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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.