This week (9/23), members of the Seattle city council will once again be talking about whether to legalize Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, or DADU's, smartly re-branded as "backyard cottages" by their proponents — a name that also beats the other term for them, "mother-in-law" flats. Seattle loves cottages, bungalows, studios, and cozy hideaways. Alphabet soup and in-laws? No so much.
It's a good week to take up the topic, because two other events provide some context for the decisions that will be made.
The 11th annual Arts and Crafts conference will be held in Seattle this week (9/23-9/27), featuring academic presentations at venues ranging from the Museum of History and Industry to the Frye and Bellevue art museums, and architectural tours of First Hill, The Highlands, and the Eastside's Beaux Arts Village. The conference is a look at the legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement in all its forms. This is the movement that shaped Pacific Northwest architecture (including our modern movement) and our major cities, and it's one that sowed many cultural seeds in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, BC, Spokane, Bellingham, and other communities.
The conference will be followed by Historic Seattle's 12th annual "Bungalow Fair" at Town Hall. This exhibit puts the public together with designers, furniture makers, antique dealers, textile artists, and all manner of craftspeople catering to bungalow and Arts & Crafts fans.
From the practical (buying lighting fixtures?) to public policy (land-use planning) to academic theory ("Modernity and Identity in the Native Art of the Pacific Northwest"), this week is a feast for Seattle's cottage cult.
Many people have raised concerns about the move to more backyard cottages, including my Crosscut colleague Kent Kammerer of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition. Many defenders of the city's single family neighborhoods worry that a law permitting them citywide (they are currently allowed only in Southeast Seattle as part of an experiment) is, in effect, allowing the multi-family zoning camel to stick its nose under the single-family tent. Allowing cottages across the city would be, they say, tantamount to eliminating single family zoning altogether, and replacing it with zoning for duplexes.
Cottages could also be bothersome: invading a neighbor's privacy, eating up backyard habitat for animals or displacing mature trees, creating a local parking crunch. Skeptics also worry that Seattle's Department of Planning and Development might not be able to police cottage builders and dwellers well enough to ensure they aren't cheating on things like residency requirements. Valid concerns.
What the council members are considering is fairly modest, however: Backyard dwellings would be restricted to good-sized lots (4,000 square feet or more) on which the property owner would have to live too; they would be subject to height restrictions (15-23 feet); and the cottages could only be a maximum of 800 square feet. One idea is to limit the number of cottages citywide to 50, but that number might be bumped up to more like 100. Some, like land use attorney Chuck Wolfe, suggest having no cap at all. In any event, they augment existing housing, they're built on lots with room, they're modest structures. Truth be told, many are already built as studios or work spaces in converted sheds or garages. They are simply waiting for the rules to change so they can be transformed into legal dwellings and people can move in.
Backyard cottages also offer a number of benefits. While they don't do much for increasing neighborhood density, they do offer the possibility of more affordable rental housing. Looking ahead, they offer other benefits too. One is that all of us have been sobered by the Great Recession, and recovery is predicted to be slow. In addition, we know we have major issues ahead with Social Security and Medicare funding. Backyard cottages, it seems to me, give some homeowners another way to achieve self-sufficiency — a revenue stream from rent, a place to house adult children or grandparents, a future on their own land for owners if the main house becomes too big or too much. It adds hands to the number of people who can do upkeep or work the garden. It offers a way for people to stay in their homes and neighborhoods in tough times.
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