We are building a backyard cottage, and city rules make no sense + Hearing Thursday

Home sweet home.

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:

Living in a single family house is also a very strong determiner of wealth:

Now look at the map of single family zoning in Seattle, areas where the only form of housing legally allowed is the form of housing that is disproportionately white and wealthy:

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.

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34 Responses to We are building a backyard cottage, and city rules make no sense + Hearing Thursday

  1. Andres Salomon says:

    YES!

    I had planned to build a backyard cottage for my parents. I hit the parking spot requirement (despite living car-free), and the owner-occupancy requirement makes me uncomfortable from the perspective of an owner. I have to ask permission from the City to travel for more than 6 months of the year? What if my in-laws have health issues, and we need to spend time outside of Seattle for a year? I hadn’t even considered how much that would suck for a tenant in a typical rental situation.

    That was 4 years ago that we wanted to build a cottage, and this process to update the laws is still dragging on..

  2. Dave says:

    Good luck–all of the rules you mention stand in the way of both sustainable transit and housing affordability, I wish you well in your dealings with the city. It seems like many zoning requirements exist as something to prop up or maintain the increase in property values which is an idea that should be considered obsolete and socially destructive!

  3. asdf2 says:

    It seems like you could always set up planter boxes and garden over the “parking space” after the permits have been granted. As long as its a temporary structure that could theoretically be removed to store a car, would that not still comply with the letter of the law?

    (Yes, it’s absolutely crazy that you need to jump through all these hoops).

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Problem is that the space is on the north side of the house, so no sun :-(

      If we only had to build one (or, gasp, zero) parking spaces, the whole house would have been different.

      It’s ok, we’re determined to figure it out and make it all work. But it would be way easier for people going forward if these rules were changed.

      • Ian says:

        Although I agree that the parking rule is an unnecessary regulation that should be removed, isn’t there a way to study the parking use around your lot and seek an exemption from the requirement if you can demonstrate that adequate street parking exists nearby? It seems crazy an individual homeowner needs to do this, especially in light of the EIS findings, but if there is away around the current regulation it would seem worth undertaking for people unwilling to wait for new ADU policies. Tip 117 on the Seattle DCI website about ADUs outlines the scenarios in which you can request a waiver to the parking requirement.

  4. Lisa says:

    This is a great way to add density. From your article, it looks like you are building on a friend’s lot- do you have any advice or resources for how to make this work? I would love some sort of matching system with appropriate legally binding contracts where people who want to live in a backyard cottage and have funds (but not enough to buy a “real” house in Seattle) could match with people who have room for a backyard cottage.

    • Andres Salomon says:

      I’m aware of folks who have condo-ized their property with a backyard cottage. Basically, you build the backyard cottage (or mother-in-law unit), create a condo association which owns/maintains the whole property, and one family can own (perhaps just the interior of?) the backyard cottage (or MIL) while another family owns the main house. Those families share responsibility of running the condo association.

      My understanding is that this also gets around the owner-occupancy requirement, but I’m not a lawyer and I’m also betting that the owner-occupancy requirement itself would be found unconstitutional if actually challenged in court.

      • ronp says:

        Wow, that is a great concept. I wonder if I can monetize my backyard, tear down my detached single car garage and build a condo?

        I think it would be legal, city should not care if the cottage meets all zoning and building regulations? problem is when you go to sell your house. there might be a problem with the new owner who does not want “strangers” in their “back yard.” Or if the new owner of the backyard condo wants to sell, maybe you have the right of first purchase, but will a bank finance a somewhat non conforming single family home.

        Tom, can you tell us more about the financing and ownership of your new cool affordable, but small home?

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        This is worthy of an entire report of its own.

        We have been talking about make by our process public once it is all complete to help others. Ownership structure and financing are the two toughest questions, and there are a ton of different options. We chose to write a contract outlining and become minority owners of the full property. This is sort of modeled on a co-op structure, except without the co-op (financing a 2-Unit co-op proved rather difficult). The contract spells out what happens if one party wants to sell, defaults, dies, gets divorced, etc, so we’re on the same page.

        The easiest way by far to fund these is to get a home equity loan, especially since skyrocketing home values mean that homeowners across Seattle suddenly have a ton of free equity. Homeowners could finance it, then rent them to pay off the loan (plus a little bit of their mortgage, too). Or aging homeowners could finance them, then move into the smaller and more manageable space and rent the main house.

        Would be cool to compile all the different options for folks. Life goals.

