New research looks at how zoning policies push these homes into pockets of the Puget Sound region where jobs and services are lacking compared to wealthier areas.

By Laurel Demkovich, Washington State Standard, June 29, 2023

Federally subsidized housing in the Puget Sound region is not only in short supply, it’s also unfairly distributed, says a new analysis.

The effect of local zoning laws is segregated communities in and around Seattle, where families with low and moderate incomes and people of color can only live in certain neighborhoods where subsidy vouchers are accepted, the Urban Institute research found

Solutions like the state’s new middle housing law, which will go into effect next month, are steps in the right direction, but Yonah Freemark, who authored the study, said much more is needed. 

Freemark said his analysis shows federal housing programs are not being distributed evenly mostly because of local zoning decisions.

“They’re not being spent on communities as a whole,” he said. “They’re being distributed to a select number of types of communities.”

About 8% of Seattle’s housing units have support through federal initiatives like the public housing program, Section 8 subsidies and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. About 3% of households receive Section 8 housing choice vouchers to help them afford rent. 

But according to the Urban Institute, most of these units are located in communities where residents are more likely to be people of color or have lower incomes. 

That’s in part because of local zoning laws, which limit the number of units allowed on one lot, Freemark said. Many neighborhoods in the Puget Sound region have a heavy focus on single-family homes. In Seattle specifically, less than 25% of lots allow for four or more units.

But most subsidized units are in multi-family buildings. Freemark’s analysis found almost 90% of subsidized units are concentrated in areas that allow at least four units per lot. 

The areas with more subsidized housing are more likely to have households that are Asian, Black or Hispanic and have lower median incomes, the analysis found. Neighborhoods without voucher-subsidized housing are predominantly white and have an average median household income of $108,000.

That’s unfair

Paul Inghram, director of growth management at the Puget Sound Regional Council, said where affordable housing is located is something politicians and planning officials have been talking about for many years. 

He said part of it comes down to land prices. The more expensive the neighborhood, he said, the harder it is to provide affordable housing. 

But one way to change the region is through local zoning laws, Inghram added. 

The effect of existing zoning is that people who do not make enough money to afford market rate housing are being excluded from living in huge portions of the region, Freemark said. It limits their choices as well as the public services available to them, such as schools and health care.

“That’s unfair because essentially what it says is that people simply don’t have the right to live in the communities where they want to live,” he said. 

Inghram said there’s a number of “cascading impacts” that happen when people are forced to live in one community, even though jobs or services might be elsewhere. 

For example, if the only place that someone can afford to live is far away from services, such as malls, restaurants or jobs, then they often spend more time commuting, which can have effects on the environment, transportation systems and their well-being. 

New laws could help

One fix could come from the state’s new middle housing law, which passed the Legislature this year and will go into effect in July. 

The law requires cities with a population between 25,000 and 75,000 to permit at least duplexes on all lots. Fourplexes could be allowed on lots that are located within a quarter mile of a major transit stop, or if at least one unit in the building is considered affordable. 

Cities with more than 75,000 people would be required to allow fourplexes on all lots and sixplexes on all lots within a quarter mile of a major transit stop, or if at least two of the units are affordable. Cities with fewer than 25,000 people that are part of an urban growth area of more than 275,000 people are required to allow duplexes on all lots. 

Freemark said the new law is “absolutely needed,” especially in suburban areas where it’s currently illegal to build anything other than a single family home. 

The Puget Sound Regional Council estimates the region will need 800,000 more units by 2050 to meet growing demand for housing.

The middle housing bill could help the state reach that goal, Ingrham said, though he acknowledged more is needed at the state and local levels.

One thing the state can do is expand where multi-family housing can be built even more, especially because subsidized housing is mostly located in large buildings, Freemark said. Another solution could be creating a statewide subsidy program that explicitly supports people wanting to live in single family homes.

Such solutions could face opposition in the Legislature. The middle housing bill received significant pushback from mostly Republican lawmakers, as well as the Association of Washington Cities, who felt it was taking away the local control of cities and towns to decide their own zoning laws. 

The original bill would have been much more sweeping and required more communities to allow at least sixplexes, but it was pared down as opposition grew. 

Even if any more zoning changes came down from the state, Freemark said, it would take time for them to make a difference.

“You have to be thinking about how to promote zoning changes in a way that is incremental,” he said. 

FEATURED IMAGE: About 8% of Seattle’s housing units have support through federal initiatives like the public housing program, Section 8 subsidies and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. (Getty Images)

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