The PJ Tatler

Single-Family Zoning Racist? Seattle Thinks So

As a recently elected city council member, I find many aspects of municipal government unseemly. One such area is zoning, the practice of restricting what can be built on certain parcels of land in order to fulfill a political vision of what-oughta-be. While I understand concerns about depreciation or health hazards if one suddenly finds himself living next to a chemical factory, zoning too often seeks less to protect rights and more to impose an arbitrary communal vision.

Take Seattle, for instance. For over a century, the Washingtonian metropolis has maintained a “strong neighborhood feel” by restricting residential development in many areas to only single-family homes. Want to build a separate living wing to house your elderly mother? Sorry, not allowed. Want to invest in some multi-family rental property? Sorry, can’t do that.

Now, an advisory committee has been working on a proposal to change the decades-old restriction. A draft of their policy ideas was leaked to the press. Among the committee’s motivations for revisiting single-family zoning is concern over “racial and class exclusion.” From the Seattle Times:

“We can still be a city for everyone, but only if we give up our outdated ideal of every family living in their own home on a 5,000 square foot lot,” a draft letter from the committee co-chairs reads.

The draft report notes that “Seattle (single-family) zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city’s goals for equity and affordability.”

At first blush, the notion of racist zoning may seem silly. But it’s actually not that far off the mark, as I’ll explain on the next page. The unspoken corollaries to medium and high density housing are lower-income residents, who happen to tend more diverse. Zoning restrictions have the effect, intended or not, of excluding these individuals from living in a particular area.

Of course, economic exclusion isn’t a moral issue. If a community wants to live in an exclusive manner, God bless them. Let them do it through property ownership and development. Build a gated community. Buy up the land around it and develop it in such a way as to insulate the nirvana. But to use the force of law to restrict what neighbors can do with their property — that crosses a line.

As Seattle considers changing its zoning practices, its motives may be a little off. But the potential effect, recognizing property owners’ right to do as they see fit in pursuit of happiness, would be welcome.