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Doing Away with Single-Family Zoning

Communities need a range of housing types for all residents and income levels. Without housing accessibility and affordability, our communities face a series of issues.

Whether it’s the high prices of single-family homes and rental units, the shortage of available homes, or the large number of people who are currently unhoused, it’s clear that a crisis is looming and something needs to change. One common solution being proposed is to permit higher-density housing, or, in short, reduce or eliminate traditional single-family zoning by upzoning single family neighborhoods.

What are the implications of doing away with single-family zoning? And is upzoning a plausible solution across the board? In this article, we dive into what exactly a single-family home is, why considering a variety of zoning and housing options is important, and whether or not upzoning is the best solution for Bellingham’s housing crisis.

What Is Single Family Zoning?

The historical concept of a “single-family house” is still a large part of the American consciousness today: the detached home in the suburbs with a large, tree-filled front yard and a white picket fence. Unfortunately, this sort of housing is becoming less and less attainable (and, in some instances, less and less desirable). In fact, it was designed to be less attainable from the get-go.

The basis for single-family zoning was established by a 1926 Supreme Court landmark ruling that lays bare the prejudices that have always accompanied the concept of single-family housing as we know it. A quote from the ruling reads: “… very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district.”

A single-family home has always been a symbol of prosperity, stability, and success in the United States — it’s the quintessential “American Dream,” and a way to achieve economic mobility. While single-family housing has always been largely unattainable for poor and marginalized communities, its elusiveness has now spread. If areas in cities and towns are zoned for single-family housing that its residents can’t afford, it doesn’t do much good. And with an increasingly desperate need for housing — affordable housing, in particular — does single-family zoning still make sense?

What Is Upzoning?

Bellingham, like many cities across the country, is facing a shortage of housing. High home prices and the limited supply of housing types make it very difficult for first-time buyers to secure a home within the city, forcing buyers to move to unincorporated areas of the county where land and homes are often less expensive.

While traditionally the typical family might be looking for the typical “single-family home,” there are indications that these standards may be changing. According to a 2020 article in the Journal of the American Planning Association:

“Even 2 decades ago, surveys revealed sometimes contradictory desires among Americans for an ideal housing unit and neighborhood, though with a strong lean toward low-density living (Myers & Gearin, 2001). There is at least some evidence of a shift in attitudes since then. For example, surveyed metro Houston (TX) residents preferring a “smaller home in a more urbanized area, within walking distance of shops and restaurants” to “a single-family home with a big yard where you would need to drive everywhere you go” rose from 40% to 50% from 2008 to 2016 (Klineberg, 2017, p. 13).”

Providing a variety of housing options helps people enter the market, which in turn helps communities thrive. One of the ways to address the issue of housing accessibility and housing variety is the concept of upzoning. Upzoning essentially allows a greater housing density on a given lot, in an effort to increase the amount of housing and lower the costs.

The pros of upzoning are pretty clear, in that by adding more housing and rental units, the supply rises to address the demand. Additionally, greater housing density makes better and more efficient use of land. If the upzoning approach is taken near transportation hubs, it can help reduce the number of people commuting by car which is important for fighting climate change. And, ultimately, it ideally lets people who want to live in a community actually reside there.

However, there are also cons, eliminating single-family zoning on its own may not be enough to solve a housing problem. According to an article from The Brookings Institution, “tenant advocates have countered that upzonings will fuel real estate speculation and gentrification, as landlords of upzoned buildings will be incentivized to sell their properties at inflated prices reflecting their added development potential.” A study by the same author on New York City upzonings in the early 2000s found that upzoning “might accelerate, rather than temper, gentrification pressures in the short-term.”

Conversations about upzoning are happening across the country, including locales that are closer to home. Cities such as Spokane and Minneapolis and states such as California and Oregon are just a few examples of places that are discussing or have made zoning changes, with mixed results. In some places, such as Portland, more units can be built on residential lots if some are reserved for low-income occupants.

“Missing middle housing” should also be part of the equation when it comes to housing variety in communities. Missing middle housing includes smaller detached single-family homes as well as small multi-unit structures such as townhomes.

This sort of housing really is “missing.” A 2019 New York Times analysis found that “it is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home.”

How Might Upzoning Impact Bellingham?

At this point in time there are more questions than there are answers as to how upzoning will impact Bellingham. It is being suggested that the City upzone for mixed-use and multi-family units in single-family neighborhoods to increase housing. Consider neighborhoods like the Lettered Streets, Fairhaven, Edgemoor, Sunnyland, South Hill, Happy Valley and others. Which single-family neighborhoods have space to accommodate multi-family and mixed-use units? Certainly, some neighborhoods within Bellingham have more land than others, but will a blanket upzoning mandate on all neighborhoods provide enough housing to accommodate the population increase over the next 20 years?

More so, how will Bellingham’s Neighborhood Associations react to the upzoning of the charactered neighborhoods they’ve spent generations cultivating?

Can our infrastructure support an infill of multi-family units? Bellingham’s stormwater and wastewater systems are in need of upgrades. Plans for a new wastewater treatment plant were put on hold in 2022. What happens when there are more impervious surfaces and more households producing wastewater?

Many homeowners are worried about new construction taking away the greenspace within their neighborhoods resulting in heat islands. While others are concerned about how their view, solar access, and privacy will change. Parking constraints, infrastructure upgrades, and changes to neighborhood character are all valid concerns that will need to be addressed.

Perhaps this article by Strong Towns puts it best, new zoning changes are just one piece of the puzzle in solving the housing crisis. Bellingham is a desirable place to live, but a lack of housing options limits the number of people who get to actually live here. To accommodate future population increases, we will need to implement a number of reforms that not only address zoning, but also assess development regulations, urban growth areas, infrastructure investment upgrades and more, to address how we handle the increase in population in a sustainable way that meets the unique needs of our city.

About— Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.



Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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