(This article was contributed by Sophie Hayes, a journalism student at the University of Washington.)
The city’s Office of Planning and Community Development is encouraging what they believe could be one solution to Seattle’s housing crisis: backyard cottages.
Backyard cottages, or detached accessory dwelling units, are small homes built on already-existing lots. Homeowners in single-family residential neighborhoods in Seattle have had the option to build them since 2010. Some homeowners rent them out for additional income, while others use them to expand their living quarters.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien is spearheading the project and aims to make the process of building backyard cottages easier.
O’Brien has heard from homeowners who are interested in building a backyard cottage, but aren’t able to due to various restrictions, he said. He’s also heard from people who would want to live in one. “I see it as an opportunity to add some more housing supply to desirable neighborhoods,” he said. “It seems like a win-win and there seem to be regulations that may not be necessary and getting in the way of that happening.”
While backyard cottages have been legal citywide since 2010, only 221 have been built. Seattle has 40 percent fewer homes on the market than it did a year ago, and housing prices have risen 12 percent.
Portland’s backyard cottage industry has been successful in the city’s easing of restrictions. In the midst of the housing crisis that Seattle is facing, backyard cottages are seen as one solution to providing more housing options and helping homeowners remain in their homes through additional rental income.
On Feb. 3, the Office of Planning and Community Development held a community meeting at the Wallingford Senior Center. The second of two meetings collecting community input, Wednesday’s meeting was a chance for the Wallingford community to weigh in on policy changes regarding backyard cottages that the city is considering. While the basement only had seats for about 30, nearly 100 people squeezed in to hear O’Brien’s responses to questions and concerns from community members.
The room was split between those who want to see more backyard cottages in Seattle and those who fear that backyard cottages will change the dynamics of their neighborhoods. Hands shot in the air after the conclusion of each comment, people hoping they would be called on next.
To qualify for building a backyard cottage, the property owner must reside in the main home, though the cottage can be rented out. This is one of the current restrictions the city is considering removing.
It was also a point of contention at the meeting: some community members fear their neighborhoods could become dominated by renters, while others need the additional income.
“I think it’s a great idea, but I’m also very involved in our neighborhood block watch,” long-time Wallingford resident Margaret Ford said. “While we welcome renters into our neighborhood, they’re just not involved.”
O’Brien doesn’t “subscribe to the view that renters are a bad thing.” People living in neighborhoods, regardless if they rent or own, are beneficial to Seattle’s neighborhoods, he said.
Carol Sterling agrees with O’Brien. She is considering a backyard cottage, but is unable to because of the owner-occupancy restriction. She rents the property that she would build the cottage on to her kids. Because she doesn’t live there herself, she can’t legally build a backyard cottage.
“If we want to keep the city vibrant and alive and have young people who can afford to live here, we have to think a little differently,” Sterling said. She hopes to eventually retire in her home and to secure affordable living for her kids. “If I could put a custom cottage in the backyard, then I would be able to meet all those needs.”
The city is also considering removing the parking requirement for backyard cottages. Right now, building a backyard cottage also requires the construction of an off-street parking space.
This was another point of conflict at the meeting. Some claimed that parking in their neighborhoods is already too crowded. Others said that because so many people don’t own cars and instead rely on public transportation, a parking spot shouldn’t be required.
Other discussed policy changes to allow backyard cottages in more places, include: reducing the minimum size of lots that are allowed to build cottages, allowing both an attached dwelling unit and backyard cottage on the same lot, increasing the height-limit for cottages, and increasing the percentage of yard coverage a backyard cottage can take up.
In 2014, the city council adopted a resolution that called for policy changes to increase production of backyard cottages. The city will begin to draft legislation in late February or March after community input is collected.