Our daughter Fiona will not have a closet in her room growing up because city rules for building backyard cottages require us to build an extra car parking space for a car we don’t own.
Debates over building codes and zoning often get bogged down in acronyms and percentages that lull most people to sleep. But the ongoing effort of trying to navigate today’s backyard cottage rules to build such a home in our friends’ backyard has made the effects of those obtuse codes and rules concrete for my spouse Kelli and I. And we’ve found that many rules just plain make no sense.
The good news is that the city, led by City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, is trying to change the rules to make it easier for people to build homes in their backyards. The bad news is that the Queen Anne Community Council successfully sued to delay these changes, requiring the city to spend years conducting an environmental megastudy (PDF) on the effects of such a rule change. The initial draft of that study is now out, and there will be a public hearing and open house about it 5:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall. You can also comment online.
Here are just a few rules that could be changed, some of which I learned from the Beyond Backyard Cottages group and some of which my family and our friends discovered first hand:
- Remove the parking requirement. Why would a city that claims to want to reduce driving and greenhouse gas emissions require people to build car parking spaces whether they own a car or not? In our case, the extra car parking space is taking away both indoor square footage (so long, Fiona’s closet) and garden space.
- More height for green roofs. Don’t we want people to help retain stormwater during big rains? Plus, they’re cool. But current rules make it hard or impossible to build a comfortable two-story house with a green roof.
- Don’t count a garage as house square footage. If you build a home above a garage, why should the garage space count against the maximum square footage of the house? Cars are really big, so once you subtract their space from the house, you really don’t have much room left for living.
- Allow multiple in-house and detached units. Why can’t a property have both a backyard cottage and a basement apartment? Or two in-house apartments and a backyard cottage? Are we worried about creating too many homes for people to live?
- Get rid of the unrelated occupants limit. Why should the city care or have any say in how many of the property occupants are related to each other? Yes, this really is a rule. It’s none of your business who is related to who, Seattle!
- Streamline permitting. Why does it take so long to process building permits for such relatively small projects? By the time our house is finished, we may have spent as much time waiting for permits as we did building the thing. There must be a way to streamline this.
- Remove the owner-occupancy rule. Why should the city have a say in whether the property owner lives there? Life happens, circumstances change. If someone needs to move from their home for some reason (job, longterm family emergency, financial changes, because they want to, etc), should they have to evict residents and board up their backyard houses? Renters are just as valuable to a neighborhood as homeowners, and the rules shouldn’t treat them differently.
These are just a handful of smart changes the city has studied. And, no surprise, the megastudy finds that implementing these changes would encourage the construction of more homes without having negative effects on neighborhoods.
What does this have to do with biking? Well, I am partly writing this because my family is in the process of building one of these, so I have a lot of thoughts and experiences to share. But the ability to build more homes in our city’s single family neighborhoods is about biking because transportation and land use are deeply intertwined. As more people are able to live within easy biking distance of jobs, parks, schools and businesses, biking becomes a more broadly viable mode of transportation.
And both biking and backyard cottages can be tools for affordability in this city as the cost of living skyrockets. For our family, they are both vital to our ability to stay and invest in this city we love.
We spent a year and a half putting offers on the most affordable one-bedroom condos and co-op units for sale anywhere within easy biking distance of the city center, but we were outbid every time by people with the means to offer a stack of cash on top of the asking price. Housing prices have since climbed even higher, and even the smallest condos are well out of reach. A quick glance at Zillow shows maybe three listings for small one-bedroom units listed below $300,000.
But you can build a larger two-bedroom backyard cottage for less than $300,000, and that will only be more true if the city moves forward with some of the more ambitious options in the environmental study. With the housing market what it is, building a backyard cottage is an almost magical way to build relatively affordable family-sized housing.
In huge swaths of Seattle’s single family zones, population has actually declined since 1970 even as the city’s population has ballooned. This is because apartments, duplexes and triplexes that were legal before the creation of single family zoning laws were replaced or renovated with houses for just one household. During a housing supply and affordability crisis, it is unconscionable that city zoning rules would allow so much residential land to depopulate.
As Erica Barnett at the C Is For Crank reports, the megastudy not only deems that the proposed changes would have little ill effect on neighborhoods, it also finds that single family zoning is an ongoing enforcer of the racist legacy of redlining in our city. There is a ton of information in the document, but this chart illustrates the disparity well:
Owning a single family house does not make you racist, but single family zoning is a racist rule. It is also economically unjust. Backyard cottages are not going to fix the problem here, but they are at least a point of entry for more people. They’re a good start.