City of Seattle
Imagine waking from a deep dream of peace to the sound of a bulldozer just five feet from your bedroom window. Peeking out between the blinds you discover that a bulldozer and a clam shell shovel are shaping the ground for some kind of new construction just feet from your bedroom window. A proposal currently before the City Council could make this possible.
There are two kinds of changes under consideration by the City. One affects large apartment buildings. The other would, in effect, eliminate single family zoning and create duplex zoning or two homes per lot. A few years ago the City passed legislation, effective only in southeast Seattle, that allows what they called a DADU (city jargon for Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit). For purposes of a more marketable name the City now calls them “cottages.” The public, however, more often thinks of them as a place for the mother-in-law.
Two types of accessory housing units are involved here. One is inside or attached to the main house, types which are already legal. The other kind are separate buildings or detached living quarters, which the City hopes to legalize citywide, albeit in limited numbers and size.
While one can make a case for a small cottage in the back yard for the mother-in-law or other uses, the proposed legislation would essentially allow a second home on one building site. Two homes on one lot is usually called a duplex. Somehow the City seems to think we aren’t smart enough to know the difference.
The proposed new legislation has been under discussion for some time and is very similar to legislation already in effect in the southeast Seattle pilot project. Currently the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is sending out a “dog and pony show” to convince people it’s a great idea and that we should all support the concept. The concept has achieved some traction because those pressing the idea claim it will address climate change by increasing the density of the city, preventing sprawl while also building more affordable housing.
Are DADU’s, or cottages in back yards, a good idea? There are some good arguments, but everything depends on the details: “how they are built,” “ where they are built,” “ how many are built,” and, most critical of all, “how the city monitors the program.”
A second small house can be home to aging parents, become a guest house, serve as a studio, office, even a place where a home business could exist and where tele-commuting might reduce transportation needs. The accessory dwelling idea is similar to a program that has existed in Sweden as part of their long range care of seniors. There is also merit in the idea of having one or two people who have been living in a large home where the children have moved on move into a small compact home and rent out the main house to a larger family.
A small home can be heated more cheaply and if green building practices are used it will, in the long run, use less energy. For those who believe increasing density in single family neighborhoods is important the detached dwelling is a far less intrusive choice than if the city decided to rezone neighborhoods to multifamily or apartment house zoning.
The City and a few green organizations assert the increased density will combat global warming. Perhaps, but the reality is that increasing density also has much to do with money. Property owners see dollar signs from potential rent, Seattle’s DPD gets a significant part of its operating funds from new development fees, and the City increases its tax base. Opportunities are also created for builders and architects. It’s as much about money as it is about creating a new housing type or saving the planet.
I happen to live in an area of Seattle that was annexed from the county in 1949. In a one square mile area there are 41 grandfathered duplexes, ADU’s (accessory dwellings in the main house) and DADU’s (cottages). Because these cottages are scattered, small, and hidden in trees and back yards, very few are even visible. I walked by one every day for years without knowing it existed.
Still, I'm worried about the new plans for DADUs. In reality it would change the current zoning of Single Family to a designation that allows two dwellings on one lot. That sounds a lot like duplex zoning. So, what’s the difference between Cottage housing and a duplex?
It all comes down to how big the cottages are, how close together they are, and how many are permitted. If small one story cottages are scattered about, hardly anyone notices and their advantages can be realized. The problem is both the old DADU plan and the new DADU or cottage plan allow far too large, two-story structures to be built close together. The old DADU legislation applied to southeast Seattle had no restrictions on how many DADU’s could be built in that area. To the City’s credit that has been changed to allow only 50 units per year, but it would have been far better to have the legislation limit how close together they are.
Buying a home is the largest investment most people will ever make. Lenders, real-estate people, and people investing in a home for the long term want and demand predictability. They want to be assured that the neighborhood they have chosen for a lifetime investment won’t be changed into some new use. They would have chosen somewhere else to live if one house per lot hadn’t been very important to their selection. Seattle’s single-family bungalows and neighborhoods are an integral part of Seattle’s reputation as a livable city and a measure of a stable housing market.
Related to this predictability are the tax implications for the person building a DADU. Their immediate neighbors are also affected, since the creation of a second home increases property tax for that property and for nearby neighbors as well. We are taxed on the highest and best use and if a property next door becomes more valuable because of a second dwelling, at some point in time adjacent property taxes will rise because they also have the potential for a higher use. (So will the sale value of the house, to be sure.) You will end up paying more taxes to add to someone else’s convenience. Probably the best way to deal with this is to require any new Cottages to be 600 feet apart.
Then there is the effect on quality of life issues, such as light, trees, views, and privacy that can be affected by that cottage next door. When one selects a home that has these qualities and the City steals the most valued aspect of life, many feel they have been violated, as though though a thief broke into the home and stole part of it. Ask someone whose great pleasure is gardening in their back yard only to discover that a new two story DADU now blocks the light essential to growing plants. Or imagine losing one small tiny window of a view to a distant vista or mountain range.
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