Now that the new legislation is in place, it is time to upload an updated Quickstart Guide for 2019. Keep in mind that we couldn’t get too deep into the weeds here, so if you have questions, please contact us and we can walk you through the changes in more detail.
To celebrate the final Environmental Impact Statement that came out last week, we’d like to highlight some of the less obvious but clear reasons for progressive Seattle to embrace the new ordinance covering Accessory Dwellings.
1. Many ADUs end up being affordable, even if they are admittedly expensive to build. I have made the case over and over that we should approach ADUs with our eyes open as to the cost and not put too much faith in them as a cure-all for our housing crisis. But, in surveys collected from Vancouver, Portland, Ashland, Eugene, Edmonton, the Bay Area, a large percentage (generally around 20-25%) of accessory dwellings end up being rented for nothing, very little or well below market rate. Voluntary affordability, where the owner has prioritized the benefit of having family, friends, or even good tenants as neighbors over the potential rent they could demand if they were more ruthless landlords is a major benefit of this form of housing.
Voluntary Affordability in Portland. https://accessorydwellings.org/2014/08/07/do-adus-provide-affordable-housing/
Voluntary Affordability in Edmonton. https://accessorydwellings.org/2017/09/08/garden-suites-in-edmonton-a-private-investment-in-the-public-good/
For example, I have friends who have not raised the rent in 9 years for their upstairs mother-in-law apartment because they love the tenant but she’s on a fixed income. It’s a sweetheart deal they want to last as long as she can handle the stairs. These anecdotes are the rule for homeowners who’ve ‘DIY’ developed an extra unit on their property.
In Portland among owners who live in their ADU, 41% of the primary residences where offered for FREE. Meanwhile, we’re fighting tooth and nail over an inclusionary zoning program that might create 6–10% of new housing as rent restricted. The reality is that a naturally occurring housing type people desperately want to build all over is also 2 1/2 times more likely to create truly affordable housing than our best big policy idea.
2) Making Mother-in-Laws and cottages pencil financially counters wild speculation on McMansions. In the Draft EIS, the City ran different financial models for potential development outcomes. In the draft EIS, 46% of the possible scenarios resulted in tear down/replacement McMansions being the most profitable investment. It was only in cases where the land value was high and the lots were large that adding an ADU and DADU made sense. But if you value the neighborhood and want to curb the momentum of displacement and gentrification, supporting options where a second or third household can add rental income suddenly flips the proforma against the disruptive scourge of McMansions.
3) Renters are Seattle’s majority and any related stigma is out of touch. Owner occupancy restrictions are the biggest impediment to the creation of more housing and keep lower income renters out by limiting the number of options for less expensive dwellings to exist. The checkered history of zoning as a substitute for outlawed racial or class covenants is well documented.
More than 20% of Seattle houses are already rentals. We don’t have a restriction on renting out a detached house and has very few expectations of landlords (more might be in order) yet neighborhoods still thrive. Both tenant and landlord are by and large responsible neighbors. Ask any renter, and they will tell you that they are just as committed as property owners to the neighborhoods, support the local businesses, and participate in civic life. As the majority of Seattleites, renters make up the underlying tax base that funds our government, parks, police, and transit (renters pay property taxes too, just through rent).
4) Besides, owner occupancy restrictions should be illegal. Limiting WHO can use land, as opposed to what the land’s function is isn’t really the job of the land use code. Making property ownership the prerequisite to use is unique to ADUs and has been challenged elsewhere. Other jurisdictions, such as Alberta Canada explicitly allow residency without ownership wherever residences are allowed for that reason.
5) Finally, extra dwellings are already everywhere. While people might worry that allowing a ADU and a DADU without owner occupancy restrictions will lead to no less that the ‘destruction of our most unique resource, Seattle’s single family neighborhoods,’ the reality is that there is a long history of small multi-family dwelling coexisting with and even predating the now dominant paradigm of stand alone houses for solitary households. Turn of the last century neighborhoods, like Queen Anne and Wallingford (pictured above), valued for their amenities, walkability, and housing stock, were developed mostly before zoning. They are filled with the highest concentration of small multifamily buildings, house more than 10,000 households, but you might never know it from the street. Honestly that is part of their charm and vitality. If the worst thing is that there are a few more families per street, I think our neighborhoods are more than resilient enough to handle it.
