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Add a Basement Apartment to Your Home, Fight Climate Change?

Seattle's preference for single-family homes leads to more driving and more cars. (Joe Wolf/Flickr)
Seattle's preference for single-family homes leads to more driving and more cars. (Joe Wolf/Flickr)
June 25, 2018

SEATTLE — For most cities in Washington state, cars are the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions. Could a change to the state's zoning policies get more Washingtonians out of them?

Margaret Morales is a senior researcher with Sightline Institute. She said most houses in the Evergreen State are single-family homes, and that's because cities put a lot of barriers in the way of residents who would open up their homes to more people.

She said cities could cut some of the red tape for accessory dwelling units - that is basement apartments, backyard cottages, or other small dwellings in homes - to make neighborhoods more dense, and thus more walkable; and argued the current single-family housing model leads to sprawl.

"Single-family zoning is like this mandate against walking. It's this mandate that kind of requires you to get in your car,” Morales said. “It's this outdated way of thinking about how cities and communities function."

Morales said more dense neighborhoods would attract more local businesses and necessities such as grocery stores. She said people would add more small residences to their homes if they could.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, about 1-in-3 single family homes has accessory dwelling units. In Seattle, it's about 1-in-100. Morales said these cities have similar housing markets, but restrictions for these units are much higher in Seattle.

Research shows there is more driving in urban areas with fewer homes per block, Morales said. Along with making cities more walkable, denser communities could also help build better transit systems.

Morales said there are many reasons why transit is a complicated issue, but ridership is key.

"One of the biggest reasons is that to make public transit viable, you need people to ride it, and that means people have to be able to get to it easily,” she said. “And the way we have our zoning code set up, we make it so that there are very few homes in walking distance of where you could put a bus line or a light rail line."

Morales noted that sprawling zoning policies in Washington cities were put in place at a time when cars were thought of as the future of transit. But with the specter of a warming climate, a change is needed to get more people out from behind the steering wheel.

More information, including Morales' report, is available at

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA