With the waves of development that continue to cross Capitol Hill only occasionally breaking into areas currently dominated by single family homes, the Seattle City Council is preparing a new push to ease the creation of new housing in the backyards of some of those single family homes.
“No one needs to be told that we’re in a housing crisis right now,” Mike O’Brien said. “Backyard cottages are a great place to add more capacity. They could happen in our single family neighborhoods, which cover the majority of our real estate, and [they] can be done in a way without having some of the visual impacts that some neighbors are concerned about.”
O’Brien, who represents District 6 encompassing Ballard and Fremont, has unveiled his new legislative proposal to ease some of the city’s standing regulations on backyard cottages to encourage their construction and add to the city’s overall housing stock.
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The “detached accessory dwelling units” — or DADUs — have been praised by proponents as a way to add modest density in desirable, family-friendly single-family neighborhoods, increase access to said neighborhoods — where houses are selling for more than half a million dollars for the less affluent — as well as provide an income stream for single family homeowners who construct and rent out DADUs to tenants.
Seattle has had a cautious and tentative relationship with DADUs for the past decade or so. DADUs and attached accessory dwelling units were common in Seattle up until the 1950s when both were banned throughout the city. In the ’90s, concerns about insufficient affordable housing stock led local lawmakers to reintroduce ADUs. It wasn’t until 2006 when the council passed an ordinance allowing single family homeowners in the southeast to build DADUs as a pilot project that backyard cottages were reintroduced. Four years later, in 2010, the council allowed for DADU construction citywide.
Backyard cottages were still highly controlled in the years following the citywide expansion, however, and concerns about over-regulation stifling DADU construction prompted the city council to look into code changes back in 2014. A DPD report (PDF) published the following year revealed that only 200 DADUs had been permitted or constructed despite widespread availability of single family lots eligible for DADUs (around the 60 percent of all single family lots in the city), and identified regulatory restrictions on DADU height, lot area coverage, and requirements like having (or building) one off-street parking space for a new DADU and the owner occupancy requirement—which mandates that the owner of a DADU either live in the cottage or in the adjacent single family home—as the main culprits behind low figure. Solicited public input from DADU owners (and potential owners) and designers revealed similar sentiments.
“The two we’ve heard the most about are the owner occupancy requirement and the parking requirement,” O’Brien told CHS, adding that he has heard during public meetings that the owner occupancy requirement in particular has stopped residents from pursuing DADU construction because they may want to move out of their home in the future.
The report issued by Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Liveability Agenda (HALA) task force also took aim at these regulations, namely calling for the removal of the the parking mandate, the owner occupancy requirement, and the rule allow for strictly a ADU or a DADU on a lot, but not both.
In contrast with Seattle, DADUs and ADUS are more common in Vancouver Canada, a phenomenon advocates attribute to the city’s more liberal regulatory code. Portland recently loosened its own DADU regulations and have seen a spike in backyard cottage permitting and construction.
O’Brien’s proposed amendments seek to ease some of these restrictions, while also appeasing neighborhood concerns about development, renters, and increased density. He wants to decrease the minimum lot size eligible for DADU construction, remove the off-street parking requirement, allow both a DADU and an ADU on a single lot, and tweak the owner occupancy requirement so that the owner of a DADU must live in the structure or the primary single family home for at least one year before the requirement expires.
O’Brien doesn’t have any data or specific estimates on how many DADU’s will get built as a result of his legislation, calls his proposal a starting point.
“I don’t have any data to point to other than that Portland and Vancouver are significantly ahead of us on this,” he said. “I feel like there is pent up demand and just haven’t unleashed it yet. I’ve heard from dozens of folks at public meetings saying they want to do one.”
“It’s not a total fix, but it’s something,” he said.
There are those who don’t think his proposal goes far enough. Developer lobbyist and density and housing development advocate Roger Valdez slammed O’Brien for his perceived “capitulating to the neighborhood lobby.”
He argues that while the amendments are a good step, without identifying financing mechanisms for homeowners interested in building DADUs, as well as completely removing the owner requirement—to allow homeowners to sell constructed DADUs alongside their homes and developers to independently build DADUs on single family lots they’ve purchased (as well as the subdivision of single family lots , to allow for potential split ownership between a homeowner and a developer)—there isn’t going to be a major jump in construction.
“It helps to have the height limits taken away, it helps to have the parking away. In order for it to take off and really fill out the potential, there has to be some sort of financial benefit in doing it,” said Valdez. “There’s the architecture, the design, the permitting, and the construction. If there’s an older couple in Ballard, they have to figure out how to pay for that.” “Real people are going to see that they have to meet all these requirements. Forget it. There’s no way to do it,” he said.
O’Brien said his office has talked to few “lenders in town” and wants to work on future ways to connect prospective DADU owners with financing.
Valdez pointed to the HALA recommendations regarding backyard cottages, which call the owner occupancy requirement a “a barrier to securing financing to build an ADU/DADU.” The report also calls on the city to “explore the opportunities and implications of unit lot subdivision which would allow separate ownership of the primary dwelling and the accessory dwelling.”
“The worst case scenario is that someone might make this a viable business strategy to build more housing,” Valdez said, in reference to allowing developers into the potential DADU business in single family neighborhoods. “But what’s wrong with that?”
“It goes back to the discussion of who is loudest voice in the city on housing and that’s single family home owners who don’t want things to change,” he said.
According to O’Brien, the one-year mandate is intended to find a compromise between neighborhood concerns about preventing outside investors and developers from creating DADUs (as well as some anti-renter sentiment) and the setbacks of the owner occupancy requirement identified by DPD.
“They are concerned about a private developer coming in and building a backyard cottage and flipping it. What we did is that we have an owner occupancy requirement essentially saying that the owner of the house has to build it but they can rent it out.”
“I get how someone says ‘I’m much more comfortable with my neighbor building something than someone who isn’t from there.’ That’s a legitimate concern,” said O’Brien.
“Some folks are saying that it’s caving to the neighborhoods. I say it’s a nod to folks that have this concern [regarding private developers]. I think we can address this concern and still significantly increase supply,” he said.
O’Brien’s office told CHS that they expect the legislation to go before the council’s planning and land use committee in July.