Every dot is at least one extra household that doesn’t need a stand alone house.
*In the photo above every structure is a duplex, triplex or fourplex, with the exception of the tallest white structure on the left.
New projects in construction all over! Here is a juicy preview of projects to come!Read More
Will Seattle’s move to make more Backyard Cottages lead to a more sustainable city or just amplify environmental impacts?
You might think that more DADUs would lead to more environmental impacts—after all, construction takes fantastic amounts of resources (including capital). Being in the backyard, DADUs should increase of impervious area, lead to the loss of tree canopy, compound parking conflicts, and stretch City services even thinner, right? Isn’t the shadow of neighbor’s potential cottage going to forever keep me from growing the perfect heirloom tomato?
Last month, Marty Kaplan, under the aegis of the Queen Anne Community Council QACC, appealed a SEPA Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) with regard to changing certain characteristics of the Accessory Dwelling code.
Right off the bat, it is important to clarify that a DNS doesn’t state that there will be zero environmental impact, but as city wide code, it is impossible to evaluate impact on each individual lot without a real project associated with the lot. This is a ‘Non-Project Action.” While you may be affected by something built next door, until there is a project conceived there, the City has no method to evaluate its environmental impact. In fact, the original backyard cottage ordinance was given a DNS, an inconvenient fact not lost on the Kaplan, since he helped craft it while on the Planning Commission.
Today I finished testifying on behalf of the City on the Appeal, to establish a plain truth: Even if the City could evaluate the site by site impacts, they would show the City allows any single house to be much larger than any combination of house + DADU. Additional DADUs or larger DADUs are a reduction of environmental impact in comparison.
Furthermore, the number of people allowed to live there stays the same (8 people per lot), although more of them would be new renters much to QACC’s dismay. Energy code, tree protections, stormwater code, etc all stay the same under the new code. The impervious area actually goes down--by eliminating the parking requirement. How can there be significant environmental impacts, if the rest of the code is identical and the only difference is the number of families (not people allowed) per lot?
The SF zone is a zero sum environment—there is only so much buildable area, and if you choose to build a cottage, its lot coverage must deduct from the maximum size of the main house. And because it can’t be as tall, there is less available volume. It is a prima facia case, and in my mind, underlines the DNS.
As a proxy for all the land use regulations, we created a schematic diagram to illustrate the potential buildable envelop as a single family house, house with an accessory structure, and a house with a DADU. We repeated the diagram under the new ordinance. In all cases, the biggest volume was the solitary single family McMansion allowed by right today.
You only need to walk by a tear down house replacement and a backyard cottage to understand how the argument about which is better per QACC’s concern about neighborhood character is inverted. The QACC’s exhibits inadvertently made this exact point by showing an entire street of adorable bungalows replaced en masse with windowless 35’ blocks, completely obscuring whatever cottages in the backyard.
Which is where the tomatoes come in the picture. One witness testified that if the ordinance goes through, and cottages were built on all sides of his small lot (possible, but very, very improbable), there wouldn’t be any sunlight left for his tomatoes. He should be all for the new code—every new cottage built is a hedge against a speculative developer tearing down the old bungalow and putting up a maxed out single family house. And that which would really put his garden in the shade.
Over the past year the Seattle City Mayor and City Council have been working on changes to portions of Seattle's zoning codes that deal with back yard cottages and mother in law units in single family neighborhoods. The changes are hoped to encourage greater density and a wider variety of housing options, including more units for lower income families.
In response to the proposed changes the Queen Anne Community Council (QACC) filed an appeal in an attempt to block the legislation. The appeal is set to be heard on this coming Wed. 8/31/2016 at 9:00am.
It is hard to guess how the appeal will go and how the timeline for the changes will play out but here are our thoughts...
