With Seattle housing conditions in full-on crisis mode, single-family neighborhoods have become a central flashpoint. How do we increase density? How do we respect neighborhood character? This debate is raging in Wallingford as we speak; the deluge of competing red pro-HALA, and orange anti-HALA yard signs make that abundantly clear. With the housing crisis at the forefront of both city and neighborhood politics, it is important to examine the terms we use to describe and debate. Specifically, I am interested in the use of the phrase “single-family housing” and how it has been used to structure the debate around housing in Wallingford.
“Single-family housing” is exactly that—stand-alone homes with one shared living unit. But what happens when the way we characterize a certain living condition comes to describe the character of an entire neighborhood? And how is that characterization wielded politically? As I heard from many attendees at last October’s Wallingford Community Council meeting, much opposition to HALA comes from the way it threatens the “single-family character” of this neighborhood. The newly incorporated neighborhood non-profit, Historic Wallingford, sports a logo featuring a craftsman bungalow, a tribute to the early-1990’s-style home that neighborhood preservationists uphold as the exemplar of Wallingford’s charm.
As a lifelong Wallingford resident who was raised in a single-family home, this way of describing the neighborhood certainly speaks to my experience. I wonder, however, about my neighbors who live in apartments or duplexes or triplexes. How might the consensus that Wallingford is a single-family neighborhood exclude them from current housing debates?
A headline from Sightline in 2016 read that “Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods already include thousands of duplexes.” The full article includes a link to a fascinating interactive map detailing different classes of multi-family neighborhoods in some of the neighborhoods most roiled by HALA. Sightline found that across the city in 2016 there were 4,600 multi-family units housed in single-family zones. Many of these structures, as the Seattle Times commented upon the map’s initial release, were built before neighborhoods were first zoned as single family by the city. I used Sightline’s map to hone in on those multi-family units located in Wallingford.
Bounded by Aurora to the west, I-5 to the east, 50th to the north, and the waterfront to the south, I counted a total of 864 properties of multi-family housing. Of these properties, 498 were duplexes, 198 were triplexes, and 168 quad or more. That means that we have 498 structures (which collectively house far, far more than 498 people) of multi-family housing in “single-family” Wallingford. While there are expected hotspots—closer to Aurora, the interstate, and the water—there are also tri- and quad-structures in the heart of “craftsman bungalow” country.
The presence of multi-family housing is not a surprise, although the scale may be surprising to some. I would guess that even the most strident opponents of neighborhood upzoning would agree that the existing diversity in neighborhood housing structures does not inherently “ruin” the neighborhood’s character; even with the presence of these apartments and duplexes, there is no doubt that much of Wallingford continues to feel very “single family.” Rather than discussing the virtues or drawbacks of this existing housing, however, I am interested in how we can better include the hundreds of residents who live in these buildings. Last year’s contentious race for a seat on the Wallingford Community Council, a race in which the losing candidate reported feeling a strong amount of anti-renter bias, is just one indication that it’s worth taking a second look at who is being included and excluded from neighborhood decision-making.
Jordan, a Wallingford resident who lives in a triplex, spoke to this sentiment. “I have not until recently felt that my voice matters in local housing debates, but I think that has been because I identify as a renter, more than because of the fact that I identify as someone who lives in a triplex (although, of course, those two things are linked).” Speaking of “single-family” homes is an effective way to talk about home ownership without actually naming it as such. Whether one feels excluded from conversations as an apartment dweller or a renter, framing Wallingford as a “single-family neighborhood” has a hand in both.
If we continue to uniformly describe Wallingford as “single-family” (with corresponding assumptions about home ownership), we are not describing Wallingford in a way that fits how many of our neighbors currently live. Will these neighbors feel welcome at local neighborhood debates? Will they feel included in discussions about HALA? In other words, while discussing the future of our neighborhood is of the utmost importance, how can we frame an inclusive discussion that does not erase the living realities of many Wallingford residents who have a stake in the proposed changes?