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Seattle's Zoning Law Could Be Holding Some Public Schools Back

Seattle City Council
The circle in this image provided by Seattle City Councilman Mike O'Brien's office highlights an example of a backyard cottage in Ballard.

As it becomes more expensive to live in Seattle, the racial and economic disparities in public schools become more glaring. Researchers from a Pacific Northwest think tank say the antidote may lie in updating Seattle’s zoning laws – the rules that determine what types of housing can be built.  

School segregation in Seattle is getting worse, not better. And zoning that favors single family homes is exacerbating the problem. That’s according to a report from Sightline Institute. The group looked at areas surrounding higher performing schools and found blatant differences:  Home prices and rents are 20 percent higher than the city average; incomes are about 25 percent higher.

Dan Bertolet, senior researcher for housing and urbanism says the fix is to roll back the zoning to allow duplexes, backyard cottages and mother-in-law units.

“These single family neighborhoods – they have comfortably accommodated more people in the past, and they could increase in population and density through zoning changes and get back to where they were 40 years ago,” said Bertolet.

Bertolet says the addition of affordable options would naturally lead to more diversity in public schools.  There is overcrowding, though, particularly in some top-performing public schools.  But researchers say the overall population of kids in most of these neighborhoods is lower than it was in the baby boom years in the 1960s.