- The Appeal succeeds -
- If the QACC's appeal is successful it will most likely have a significant drag on the timeline for the changes. We believe that some change will still likely occur however, it appears that the mayor and city council has the will to push the proposed changes regardless of the outcome of Wednesday's hearing.
- The Appeal Fails -
- If QACC's appeal fails it will help clear the path and speed up the proposed changes. That said there seems a good chance that the QACC (or someone else) may try another tactic to stall or block the changes if this one fails. Because of this is hard to know how long any changes will be delayed.
Of the proposed changes on the table, if we were placing bets, here's what we expect to pass council vote whenever that may be -
- Highly Likely -
- Increased max gross floor area for cottages
- Increased max height limit for cottages
- More flexibility for entry locations
- Reduction of parking requirements
- Easing of lot size requirements
- Easing of rear yard coverage requirements
- Possible -
- Total elimination of parking requirements
- Garage area does not count toward total max gross floor area
- A sunset clause for Owner Occupancy (we expect 3or more years on this one)
- Unlikely -
- ADU + DADU on same lot
- Complete removal of Owner Occupancy Agreement
Do you want a glass wall but don't want to feel exposed in your cottage? In this design, we've placed a rusted custom cut steel screen wall just in front of the cottage, which will eventually be overgrown by flowering vines, creating privacy for both cottage and house, soft dappled light in the main floor, and a custom element that gives the cottage a distinctive feel which is both natural and a little bit industrial.
This second design takes advantage of a steep corner site to make a sunlit treehouse with a iconic form and stripped down modern details. The end of the gable house peers out at a mature maple and the Olympics in the background. The cottage has an inverted plan with vaulted living spaces up, and sleeping downstairs.
The third one sits delicately between some large heritage trees (made much more difficult by the city's somewhat inchoate Tree preservation plan requirements). The big porch is a natural extension of the public spaces of the house, with the private spaces screening views to the primary residence.
Wow, strong support for all of the changes to the DADU / backyard cottage code!
Last night, CM Mike O'Brien and Nick Walsh from the city planning office had an open house to take the temperature of the community with regards to a series of incremental revisions to the DADU code. Some of the proposed changes on the table, plus results from the straw poll as of the beginning of the meeting:
25 for/ 9 against eliminating the owner occupancy requirement
23 for /6 against allowing a DADU and an ADU on the same lot (and possibly change the number of unrelated persons allowed to live on an Single Family lot.
14 for / 5 against /13 maybes for Increasing the Rear Yard Coverage allowed
28 for/4 against eliminating the parking requirement
I didn't get the tallies for the height limit increase and other development standard improvments but they were also supported by a plurality.
The reception was generally positive and civil, and more importantly according to the straw vote for the various measured, there was overwhelming support for all of the provisions.
Next open house is 6 pm, February 3rd at the Wallingford Community Center.
In a city where the land use policy discussions are centered around density, the lack of new housing units, affordability even rent control and sustainability, why aren't Backyard Cottages more popular and more prevalent?
On Thursday, I'll be on a panel discussing the state of Seattle's Backyard Cottages with City Council from 12-1 pm. The premise of the 'Lunch and Learn' is one, to assess the status of current planning efforts and two, look at some alternative strategies from Portland.
The siren's call of Seattle's summer has brought everyone back to town. Last night, we celebrated our the solstice (a little late), the return of Holly from Sonoma and Forrest from Madrid, and had a little send off for Gunnar who is heading back to Norway's midnight sun.
CAST has a few other reasons to celebrate:
We're starting a two projects in Mazama (schematic design images upcoming).
Kenny's house is nearing completion:
Our first modular home on Bainbridge Island for Michel and Chas just went on the market this morning:
And the Mazama Ranchero is going to be published in a few magazines this fall, as well as the Lichtenstein cottage in a feature about Small Spaces:
Plus, Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands is in permit, ready for construction this fall:
Happy summer, everyone!
After a long and steady labor of love, the Lichtenstein studio is finally nearing completion!
Hereis a view of the loft looking toward a study nook:
The bathroom will feature a Japanese garden adjacent to the soaking tub:
A compact and efficient kitchen tucks in under the ladder to the loft: