King County Land Use Survey -- a Remarkable WPA Project of the Great Depression

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 2/20/2002
  • Essay 3692
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In 1936, King County undertook a major property survey, the King County Land Use Survey, which was financed by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). The project greatly added to the county's tax base, and left an amazing record of built King County. After preparatory work was done, some 300 to 400 Washingtonians glad of a job set out to gather data on buildings and property. At the time many properties were not taxed and many others were grossly under-valued. The survey, which concluded in September 1940, employed an average of 600 people until 1939, and 200 in its final stages. It was the largest white-collar WPA project to be carried out in King County. It resulted in a dramatic gain of assessed real estate valuation, increasing tax revenues by $574,000 per year. As part of the data collected, photographs were taken of nearly every structure standing in King County at the time. This remarkable record, housed at the Puget Sound Branch of the Washington State Archives, provides the intrepid time-traveler with a passport to Seattle and King County in the final years of the Great Depression.

Mountains, Lakes, Rivers, Islands

By the late 1930s, King County's 2151.92 square miles sorely needed tax reassessment. As the project supervisor reported,  King County contains 700 lakes, 16 major rivers, 3 large islands, 1 mountain range, extending into Puget Sound, [and] the second deepest harbor in the world  (Klotz). The 1940 population of its largest city (Seattle) was 368,302. Rapid growth and a varied, challenging topography had resulted in a gross under-valuation of many properties, and frank omission of many others from the tax rolls altogether.

The records that the Assessor's Office had previously used for buildings were compiled in longhand on 4x6 inch cards with many revisions and cross-outs, and no photographs. The report issued at the conclusion of the Land Use Survey described the building cards as "obsolete and replete with errors, admittedly unsatisfactory" (Chronicle of The Land Use Survey of King County, p. 57).

The survey discovered many buildings that had never been on the property tax rolls. Before the Land Use Survey, the King County Assessor's Office identified 113,676 buildings in the city of Seattle. The Land Use Survey identified 146,567 buildings. (This does not include new construction.)

In four King County towns, the discrepancy was even worse. Before the Survey, there were 2,667 buildings assessed in Kent, Renton, Auburn, and Enumclaw. The Survey identified 10,070 buildings (about four times as many) in those towns. In all, about 66,600 pre-existing buildings throughout the county were found and added to the tax rolls. Before this, many rural areas of the county were not being taxed at all.

County Assessor Roy B. Misener, who, according to project supervisor A. C. Klotz, "sired and fathered the project through courts, high water and low budgets," seized upon WPA monies when they became available. The project's goal was to equalize real estate assessment of 500,000 parcels of land in King County. The project's scope was so large that it had to be refunded four times during the years it took to accomplish. (Initially funded as WPA No. 1683 in February 1936, it was refunded as WPA No. 4705 in October 1936, as WPA No. 5614 in October 1937, and as WPA No. 2541 in November 1938.) Its final cost was more than $2 million.

Beginning the Survey

The Land Use Survey was launched in 1936 with great fanfare. Parties and picnics announced the project. A two-reel silent motion picture, The Land Use and Aerial Survey Project, was shown to community groups throughout the county. The public was invited to visit the Survey offices at any time. Mindful of the delicate situation created by the need for field surveyors to enter homes, project organizers believed that local good will and public understanding would be crucial to the project's success.

Phase one of the project was the creation of a complete set of aerial photographs of the entire county. This is the earliest set of aerial photographs to cover King County. The photographs provided guidance for field enumerators by revealing exactly where structures were.

The framers of the Survey worked completely from scratch, designing methods and materials especially for this survey. Crucial information was entered on field sheets, later to be transcribed. These field-sheet forms were bound with rubber bands and assigned to field crews, who filled them in with information gleaned from home occupants. A photograph of the structure completed the data.

After the aerial photographs were completed, a survey of standing timber in eastern King County was conducted. The timber crews recorded 68,402 acres, adding more than one billion board feet of lumber to the King County tax rolls. This land was formerly listed as logged.

Surveyors spent most of the remainder of 1936 documenting properties and photographing the 146,000 buildings in Seattle. Many errors occurred during this initial survey, and much of it had to be scrapped and redone the following year.

The Work of the Work Teams

From August 1939 to September 1940, 25 teams of field surveyors went out each day. In suburban districts, three-man crews were used. In remote districts, crews of four to six men traveled together, and then broke up into smaller teams". Each team should have transportation, a junior engineer, a junior draftsman, a mathematician, a good penman, a photographer, and a leader" (Klotz). The field foreman was instructed to maintain esprit-de-corps in his or her team.

The most common size used was a crew of three. Following are each member's responsibility. The crew captain would meet the owner-occupant, and if allowed into the building, would inspect its interior, check and verify the property legal description, and classify the types of buildings. The photographer would photograph the buildings, note land usage (i.e., orchard, swamp, garden, pasture), measure building dimensions, note exterior features, and usually survey and sometimes photograph minor outbuildings. The third man compiled all the information onto field survey forms.

County Assessor Misener believed that happy work teams would result in more accurate reportage. He believed that workers fearful of reproach would be more likely to bluff their reports.

Teams were given thorough training before being sent into the field. Misener's staff conducted a nine-session appraisal school for project workers, during which they were given training in exactly how to evaluate structures in terms of materials, construction, and depreciation. In addition to field workers who gathered data and photographed the structures, typists, clerks, draftsmen, and transcribers supported the project. The Land Use Survey was the largest white collar WPA project in King County partially because it offered employment to people who could perform these tasks, but not the more physically taxing work required of many other WPA projects, many of which involved construction work.

