. In a collective culture the focus is on we, while individualistic cultures focus on me. Collective cultures often find multiple generations of extended family living together, under one roof. A 2,500-square-foot house might not be big enough.

I grew up in Southeast Seattle. My mixed-race family was somewhat of a rarity back then. I recognized early on that some things about my family were a little different than the families of some of my friends. I now recognize my family followed some culturally collective practices.

One thing that set us apart was this: Over the years we often had people from outside our immediate family living with us. It may have been a grandparent, an uncle, aunt, cousin,or close family friend. When someone needed a place to live, or came to live here (from the reservation), they would live with us. I have fond memories of Uncle Louis, a French and Cree Indian and my dad’s best friend, who spent years being part of “our family.” Uncle Louis was multilingual, spoke Norwegian, French, English, and Cree, and I often looked to him for help with my high school French lessons.

I’ve heard this legislation arrogantly referenced as the “McMansion” provision. Maybe that is an accurate title for those who view family in a stereotypical way of two adults, two children, a cat and a dog and having enough wealth to live in their dream home, a mansion. But many Seattleites don’t fit into the nuclear-family stereotype. Collective families need a little more everyday elbow room, something this shortsighted legislative proposal doesn’t consider.

I teach at a college, and many of my students are immigrants and/or refugees who have resettled here in Seattle. Many choose to live together as extended/multigenerational families. When families follow a co-housing cultural practice, then more room is needed. This ruling might fit the model of what Mike O'Brien (the sponsor) and other council members think of when they envision "family," but for many of us it's a narrow-minded definition. It excludes the everyday living needs of diverse families.

Evergreen State College faculty member and historian Stephanie Coontz wrote several books on the dynamics of the American family, books whose titles include the mention of “the way we never were” and “the way we really are.” It might behoove the members of the City Council to read some of her books prior to their voting on this legislation on July 1. It’s obvious that more insight on families is needed prior to enacting a part of this plan.


Karleen Wolfe lives in an 1,800-square-foot home a couple miles from where she grew up. She teaches Early Childhood & Family Studies at a local college and enjoys spending time with her husband and children, her new grandson, and friends.


Editor's note: The full City Council is tentatively scheduled to vote on the proposal July 1. Complete details, as well as councilmember contact information, can be found here on the city website.