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Proposed bill released to encourage construction of Backyard Cottages

Posted by Danielle Anthony-Goodwin on May 25th, 2016

Last week, Councilmember Mike O’Brien released a proposal that would make it easier for more homeowners to build backyard cottages and mother-in-law units in Seattle.

According to O’Brien, as of December 2015, 221 backyard cottages had been constructed or permitted in Seattle since Council authorized their use in 2009, despite approximately 75,000 single-family lots that are eligible to build one.

Backyard cottages, also called detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs), are separate living spaces on the same property as an existing single-family house. Mother-in-law units, also referred to as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), are separate living units generally located within a single-family house. Both are currently allowed in single-family zones.

Councilmember O’Brien heard feedback that current regulations put significant burdens on homeowners deciding to build backyard cottages or mother-in-law units.

The proposed bill makes a series of changes to the existing backyard cottage and mother-in-law unit building code, including:

  • Allowing both a backyard cottage and mother-in-law unit on the same lot, which provides additional housing options while maintaining the character and appearance of the property.
  • Increasing the height limit for backyard cottages by 1-2 feet, depending on lot width, which would allow enough livable space to make two-bedroom units more feasible. Setback requirements from property edges would not change.
  • Removing the requirement for owners to include an off-street parking space for backyard cottages or mother-in-law unit. Currently, this requirement often requires removal of green space on the property. Feedback found the parking requirement was prohibitive in creating new backyard cottages, as additional parking spaces were either unnecessary or unable to fit on the lot. For single-family lots outside urban villages or urban centers, the one required off-street parking space for a single-family house requirement will still apply.
  • If a backyard cottage is only one-story, its floor area may cover up to 60% of the rear yard (currently 40%), creating a large enough livable space for those unable to use stairs. Existing setback requirements from the lot edge would not change.
  • Requiring that the property owner live on-site for at least one year after a backyard cottage or mother-in-law unit is created, rather than the current requirement that the owner live on-site at least 6 months out of every year in perpetuity. The requirement prevents speculative developers from acquiring property and building backyard cottages that don’t fit the character of the neighborhood, while allowing the owner future flexibility for those who don’t want, or are unable to continue living on-site.
  • Allowing backyard cottages on lots 3,200 square feet or greater in area (currently 4,000 square feet), which would make approximately 7,300 additional parcels eligible to provide this additional housing option.
  • Increasing the maximum gross floor area of a backyard cottage to 1,000 square feet (currently 800 square feet), which would provide more livable area and increase the likelihood of two-bedroom backyard cottages to better serve families with children.
  • If a backyard cottage is built above a garage, the garage square footage will no longer count toward the maximum floor area, which often results in an unreasonably small living space.
  • Additional changes can be found here.

“By expanding the availability of backyard cottages and mother-in-law units, someone might be able move to a neighborhood they otherwise couldn’t afford while helping a homeowner who needs an extra source of income to afford to stay where they are.  It’s a win-win,” says Councilmember O’Brien.

The legislation was developed utilizing feedback from neighborhood community meetings, from architects, and from current backyard cottage owners. A summary of the public feedback is available online. The Office of Planning & Community Development, also conducted an analysis of current backyard cottages in Seattle and a review of peer cities’ backyard cottage model.

“After reading the new proposed changes for backyard cottages, there are definitely some new rules which would have greatly benefited this particular project,” says Janice Reebs, a backyard cottage owner in the Sunset Hill neighborhood.

The SEPA environmental determination on the draft proposal was published May 19, 2016. Comments may be submitted through June 2, 2016.

The proposal is scheduled for consideration in the Council’s Planning, Land Use & Zoning Committee in July.

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16 reader comments so far ↓

  • 1 Sam // May 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    This is an interesting proposal. Clearly, the city is pushing for further density in areas like Ballard. My only concern, as a Ballard resident, is if the city has done its due diligence on the impact (negative) this will have on traffic.

    In the six years I’ve lived here, traffic has continued to spiral out of control to the point where I have to find creative routes through side streets, etc. just to get somewhere within a reasonable amount of time.

    I’ve yet to see any plans to mitigate the traffic caused as a direct result of increased density here. (And if you’re going to say take the bus, I’d like to ask you to take the bus during a morning commute downtown.. standing room only and bus riders are often told to wait for the next bus.. maybe more buses is the answer, idk.)

    I’d like to see a traffic plan that would address this along with this discussion!

  • 2 HB // May 25, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    Let’s cram every inch of space full of “housing.” Once a year is up, they’ll have more absentee landlords. No additional parking. Keep up the good work, Mike O’Brien and Mayor Walsh! Who gives a crap if the quality of life in Ballard is deteriorating more as each day goes by. These guys are going to run this city right into the ground.

  • 3 Clean Shaven // May 25, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    No bill has ever made something easier.

    However anything that increases the housing supply is helpful to the people of this city. We can’t stop people from moving here but we can stop preventing new housing from being created.