      • Becky says:

        I have friends who are working on buying houses in groups (a couple of pairs of couples I know are doing this). They mentioned some realtors who specialize in this (but now I can’t find a link). Building a backyard cottage in the backyard of one owner is a slightly different scenario, but seems to fall into the general category of non-traditional arrangements that make homeownership a little more affordable, and there’d definitely be a market for a database of options and/or experts to hire to help with the process.

    • Maria says:

      As someone currently bidding on a house with an 8800 sqft lot that is perfect for a DADU, I would love to figure this out too.

      In a better world we could split the lot and sell the back half. Then there would be two small, straightforward properties, instead of a single expensive property with complicated ownership. While we’re dreaming here can’t we get rid of minimum lot size requirements?

      • ScottA says:

        An 8,800 SF lot in SF5000 zoned area of Seattle might pretty easily be at least divided into two lots assuming it’s not really steep or other complicating factors.

  5. Michael C. Lindblom says:

    Interesting piece. FWIW, my neighborhood lost population not through zoning rules, but because small houses that contained 2-4 children in the early baby-boom era are now mainly occupied by seniors, or by young couples without kids. The owners “aged out” and stayed in place. In the last few years, some young families — having children in their 30s or later — are moving back in. That’s part of a very long-running story in the older, detached-house parts of Seattle. In 2001 we wrote about “child free zones” in the city.
    http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20010408&slug=censkidless08m0

    I am not expressing an opinion here about where and how to add density, except that city code ought to require a bicycle-sized garage for Fiona. Good luck!

    • Andres Salomon says:

      BREAKING: Seattle Times reporter supports on-site bicycle parking requirements in single-family zones.

      I expect to see a full ST Traffic Lab article about this. :)

    • Breadbaker says:

      This issue is why we’re in the process of selling our home. It’s been empty of children for 14 years. We’ve moved into an apartment with a higher walk score than our home.

  6. Breadbaker says:

    This issue is why we’re in the process of selling our home. It’s been empty of children for 14 years. We’ve moved into an apartment with a higher walk score than our home.

  7. JB says:

    “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.”

    I wish I could get a refund for all the money I’ve paid for other people’s children, as I wisely decided not to help overpopulate my region by reproducing. But it doesn’t work that way. Congrats on being able to afford new construction though, even with the outrageous penalty of missing closet space.

  8. ScottA says:

    Maybe there’s a way to share ownership or condo-ize for a DADU but here’s one recent case where the city’s plan reviewer had to refuse:
    http://web6.seattle.gov/dpd/edms/GetDocument.aspx?id=3609151
    “Corrections
    1  Survey Sheet:
    Please remove the condominium sheet from the plan set. We are not able to approve a plan that includes a condominium in a residential area. This permit is for a DADU that is to be owned and associated with the existing lot.”

    • ronp says:

      I wondered how they enforced owner occupancy — “The owner occupancy covenant is ready to be recorded with the King County Recorder’s office. Once it has been recorded, please upload it with your corrections.”

      So any title transaction will show the requirement and if a bank loan is involved the buyer will be notified of the requirement. I wonder how many houses are sold with conforming backyard cottages nowadays and what the impact is on the selling price?

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  10. Guy says:

    The owner occupied aspect cuts both ways – it places a burden on owners, but if removed, developers will come in to neighborhoods, tear down modest bungalows and build a mega duplexes = Primary residence and ADU (Attached Dwelling Unit) and then max out a DADU (Detached Accessory Dwelling unit) in the rear yard. In many cases these structures will be built with a focus on maximizing return on investment and little regard to aesthetics. That may sound fine if you are renter, but if you are a homeowner and this happens up and down your street, it’s a negative.

    • Andres Salomon says:

      I’m assuming you have evidence of this happening in other cities, because it’s thrown around an awful lot as an excuse but doesn’t seem to actually happen.

      Developers seek a profit. If tearing down single family homes was profitable, we wouldn’t have very many older single family homes left. Instead, developers (not just in Seattle) choose to build larger apartment buildings with many units. That is what’s profitable. There’s no reason to believe that developers will suddenly tear down single family homes if ADU laws are liberalized. Instead, small landlords and homeowners will be the ones to benefit from less ridiculous ADU laws.

      Even the EIS ADU study pointed out that getting rid of a lot of the requirements (including owner-occupancy) would result in *fewer* teardowns.

    • RossB says:

      I have some news for you Guy — you can do that right now. There is nothing stopping someone from tearing down a house, and replacing it with a bigger house. It happens all the time. It tends to happen more with small houses, not big ones. That is because it isn’t worth tearing down a big house just so that you can make the house a little bit bigger.

