In Seattle's housing crisis, can backyard cottages help families reconnect?

Recent zoning changes make it easier to build these dwellings. They could mix up the modern middle-class American life.

Backyard cottage

A backyard cottage at a home on Beacon Hill on June 11, 2019. (Photo by Paul Christian Gordon for Crosscut)

After a long legal battle, Seattle’s new zoning laws took effect on Aug. 8, allowing backyard cottages and accessory dwelling units to be 200 square feet larger than before — now 1,000 square feet plus any attached garage area. Cottages can also be a few feet taller.

Further, a homeowner can have both a backyard cottage and an accessory dwelling unit on the same lot, potentially allowing three families to live on one lot zoned for single family, but requiring only one parking space. And the property owner no longer needs to live in one of the units.

Although converting part of your home to an accessory dwelling unit may be good value, the cost of building a backyard cottage is high. These units require all the plumbing fixtures and systems of a larger house, plus they must meet current codes for energy efficiency and stormwater management. Seattle is also among the most expensive places in the world to build a home. Builders have seen double-digit annual cost increases from subcontractors for several years running. Today, expect a builder to quote more than $300 per square foot for a cottage.

Clients should also try to line up their builders and secure subcontractor pricing early instead of waiting until next spring, when an expected bumper crop of cottages will be shovel ready.

Due to the cost to build, we should expect that homeowners will be looking to recoup those costs with rental income. And renters, especially families, will willingly pay for the “single family experience” of living in a cottage in a nice neighborhood. Prices may not fall significantly, even as availability increases.

I have designed several cottages and ADU’s in Seattle, and I have been heartened to find that my clients are also powerfully motivated to do their part in the housing crisis, by providing housing for family or friends and below market rate. One of my clients provided a small cottage for a retired friend; the occupant (and her corgi) love living there. Another is providing a space for an in-law.

Some homeowners have figured out that they could comfortably move into the cottage and rent out the main house at market rates, giving them more flexibility in their lifestyle. This ability to reconfigure your living situation as you “age in place” may prove to be the most valuable benefit from a backyard cottage or accessory dwelling.

If you own a home with a backyard cottage, you can occupy the main house and rent out the cottage when you are raising kids and need the most space. The rental income can offset the rising costs of property taxes, and even take a chunk out of the mortgage. Maybe you provide it to an in-law who can help watch the kids before and after school, saving $1,000 or more per month in day care expenses.

When your kids go off to college, you might downsize into the cottage and rent out the main house to help pay for tuition.

Then, when your children graduate from college and show up on the doorstep broke and jobless, you could take back the main residence and live together again, enjoying the quasi-adults your children have become, sharing mornings over coffee and enjoying time together before they move on.

When the kids have jobs and significant others, but are still repaying student loan debts, you rent them the cottage at below market rate. You still have dinners together once or twice a week.

Then, when the kids have higher paying jobs and are raising their own kids, and you are retiring, you switch again, now living in the cottage, and they take over the main house. Now it is your turn to help watch the grandchildren. You spend more time traveling and don’t need a lot of space at home.

And what if the unplanned happens: Your son and daughter-in-law want a divorce. A few painful conversations, then there is a plan. Both parents stay on-site, one living in the cottage, the other in the main house. The kids have one home, even while the parents each have private space. And it is about time that you and your spouse finally move out of the city.

This works for a few years, until the children are in middle school and the lives of the adults change again, new partnerships and new jobs mixing up the modern middle-class American life.

Humans are resilient creatures, partially because we evolved to live with extended families, then tribally, and then in communities. I often overhear friends and family fantasize about building housing that would allow them to live with or near friends and family. Despite the ubiquity of social media, reconnecting requires deliberate effort. We dream of a lifestyle in which interactions with friends and family are spontaneous and fluid.

If you are thinking about building a backyard cottage, know the costs, take your time, and imagine its value to your life beyond the rental income it provides today. Talk to friends and family about their struggle to find housing. Use it as an opportunity to reconnect, and you might find a synergy that benefits the community in the long term.


Disclosure: The writer's wife is an employee of Cascade Public Media, Crosscut's parent company. She does not work in the editorial department and had no involvement in preparing this piece for publication.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Brett Holverstott

Brett Holverstott is an architect in Seattle and the founder of AirMod Architecture.