As we listen to the persistent drumming for relaxing the rules governing development in Seattle’s single family zones, one would think there is only one way to address the high cost of housing in the region. As architects specializing in residential design and supporters of backyard-cottage development, we believe the current push is deeply misguided. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Seattle residents agree.
We have all witnessed the results of recent development in the Low-Rise 1, 2 and 3 zones of Seattle, with the proliferation of low-quality, cheaply-clad, four-unit and six-unit boxes masquerading as first-world housing. If the current accessory and detached dwelling unit proposals are enacted in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods, this type of unfettered development will proliferate there as well. If you are offended by McMansions in your neighborhood, just wait until giant, multifamily triplexes start popping up on your street.
What is needed to resolve our housing crisis is a holistic, comprehensive approach that balances all interests, not a broad-brush set of policies driven by ideology and political expedience. There are time-tested alternatives to the current proposals that could achieve the desired results while preserving the quality and livability of our cherished neighborhoods. Seattle should:
• Allow higher density and mixed-use zoning along secondary as well as primary arterials, along with smaller lot sizes in select single-family zones.
• Increase the size and number of urban villages throughout the city, and give neighborhood councils a lead role in determining how their neighborhoods will absorb greater density.
• Facilitate the creation of more not-for-profit housing associations. In Denmark, 20% of the total housing stock was built by such associations. The Danes also provide rent subsidies to working families, based on their conclusion that the free market prefers market-rate housing and will never satisfy the need for affordable housing.
If our local governments are serious about providing affordable housing, they can start by addressing the things they have direct control over:
• Eliminate the permit fees for ADUs and DADUs, incentivizing construction of those building types, and streamline the permit-approval process so that permits for all housing types take seven weeks instead of seven months.
• Eliminate the utility hookup fees for ADUs and DADUs, including the sewer-connection charge, which is substantial.
• Eliminate the newly-enforced Substantial Alteration requirements for remodels. These requirements force homeowners to spend thousands of dollars bringing building systems unrelated to the envisioned work up to current code, discouraging improvements to existing homes, including older apartment buildings.
Specific to ADUs and DADUs, tweaking the current rules would facilitate the expansion of this housing type without decimating the quality of our neighborhoods. We are in favor of increasing the allowable unit size to 1,000 square feet and eliminating the parking requirement. The city should also partner with banks to eliminate one of the greatest impediments to construction of backyard cottages — construction financing.
Conversely, the city should not approve any measures that open our neighborhoods to speculative development and absentee ownership, including allowing up to 12 unrelated adults to live on one property, abolishing the owner-occupancy requirement, and allowing both an ADU and a DADU on every single-family lot in addition to the main house (triplex). These measures will ultimately lead to higher prices for single-family homes, making this housing type unavailable to all but the wealthiest Seattleites.
We all want more affordable housing, and increased density is one way to achieve that goal. But this should not be a zero-sum game — we can increase density and preserve the quality, character and livability of our neighborhoods. We must first put the brakes on this development-at-any-cost train and create a more reasoned and inclusive process for achieving our shared goals. We urge our fellow citizens to contact the City Council before the upcoming vote Monday and encourage them to address our concerns and adopt our approach. The very fabric of our city is at stake.