      The same would be true for ADUs. It isn’t worth tearing down a big house to just add a couple units. It is much cheaper to just convert the house into an apartment. This is common in various parts of the country, and even common here. If you take a look at this map, you can dozens of examples that happened a while ago (before the zoning rules kicked in): https://jeffreylinn.carto.com/viz/681ff218-0a5d-11e6-8f50-0ea31932ec1d/embed_map. These all look like regular houses, but they contain multiple units (typically two or three).

      So, basically, if they don’t change the rules, it is quite likely that all small houses will be torn down, and replaced by big houses. If they do change the rules, some of the small houses will be torn down and replaced by the type of thing you fear. Meanwhile, the bigger old houses will either contain “one family” or several. I fail to see the difference from an aesthetic standpoint.

      Speaking of aesthetics, the worst thing to happen to housing design in this city was the result of requiring parking. Look at some of the really nice old apartments. Now look at some of the ugly duplexes built in the 70s and 80s. The big difference — the newer buildings had parking. So instead of this: https://goo.gl/maps/9rv7GEP3pHk, we now have this: https://goo.gl/maps/3Pr3LstJysS2. Zoning helped cause that.

    • will skubi says:

      Shucks— I’m a current homeowner and I’d do exactly that right now if I had the chance.

      A neighbor a couple of houses away from me started converting a detached garage into a housing unit, but got a stop work order from the city.

  11. PSJ says:

    Tom – good for you on pursuing a DADU, even though the process is sub-optimal. I do have a comment on the “owner-occupied” aspect. (I apologize if it’s a little tin-foil hat-like). A number of large corporations have started investing in (I.e., acquiring) a high volume rental properties. They are easily able to aggressively outbid private buyers due to tax structures and financing tools not available to individuals. I believe that this trend represents the vanguard of “corporatization” of housing – and with it, further removing the ability of individuals to accumulate wealth and control their own lives. At first glance, this idea may seem absurd: but look at the distribution of wealth and the growing power of corporate “persons” in American society.
    I think that this rule is at least be a minor impediment to this trend. (I also think that corporations are not “persons”, and that their influence should be sharply curtailed).

  12. Peri Hartman says:

    Boy, this is a complicated and touch subject. I strongly support ADUs and DADUs. But it’s easy to imagine how the land use ordinance could be misused.

    Take owner occupied, for example. If not, then what currently is owner occupied becomes essentially three apartments, further decreasing the amount of home ownership. Generally, home ownership is considered an asset to neighborhood quality, whether it be SF, condos, or townhouses.

    Or, consider relaxing the structures that can be can be DADUs. Quickly, you could end up replacing something that looks more or less single family with a small condo or townhouse project. Appropriate in some places but not in character with the single family look. Personally, I think the single family neighborhoods are part of the quality of life in Seattle, even if you don’t live in one – you still benefit from the more open space and more quiet nature. (Disclaimer: I live in a multifamily zoned area in an old house with and ADU.)

    Parking: I’m less concerned about this issue. People balk because those that already use free street parking don’t want to lose that privilege. I think parking, in general, will take care of itself. In higher priced areas, developers will provide private parking because it is an asset. But in general, if you want to own a car, and want to live in the city, be prepared to pay the price.

    I hope the city comes up with something that is open enough to allow more affordable in city housing without destroying the quality of our single family neighboorhoods. Ideally, that might be a house-like structure with a bottom or top level ADU and a small DADU in the backyard, not too different from a detached garage. But if someone builds a two story with gable roof DADU in the back yard, I can see how that would anger the neighbors who want some sunlight to reach their yard.

    Of course, if everyone used a bike or an e-bike as their primary vehicle, parking would be so much less of a problem :)

  13. I am a Accessory Unit Dweller.
    Therefore, I agree with all of the affected property oweners.
    Starting a petion and marching is the only way to change these archaic methodologies that don’t work!

  14. Erik says:

    SeattleBackyardCottageBlog.com

  15. juliette says:

    I know I am coming to this very late, but I am curious about y’all’s perspective on this: I kinda get the owner-occupy rule. Two reasons:
    1 – am anxious about developers buying sweet, older homes, tearing them down to build 2 or 3 rentals. All this development happening in my neighborhood (QA) in the multi-family zones are so sad looking, people warehousing units. Super cheaply made and not at all homey neighbors.
    2 – I think the person who builds a backyard cottage, who knows it will be his/her/their neighbor, will have a greater incentive to build an attractive, neighborly project and thus create an asset to the community at large.
    Any thoughts?

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  17. will skubi says:

    There are reasons why changing regulations such as parking might be made, but the whiny complaining of the person used for purposes of illustration are just selfish.

    The idea that I don’t have a car and that therefore no one else that will live in the cottage in the next hundred years will either is simply bogus reasoning.

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