Comment: Single-family zoning limits affordable housing

Such zoning limits duplex and other multi-family housing, driving up costs and hurting communities.

By Deuane Leonard / For The Herald

Just as was the case prior to the covid pandemic, unemployment in Snohomish County is less than 3 percent, and yet again tens of thousands of families in the county cannot afford to purchase a home, cannot afford the rising rents, or are paying a huge percentage of their income toward housing, with little left over for other life essentials.

I point this out only to demonstrate this is not because people are unwilling to work. Unemployment rates under 3 percent are considered full employment. The problem is there is just not enough housing to meet demand. Not enough currently, and not enough being added, to accommodate people who live here, nor the people born and raised here, or those moving to the county. And there never will be if we continue to cling to the idea that single-family zoning is sacrosanct. We need more housing now!

The solution is as simple as it is controversial: Follow Oregon’s lead and eliminate all single-family zoning statewide as it did in 2019. This did not eliminate single family houses from being built, but it allows duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and cottage clusters to be built in addition.

This must be done at a state-wide level, pragmatically because this levels the playing field for everyone. Municipalities’ local officials have demonstrated they are loathe to do anything if they think it will disadvantage them against their neighbors.

Additionally, home-owning voters in these communities hold far too much sway over what is built, and of course they have a personal stake in scarcity. Scarcity increases the value of their home. It seems very ironic that city councils continue to be influenced so much by these voters; because the people who benefit the most from this system, are the ones who wish to sell and then take their money somewhere else that is less expensive. The disadvantaged citizens are the ones left behind in an area with excessive costs and housing scarcity.

From an equity standpoint, we know single-family zoning has its origins in exclusion. Exclusion of poor people, exclusion of people of color, exclusion of other disfavored groups. This does not make you racist or classist if you live in a single-family home. That is the institutional system we have in place. But once you know the truth about the insidious racism in our institutions and in housing, we must take action to correct it. If we fail to correct it, we are complicit and part of the problem.

From an environmental, health and tax point of view, we cannot continue to push people further and further out to areas miles and hours away from jobs to have a place to live. It is bad for the environment and a person’s health to be trapped in long commutes each day. Nor is there enough money at any level of government to continue to build roads and highways farther and farther away from urban centers. There is not even enough to maintain the current roads we have.

Therefore, I ask all of you to advocate to your state elected leaders to do more for affordable housing, to have the courage to stand up to NIMBYism.

Housing stability is essential for healthy communities. In our present winner-take-all economy, some are doing fine, but many are falling behind, and falling behind has a cost that we and our children all bear. The cost of higher incarceration rates, lower educational achievement, poorer health caused by greater chronic stress, chronic illness and other social ills that damage the community.

Without stable housing, our communities and citizens will continue to suffer.

Duane Leonard is the executive director of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.

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