Seattle, Washington

At 3,180 square feet, this 2016 Ballard home could not be built in a single-family zone, under proposed new rules capping home sizes in Seattle.  KUOW PHOTO/JOSHUA MCNICHOLS

At 3,180 square feet, this 2016 Ballard home could not be built in a single-family zone, under proposed new rules capping home sizes in Seattle. KUOW PHOTO/JOSHUA MCNICHOLS

THE PROBLEM:

Since 2007, Amazon has been constructing a multibillion-dollar urban campus in downtown Seattle. That year, it had announced plans for an 11-building office complex. It now has more than three dozen buildings occupying 19% of Seattle's prime office space, more than that of the city’s next 40 largest employers combined. The company employs over 40,000 people in the city, resulting in a booming economy with high-wage jobs and low unemployment. The Amazon campus draws highly educated talent from all over the world, and subsequently Seattle’s population has increased by 19% in a decade. In 2017, the Census Bureau reported Seattle was the fastest growing city in the United States. 

The rapid influx of highly skilled workers with high-paying jobs resulted in an increased demand for housing and a rise in the cost of living. Over the last six years Seattle’s rents have increased by 57%, and homelessness has reached epidemic proportions. The City of Seattle has deemed the situation a “homelessness crisis.”

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS:

In order to combat the exorbitant cost of living Seattle Council member Mike O’Brien proposed a double-faceted solution. O’Brien’s concept seeks to utilize residential lots more efficiently by limiting the size of single-family homes and permitting more accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The first element of the proposal would limit the floor area ratio to .5. This means that a newly constructed single-family home could not exceed half the square footage of its lot. The second element of the proposal would allow up to two ADUs to be built on a single-family lot. For example, a 5,000-square-foot lot could hold a 2,500-square-foot home, a backyard cottage, and a basement apartment. The proposed ordinance would also raise the number of unrelated individuals residing on a single-family lot, from 8 to 12. The combination of smaller homes and more ADUs is meant to promote population density and expand opportunities for affordability.

PROGRESS:

After four years of debate and litigation Council member Mike O’Brien’s proposed legislation has been passed. On July 1, 2019, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously in favor of Council Bill 119544. The ordinance places a floor area ratio limit on all new single-family homes, and encourages the construction of two or fewer ADUs on single-family lots. Sightline Institute calls the legislation “the most progressive ADU policy in the U.S.,” raving that “the new rules will lower the invisible walls of economic exclusion, and make the city greener too.”

— Cassie Dana, One Big Home Researcher