The return of the backyard cottage idea

Councilmember Mike O’Brien wants to pick up the pieces of a bygone housing recommendation from last summer. The proposal, once a piece of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, would loosen the rules around building backyard cottages, theoretically adding density and housing stock.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien wants to pick up the pieces of a bygone housing recommendation from last summer. The proposal, once a piece of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, would loosen the rules around building backyard cottages, theoretically adding density and housing stock.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien wants to pick up the pieces of a bygone housing recommendation from last summer. The proposal, once a piece of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, would loosen the rules around building backyard cottages, theoretically adding density and housing stock in single-family neighborhoods across the city.

Backyard cottages are allowed in Seattle, but barely utilized. Only 159 were built in Seattle between 2012 and 2014. The HALA recommendation from last summer would have cleared away some of the brush getting in the way of building these cottages.

The recommendation, however, got lumped in with a different piece of the HALA proposals that would have allowed for more duplexes, triplexes and townhouses in single-family zones. Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times is given near universal credit for raising the public temperature on that particular issue. After getting earfuls at fundraisers and public events, Council President Tim Burgess and, eventually, Mayor Murray backed off denser single-family neighborhoods. Backyard cottages were, by all appearances, the baby that got thrown out with the duplex bathwater.

In a meeting at City Hall Wednesday, O’Brien, along with Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Sally Bagshaw, hosted a lunchtime discussion of what it would look like to put the cottage proposal back on the table. On his panel were four owners of the backyard cottages (officially called detached accessory dwelling units, or DADUs) and the Department of Planning and Development's senior urban planner, Nick Welch.

What, exactly, new legislation would accomplish may look like hair splitting. Backyard cottages are, after all, already allowed.

But the point is less about legalizing DADU development and more about incentivizing. Seattle’s got an affordability problem. If there was one takeaway from the Summer of HALA it’s that — at least in the view of developers, housing activists and most elected officials — the city needs to get denser, even if only nominally. The thought is a straight out of Economics 101 — more supply will push down price. DPD says that if only 5 percent of owners of the 75,000 eligible single-family lots in the city built DADUs, the city would get a roughly 4,000-unit bump in housing.

While many so-called “neighborhood activists” resisted — fiercely at times — the notion of generally allowing more units per lot, the DADU, as well as mother-in-law units, never saw quite the same backlash. In fact, at Wednesday’s lunch and learn, support for loosening regulations around backyard cottages was near unanimous. One public commenter, Bruce Barker, even proclaimed himself a “neighborhood activist” while simultaneously expressing support for the added backyard square footage.

The theory for why Seattle’s single-family homeowners build so few backyard cottages seems to focus on the headaches of doing so. DPD’s Welch outlined a list of common barriers, including the requirement for off-street parking, height limits, limits on backyard footprint, and maximum square footage. By loosening these rules, the hope is more people would build. O’Brien, who said he has heard concerns about bureaucratic obstacles, also suggested creating standard, out-of-the-box DADU packages that would include pre-approved plans for cottages as well as information on financing options. The idea is that interested parties wouldn’t have to repeat the burdensome permitting steps others had already gone through.

One regulation that did see something of a public split Wednesday concerned the owner-occupancy requirement. That rule requires that the owner of the property live on the lot. Furthermore, if even one non-relative lives on the lot, total occupancy cannot exceed eight people.

For Anne Schuessler, who lives in the Central Area, loosening this requirement would offer her flexibility. She has a cottage and is interested in temporarily moving elsewhere in the coming years after her daughter goes to school. Under current code, however, she could not continue to rent her DADU if she is not a resident of the property.

Barker, reflected the concern of the neighborhood activists, namely that renting both the main house and the backyard cottage would turn the property into a revolving door of renters and potentially hurt the culture of a neighborhood.

O’Brien told commenters that the Council is able to legislate creatively and it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing.

One perplexing point was raised: No single thing currently stands out as a deterrent. Additionally, all the backyard-cottage owners at City Hall on Wednesday actually told pleasant stories of dealing with DPD and navigating the system. So will encouraging DADUs to become a sort-of cottage industry actually result in more low-income housing? While the answer may be hard to know, the consensus Wednesday seemed to be that a change is worth trying.

O'Brien hopes to have legislation by January.

  

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