Increasing Seattle’s share of families

Seattle has been called “a childless city.”*

Of major cities in the United States, Seattle has nearly the lowest rate of households with children (19%) – only San Francisco is lower. If, as Carlos Pena, the former mayor of Bogotá said, “Children are the indicator species of the health of a community,” could it be that our low rate indicates something is wrong?

In late 2011, the Seattle Planning Commission, on which I serve, produced an in-depth report on the status of affordable housing in Seattle. One of the biggest findings was the lack of housing available for low and middle-income families with children; only 2% of rentals had three or more bedrooms. In addition, 70% of single-family homes for sale are unaffordable to those making a working wage, considered up to 120% of area median income.

Following up on this finding, in January 2014 the Seattle Planning Commission released “Family Sized Housing – an Essential Ingredient to Attract and Retain Families with Children.” This white paper is an action agenda with 11 key recommendations. It proposes a variety of land use changes, tools and incentives geared toward creating more variety in housing types to serve a broad mix of incomes, citywide.

Why does this matter? 

I am often asked this question.  My response is it matters for environmental sustainability if we are serious about reducing sprawl and encouraging transit use; it matters for social equity so those who work here can also afford to live here.  Finally, it matters for the livability of our urban city – creating an environment where children are safe, active and can thrive. This is an environment that also works for seniors and everyone in between.

In the long run, encouraging families to live in Seattle will require more than just affordable housing; it will require neighborhood level necessities including excellent schools and frequent, reliable transit that connects homes, jobs and schools. But the first essential step is making sure families of all types can call Seattle home.

In order to achieve the objective for this white paper, the Planning Commission asks the Mayor, Council Members and City Departments to take up this action agenda, and commit the resources needed to further research, refine and implement this Action Plan.

Read the Family-Sized Housing Action Agenda on Seattle Planning Commission’s website.

Please join us February 25th at 5:00 pm for a release event at Harbor Steps.

Action Agenda highlights:

  1. Create a definition of family sized housing. Generally two or more bedrooms but many of the incentives and recommendations are geared to three or more as they are in shortest supply.
  2. Allow more flexibility in Single family Zones to allow duplex units, cottage housing, courtyard housing and more than one accessory dwelling unit
  3. Foster a larger supply of family-friendly Low rise and Mid-rise zoning
  4. Ensure that bonus development provisions and incentive zoning programs work to encourage family-size units, such as FAR and height exemptions.
  5. Advance the creation of residential cores with ground-related housing in the city’s most urban neighborhoods
  6. Ensure the Multifamily Tax Exemption Program encourages the production of two, three and more bedrooms.
  7. Encourage the creation of more family-friendly housing through innovative design and construction
  8. In affordable housing programs, include a strong priority for families with children.
  9. Strengthen partnerships to align School District planning and capital investments with the City’s planning for growth in family-friendly urban neighborhoods.
  10. Institute a family-oriented lens in updating Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan and in ongoing policy and planning efforts
  11. Devote Resources needed to further inform this Action Plan and steward its success.

*The Brookings Institution called Seattle a childless city in a report on the 2000 census.

Written by Catherine Benotto, who is no longer at Weber Thompson.

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