Field surveyors were instructed to converse with homeowners on light topics, so that both enumerator and homeowner might feel more at ease with each other. Misener's huge public relations campaign had prepared most homeowners for the visit, and most cooperated with assessors.

When refused permission to enter, assessors were instructed to "guess-timate every possible interior feature" (Krotz). This usually resulted in a higher tax assessment. The assessors were also empowered to summon sheriffs for assistance if required.

After tabulating data, structures were assigned one of the following values:

  • Class 1: shack
  • Class 2: modest cottage, slightly superior to shack
  • Class 3: modest cottage with concrete foundations, Built-ins, etc
  • Class 4: semi-modern bungalow
  • Class 5: contract-built modern bungalow -- tile floor in Bath, hardwood floors
  • Class 6: architect-built modern residence -- frame Construction
  • Class 7: mansion

Challenges and Reevaluations

Supervisors had to contend with not only weather and the very scope of the project, but also with workers who left periodically for either temporary or permanent employment in the private sector. In any case, no individual could receive WPA pay for more than 18 months total. The very purpose of the WPA was to stimulate private employment while providing relief to out-of-work Americans. Thus, when WPA workers were offered employment in the private sector, they had to take it. This constant coming and going necessitated great flexibility on the part of project supervisors.

Crews were also called upon to reevaluate properties, which had suffered damage since their initial evaluation due to fire, flooding, etc. One supervisor, noting that three summer cottages previously appraised had been washed away, stated "Notify the photo department so they may cancel the negatives of the buildings, now driftwood in the bay" (Krotz).

Photographers usually traveled with field teams, but at times their top photographers came in after the initial survey. Retakes were sometimes necessary if the requisite photograph (slightly corner-on so that two sides of the building could be seen) was blurry or otherwise unacceptable. Retakes became more frequent as the Survey timeframe stretched on, since film purchased in bulk at the project's inception became stale and caused photographers to under-expose the shots. Space for developing film was scarce, and Misener gratefully accepted for use as a photo lab the County Coroner's (vacated) inquest room.

Initially, to identify the location of the buildings, addresses were written on the negatives. Because few buildings in rural King County had street addresses (the post office used rural route and box numbers), the Assessor's Office decided that legal descriptions should also be put on the photographs. Office workers had to go back and write the legal descriptions (as for example "Maynard's Block 3, Lot 5") on about 100,000 negatives.

By July 1939, they had surveyed a four- to seven-mile strip in far western King County from Snohomish to Pierce County, plus a four- to six- mile strip along the east side of Lake Washington. This included about 350,000 parcels. From July 1939 to July 1940, the remainder of the county that had any development was surveyed (150,000 parcels).

Survey Results

The Land Use Survey lasted from February 11, 1936 to September 3, 1940, at a total cost of $2,473,031. The WPA funded 76 percent of the project and King County funded the remaining 24 percent.

About 500 square miles of land in the county previously thought to be owned by the government was found to be privately owned and was added to the tax rolls. The Survey identified 218,608 buildings and photographed about 200,000 of them. The buildings not photographed were garages, sheds, and other buildings of lesser value. Of the 218,608 buildings, 66,600 had mistakenly been left off previous tax rolls. The Land Use Survey timber crews added more than one billion board feet of lumber to the King County tax rolls.

Most buildings in the survey were reassessed. For instance, in Seattle it was determined that 45 percent of the buildings were over-assessed, 45 percent were under-assessed, and the remaining 10 percent were just right.

The framers of the Survey thought that it should serve as a model for other communities. The final report states:

"This project is proud of its pioneering work -- accomplished by the diligent work and absorbing interest created throughout this project by the workers and the sponsor's representative -- this data was assembled not to embarrass property owners nor to criticize former employees, but to show there is a curative for the malady of human indifference and the lack of understanding by the public at large of the myriad phases necessary to retain the legality and accuracy of the archives" ("Revaluation...").

A Remarkable Record of Built King County

King County residents still benefit from this record, which serves as the foundation for our modern property tax system. More poetically, our ability to revisit every street and country road in the county as it appeared in the late 1930s gives us a remarkable perspective on our history, a perspective enjoyed by very few other communities in the country. Anyone possessing the parcel number or legal description of any structure standing in the county at that time can view the photographs singly or by city block, and can obtain a print. Time travel couldn't be simpler.

After the Survey was completed, the King County Assessor's Office took over the responsibility of updating the records. Periodically they conducted field surveys to update their property files, take new photographs of preexisting buildings if there were significant changes to their exteriors, and take pictures of new buildings constructed. From 1940 to 1972, there were about 1.5 to 2 million photographs taken. (Nearly all these photographs are extant.) In 1972 the King County Assessor's Office transferred these files, including photographs and their negatives, to the Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives. Since 1998, the Archives have been located on the Bellevue Community College campus.


A. C. Klotz, A Chronicle of the Land Use Survey of King County, Washington (Renton: Renton Chronicle, 1941); "Revaluations by Land Use Survey WPA No. 2541," 1939, University of Washington Libraries, Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives; William Monroe Shenkel, "A Study of Real Property Assessments in King County, Washington," Master's Thesis, University of Washington, 1953, pp. 15-16.
Note: This essay was revised by Greg Lange on September 17, 2003.

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