Changing the owner-occupancy requirement for backyard cottages could create a loophole for developers to tear down houses and essentially build multifamily housing structures in single-family zones.
FOR decades, Seattle has pursued many strategies to be a place for people of all income levels to live. One of the more controversial affordable housing options is allowing construction of backyard cottages.
These small residences are called “detached accessory dwelling units” (DADUs). They are built on a site that already has a house. While there are relatively few of them, today they are welcome and popular in single-family neighborhoods. But they have not always been welcome, and the debate over regulating these cottages is about to get heated once again.
In 2006, I was the vice chair of the City Council’s Urban Development and Planning Committee. Some Southeast Seattle neighborhoods were interested in allowing DADUs, which had not been permitted in single-family neighborhoods since the 1950s.
Sound off: Upcoming public forum
Two public hearings will be held on proposed changes to the backyard cottage regulations:
Tuesday: 6 to 7:30 p.m.Filipino Community Center5740 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way
Feb 3: 6 to 7:30 p.m.Wallingford Senior Center4649 Sunnyside Ave N.
I was eager to create a pilot program. Allowing new backyard cottages is a way to meet affordable-housing needs, such as a home for a parent who may need some care or for people who would like to downsize or rent out one of the homes for income. DADUs could help the city meet its goal for more diversity in generations and income levels in all our neighborhoods.
Southeast Seattle was divided. Opposition centered on parking congestion, loss of privacy and shadowing of neighboring yards. Perhaps the greatest concern was of absentee owners. Southeast Seattle has had an unfortunate history of negligent landlords.
Legislation was prepared to minimize the impact upon neighbors including requirements for: one on-site parking space, a minimum lot size of 4,000 square feet, and height limits, and the owner must live on the property at least six months of the year.
In 2006, the council approved the pilot program. In 2008, the city’s Department of Planning and Development surveyed the neighborhoods that included backyard cottages. The department found strong support for backyard cottages and proposed allowing them in all single-family zones. In 2010, because of the successful pilot program, the council voted unanimously to allow DADUs citywide.
Recently, the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) Committee has made numerous recommendations for how to increase affordable housing, including encouraging more DADUs. The HALA report states that some of the land-use code regulations are “barriers” to backyard cottages. HALA recommended removing the parking and owner occupancy requirements and modifying development standards, such as height limits, setbacks, maximum square footage and minimum lot size.
In December, the Seattle City Council heard from several DADU owners. One considered demolishing her small home, which she loved, but she needed more space. Instead, she built a DADU to meet her needs and saved the original house. Another owner built a cottage for an investment and planned to offer it as a short-term rental for $150 a night or a long-term rental.
The City Council would like to encourage the development of more DADUs and are looking at the HALA recommendations.
One of the primary values it should consider is how backyard cottages impact neighborhoods. The current regulations play a significant role in DADUs being welcomed in single-family neighborhoods.
Changing the owner-occupancy requirement could create a loophole for developers to tear down houses and essentially build multifamily housing structures in single-family zones. We have seen how developers exploited loopholes, demolished many older affordable housing structures and then developed micro-housing on very small lots before the city stepped in.
If the owner-occupancy requirement is eliminated, how many more Airbnb (bed-and-breakfast) or VRBOs (vacation-rental-by-owner) would be created? How do DADUs help Seattle meet affordable housing goals if they are being built for short- term vacation rentals?
Rather than changing the development standards, I urge the council to instead consider incentives for the construction of new DADUs, such as waiving permit fees and tax incentives in exchange for rentals that meet affordable housing goals.
Backyard cottages have been welcomed in Seattle because of the development standards. These standards are not a barrier to their construction. If the City Council wishes to eliminate some of the regulations, a pilot program in a willing neighborhood should be the first step before making wholesale changes.