  • 4 skeptic // May 25, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    I see developers using loopholes to build things that are not per code all over this town. New houses that definitely take up more than 35% of the lot they are on. What is to stop a developer from asking for a waiver from the 35% rule because several other properties on the street have homes that cover more than 35% of the lot. And how far away will that be from having two pretty big houses on one lot? I think your asking for trouble doing things this way. Instead provide low interest loans or tax advantages to people who put in backyard cottages within the laws that exist now.

  • 5 bart // May 26, 2016 at 12:26 am

    @Sam,
    I take the bus downtown from Ballard everyday and I can’t remember the last time it was ‘standing room only’ or that I had to wait for another bus to come.

    I usually catch the rapid ride at 65th and 15th– is it really different in other parts of Ballard?

    @skeptic,
    Please show me a single-family house in a single-family zone that takes up more than 35% of the property. I believe the rules are slightly different for smaller lots, but still in this range.
    I just don’t see so-called ‘loop-hole’ houses being built in our neighborhood.

  • 6 Overcass // May 26, 2016 at 8:16 am

    I know the bus in our neighborhood usually has plenty of room early in the morning. But the bus situation in Ballard seems pretty poor, unless you live close to 24th or 15th, or 8th (where there are buses running at night, on weekends, and during midday). The walk to and from the nearest regular bus route is about 1 mile, which isn’t bad during daylight, but unsettling after dark. So building a house without parking for a family, who will have limited bus service, seems ludicrous. Sure, there’s Uber, but I think that probably works better for singles and childless couples. Regardless, backyard cottages are probably necessary. I remember seeing them in California, and they did help provide housing and allowed homeowners to stay in their homes longer.

  • 7 meh. // May 26, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Sam, Do you really think that this is going to noticeably increase the density, or even traffic of Ballard compared to the hundreds, nay, thousands of new apartments coming online?
    There just aren’t that many lots that even qualify for the DADU rules, let alone the homeowners in a financial position to build one. I’d be shocked if we saw more than a few dozen DADUs over the next ten years in Ballard. We will see many more apartments, condos, and more homes torn down and subdivided into multiple homes.
    The reality is that Seattle’s population is growing without any way to add more road capacity. Traffic is only going to get worse especially if we fail to provide more mass transit and other options besides cars.
    I drive too and I realize this is the reality. Remember, you’re not “in traffic” you are the traffic.

  • 8 Greydon Clark // May 26, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    @7 “Traffic is only going to get worse especially if we fail to provide more mass transit and other options besides cars.”

    You are right. We’ll see what ST3 looks like in June, but right now, for Ballard, it is a joke.

  • 9 Exxon Valdez // May 27, 2016 at 7:31 pm

    “We’ll see what ST3 looks like in June”

    June 2035? Cuz that’s how long the wait is.

    God I love it when an urbanist gets run over by a car.

  • 10 bolide // May 28, 2016 at 12:04 am

    When only 221 cottages have been built on 75,000 eligible lots, what’s the point of relaxing the rules to make more lots eligible?

  • 11 Obsequious // May 28, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    I’m buying surplus Quonset huts and gonna fill the yard with ’em. Rent them to the down on their luck and make a mint, maybe.

  • 12 Marianne // May 29, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    @#10 bolide,

    Did you read the article? That is only one small change being proposed (which will only yield an additional 7,300 eligible properties).

    The other rules being relaxed will provide incentive for more homeowners to consider this option.

    I think this is a good direction myself

  • 13 dan f. // May 30, 2016 at 9:17 am

    When only 221 cottages have been built on 75,000 eligible lots, what’s the point of relaxing the rules to make more lots eligible?

    To get more of them built, but also to better respect the rights of property owners and give them more freedom. The rules we currently have in place really are far too overly restrictive. To the greatest extent possible, we should give people the freedom to do what they want with their property. Just because other people enjoy hoarding public resources for themselves (like public parking and roadspace) is no reason to gut the concept of property rights.

  • 14 celizabeth // May 30, 2016 at 10:27 pm

    One step at time..it is premature to relax the residency requirements. The main thing that will protect the stability of our single family neighborhoods, is the requirement that the the primary owner still actually reside in the house 6 months of the year. Changing that to ‘one year after creation the mil or cottage’ is a slippery slope. Why don’t they eliminate the dpd issues with building & permitting & wait to see if the next drastic step ever needs to be taken.

  • 15 Sam // May 31, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    @meh.
    Point taken. So what, exactly is the point of relaxing the dadu requirements if people who can already build them choose not to? So someone with a tiny lot can now build a cottage out back? Wouldn’t it be better to have them just scrape and build some proper row or townhouses in areas where the increased density makes sense?

    I think any of these methods of circumventing proper zoning requirements are absolutely ridiculous. Why can’t the City of Seattle just complete its due diligence, rezone areas that make sense (include a traffic study and, no, the majority of people will not ride a bike), and go from there?

  • 16 Lynn Phelps // Sep 9, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    Late comment but chiming in. Hope this goes through at some point. At least the square foot cap. With the current limit of 800, and wanting at least a 2 car garage with workshop, our desire for a MIL over it is probably not going to make financial sense as an investment. Just not enough space.

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