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Dispatch from the SPC: Finding affordable, family-size housing: S.O.L. in Seattle?

2012 July 11
by Diana Canzoneri

Note: This post is part of an ongoing series of dispatches from the Seattle Planning Commission.


Riffing on movie titles makes for catchy blog headlines.  But are families in search of housing they can afford really S.O.L in Seattle?  The answer is often yes, especially for low- and middle-income families with more than three people.  In fact, some of the most concerning statistics from the Planning Commission’s Housing Seattle report relate to the supply of affordable family-size housing.

  • A scant 5 percent of the family-size homes sold in 2009 were affordable to families with a low income and only about 30 percent were within the reach of middle-income families.  (And these stats include sales of townhomes and condos, not just single-family detached homes!)
  • Just 2 percent of market-rate apartment units in Seattle even have three or more bedrooms, and only half of this tiny fraction are affordable to low-income families.

< Click image to read about Earlene’s story.>

Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan says that we want a mix of housing that’s attractive and affordable to households of a variety of types, sizes, and income levels.  Housing a greater share of King County’s families with children is an explicit goal in the Plan.

These goals are going to be tough to achieve without more affordable, family-sized units.  They’ll be doubly difficult if family-sized units are left out of the denser housing mix that’s going to make up most of the city’s growth.

Including larger units in the mix isn’t only about housing for families with children under 18.  It’s also about housing for multi-generational households, including families with adult children working to (re)gain their economic footing, couples with elderly parents, and families whose traditions include three generations living together.  These are growing demographic segments both nationally and in our own region.

Seattle has limited tools available to influence the housing market supply.  Still, we need to get more creative to ensure that we are doing what we can.

  • One specific Commission recommendation is to revise existing incentive programs for developing affordable housing to prioritize the creation of family-size units.  These enhanced incentives could be applied citywide or in particular locations such as near schools and in transit communities.
  • The City also needs to update policies and codes to encourage greater concentrations of family-friendly multifamily housing near schools and parks, especially in urban centers, villages, and transit communities.  There’s no better time to do this than now, when a major update of the Comprehensive Plan is underway!

Of course this isn’t only a housing issue.  To attract and support families, neighborhoods need high quality schools and outdoor spaces for play, and neighborhoods need to be safe.  To create the critical mass of conditions required, the City and its public and private partners in the community need to work together on multiple fronts to make sure that rather than SOL, families live (and of course sleep) happily in Seattle.


The percentage of households made up of families with children is lower in Seattle than in every other major city in the U.S. except San Francisco.  On a brighter note, the number of families with children in Seattle rose by more than 4,500 between the years 2000 and 2010.







Diana Canzoneri is the staff Demographer for the Seattle Planning Commission and was the primary researcher and analyst for the Commission Housing Seattle report.  She analyzes census and market data and provides demographic analysis related to  comprehensive planning, community development and long-range planning for the Commission as well as City officials and departments.




5 Responses leave one →
  1. Bill Bradburd permalink
    July 13, 2012

    The City has tools, but Council is afraid to use them.

    Other Washington State municipalities such as Shoreline and Bainbridge have enacted “optional” inclusionary zoning – something that should be implemented as we continue our around-the-city upzoning frenzy.

    Instead we have found ways to further downscale housing options by leveling family scaled buildings and replacing them with apodmenmts. Offered at premium per sq ft rates they seem cheap to our desperate citizens. Throw in some MFTE and someone’s laughing all the way to the bank. Maybe we should encourage families to rent a whole pod.

    And Diane, any correlation between density and families? I bet there is.

    • dan bertolet permalink*
      July 21, 2012

      Bill, since apparently you believe nobody else can do anything right, what is your recommendation for policy that will provide more housing in Seattle that is family sized and affordable? Remember now, that if you prevent construction of higher density housing like apodments, many of the people who would have lived in them will be competing for rooms in single family shared rentals, thus reducing the supply for families and driving up the price. This might help:

      Regarding density and families, at the city scale there is little to no correlation (for large cities at least), as is shown in table in the post. Seattle is a relatively low density city, so sorry Bill, you can’t blame Seattle’s low fraction of families on density.

  2. Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
    July 13, 2012

    Two quick notes. First, thankfully some non-profit developers have taken on family-designed units in projects that are not market rate, for example the Denny Park Apartments in South Lake Union, which as the name implies is near a park with a playground.

    Also, the census “percentage of households made up of families with children” statistic is misleading. When you look at the number of people under 18 per-block or per-acre, Seattle actually has more:
    To quote my own example: “say a cul-de-sac with 10 houses has 8 families with children. That’s an impressive percentage! However, on Capitol Hill that same amount of land area can contain several apartment buildings with hundreds of residents, including more total children than the cul-de-sac.”

  3. Bill Bradburd permalink
    July 13, 2012

    One other thought: the majority of families in Seattle are tenants – and a higher portion of those are lower income. That’s especially true among African American households where over 2/3rds of family households with kids are tenants.

    I believe there is a significant percentage of households like these (families of color) that are located within station areas where upzoning and replacement TOD is being pushed. This redevelopment and gentrification will spell displacement of these households. The question is, can whatever policies the PC recommends and implemented by Council result in minimal net loss of this population?

    • dan bertolet permalink*
      July 21, 2012

      Yes Bill, you are not the first to notice that gentrification and displacement are a problem in growing cities, and that disadvantaged populations are often hit hardest. There are lots of people working on solutions, but it’s an extremely challenging issue. What are your recommendations?

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