Backyard cottages for Seattle? Not so fast.

The City wants to allow them all over town, in effect creating duplex zoning. The City has a long way to go to earn enough confidence in the neighborhoods for this experiment.
The City wants to allow them all over town, in effect creating duplex zoning. The City has a long way to go to earn enough confidence in the neighborhoods for this experiment.

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 'ꀜcottages.'ꀝ 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'ꀙt 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 'ꀜdog and pony show'ꀝ to convince people it'ꀙs 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'ꀙs, or cottages in back yards, a good idea? There are some good arguments, but everything depends on the details: 'ꀜhow they are built,'ꀝ 'ꀜ where they are built,'ꀝ 'ꀜ how many are built,'ꀝ and, most critical of all, 'ꀜhow the city monitors the program.'ꀝ

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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs (accessory dwellings in the main house) and DADU'ꀙs (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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs could be built in that area. To the City'ꀙs 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'ꀙt be changed into some new use. They would have chosen somewhere else to live if one house per lot hadn'ꀙt been very important to their selection. Seattle'ꀙs single-family bungalows and neighborhoods are an integral part of Seattle'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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.

And, please don'ꀙt forget that if a tree is lost to a new DADU it isn'ꀙt just its beauty, or shade; it is a part of the cumulative loss of trees to absorb CO2. The new Cottage plan attempts to mitigate that possibility by writing in more restrictions than those approved for the already permitted DADU'ꀙs in southeast Seattle.

Those who are promoting cottage housing also fail to mention there are areas of the city where drainage and sewer capacity don'ꀙt meet current needs let alone if the housing units were doubled. The Growth Management Act asks that concurrent development of utilities be part of growth. That means we need to update our infrastructure to be able to accept growth. Seattle has nearly $1 billion in deferred maintenance — not counting what must be spent to satisfy concurrency. Shouldn'ꀙt we update sewer and drainage before doubling density?

But now comes the big question: Can the City'ꀙs DPD effectively manage a plan that requires them to think like homeowners who are about to lose something of value? They will have to because the City'ꀙs proposal contains a number of opportunities for exemptions and subjective calls. The City, theoretically hoping for better development, has set up requirements to mitigate the impact of the new structure, but will offer an exemption if complying with the regulation is too difficult. While flexibility to address a specific lot or location or special need might be useful, the test will be whether DPD has the will or capacity to exercise good judgment to enforce the regulations they say are important. Experienced DPD watchers are scared as hell because DPD'ꀙs history of supervision and making exemptions to anyone who asks is notorious.

For example, one requirement is that one of the two units be owner occupied for certain lengths of time. If you believe DPD can verify this, and other design criteria, at regular intervals, then you are far more trusting than I would be. Seattle once created billboard legislation that controlled how many could be built. It took a citizen several years and a court case to get DPD to do its job, and it turned out they never even tried. The current DPD is a department whose administrative supervision doesn'ꀙt work much better than the now-much-criticized Seattle Department of Transportation.

In researching this story I visited almost all the permitted DADU sites in Seattle. Neighbors in various neighborhoods pointed to a number of existing DADU'ꀙs that are clearly there, but not permitted. There are also very large second homes built on one lot achieved by subdividing the property. DPD does this all the time and refuses to acknowledge that it is, in reality, a 'ꀜshadow'ꀝ duplex zone.

Neighbors believe, for good reason, that DPD does not protect their interests. The notion that DPD can administer this new program raises serious questions of competence. Whether this Cottage legislation should be passed before a new mayor can appoint new department heads (who will clean up their departments) is a question worth asking the candidates.

To its credit DPD has made radical new use of its official web site to promote DADU'ꀙs and explain new regulations. They have borrowed from similar legislation in California and, in fact, copied much to use here in Seattle. There are new provisions that make DADU'ꀙs better neighbors than the legislation currently applied in southeast Seattle. The City web site devoted to Cottage housing has a number of beautiful photos of DADU housing, but we must keep in mind they aren'ꀙt all in Seattle. Most, if not all, are polished designs by good architects intended to sell the concept. The proposed legislation doesn'ꀙt require architects to design DADU'ꀙs. Anyone can put up a shack, convert an old garage, apply for an exemption or two, and still meet all the minimum requirements.

There are still a lot of issues to be worked through. How many DADU'ꀙs or cottages need to exist? Should every block have dozens or should they be scattered so no neighborhood begins to acquire the feeling of apartment house districts where transience replaces stability? Should we set a limit of how close together they could be, such as 600 feet apart, and only allow 50 units per year?

While new legislation clarifies lot usage it still allows a Cottage to be as large as the existing home on that lot. If you intend to put two buildings on a 'ꀜlot,'ꀝ doesn'ꀙt it make sense that it should be a cozy, one-story 500 square foot Cottage rather than a two-story structure allowed by the legislation? A 500 square foot Cottage is very adequate and still bigger than some of the lofts and small condos under construction in denser areas of the city.

The DADU can be a useful benefit to our city but until the City Council can find a way to create a city building department that looks out for the public interest, there is good reason to put the Cottage housing plan on hold.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors