Backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments are the low-hanging fruit in addressing Seattle’s housing crisis.
WITH housing prices in Seattle setting records seemingly every month, it’s unfortunate to see common-sense solutions to add affordable-housing options in the city delayed by obstructionist legal appeals. The latest example of this is the Queen Anne Community Council’s appeal of City Council member Mike O’Brien’s legislation that seeks to encourage more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments.
With its talk of every home in Seattle being transformed into a de facto triplex, the council’s opposition to this legislation paints a picture of radical changes to the density and character of Seattle’s neighborhoods — turning quiet residential streets into dense, traffic-choked thoroughfares.
As a resident of one of these neighborhoods and someone who has lived in (and been priced out of) accessory-dwelling units (ADUs) in multiple neighborhoods around Seattle, I can assure the community council that it’s not what they fear. Every neighborhood in the city has examples of denser housing intermixed in single-family zones, predating the existing zoning code.
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This type of housing has provided a perfect option for my wife and me in recent years. It’s allowed us to enjoy the benefits of living in neighborhoods that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford — being two young professionals who had the misfortune of the Great Recession occurring during our 20s. I’m not seeking pity — we’re middle-class white people with dual sources of income and no children. I can’t imagine what it must be like to watch rents rise for single parents or those living on fixed incomes.
O’Brien’s legislation is hardly revolutionary. It simply would bring Seattle in line with neighboring cities, such as Portland and Vancouver, B.C., which have seen significantly more of these types of units added by reducing regulatory barriers like on-site parking and owner-occupancy requirements.
While no community is immune to an occasional parking or noise conflict, there’s little evidence that the addition of backyard cottages or mother-in-law apartments has ruined the livability of our neighbors to the north or south. Portland lacks a parking requirement for ADU construction, and two-thirds of ADU-dwellers in Portland don’t park on the street — either because they don’t own a car or because the property owner built a parking spot voluntarily.
The community council’s appeal questions the environmental implications of allowing more ADUs and detached-accessory-dwelling units (DADUs) in our neighborhoods. But the appeal makes no mention of the largest environmental threat facing this generation: carbon and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change. Land use and transportation are where the rubber meets the road on climate change, and as residents of a city well-suited to low-carbon lifestyles, we have a responsibility to the next generation to welcome more neighbors into our communities.
Seattle residents are truly blessed to live in a walkable, bikeable and transit-rich community. Nixing potential housing units in the city would do one of two things (and probably a little of both): It would drive up the price of existing housing stock as more people compete for a fixed amount of housing, and it would push residents who would prefer to live in Seattle to farther-out suburbs. On climate change, and as residents of a city well-suited to low-carbon lifestyles, we have a responsibility to the next generation to welcome more neighbors into our communities.
Backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments alone won’t solve our housing crisis, but they are low-hanging fruit. They add much-needed affordable-housing options while respecting the aesthetic character of our existing neighborhoods. Seattle residents who are one rent hike away from having to leave the city they love can’t afford the delay.