Backyard cottages (or detached accessory dwelling units) aren’t exactly a new thing in Seattle. But for a long time, construction of new ones wasn’t allowed anywhere. Following the trend of many other cities locally and afar, Seattle began a demonstration program for new backyard cottages in 2006. Then in 2012, the City expanded the scope of the backyard cottages provisions to allow them to be built more widely. The City estimates that more than 75,000 single-family residential lots (about 60% of all single-family residential lots) may be eligible for a backyard cottage.

Location of backyard cottages finaled by year. (City of Seattle)
Location of backyard cottages finaled by year. (City of Seattle)

Despite this, the number of new builds has been staggering low. To date, roughly 159 backyard cottage dwelling units have been built under the 2012 law, and by some counts, the rate of production is less than three new backyard cottages per month. It’s true that not everyone may want or need another home on their property, but city planners wondered what, if anything, might be holding back many more homeowners from taking advantage of the housing option. Their research explored why current backyard cottage homeowners decided to build their units, what challenges they faced in making their dream a reality, and what they might do to improve City regulations and process.

For instance, planners found that 70% of respondents felt that development standards like setbacks, height limits, and lot coverage were major barriers to building a backyard cottage. Another 52% said that off-street parking was a serious challenge. The research also found that the number one reason for building a backyard cottage was to house family members, with guests and visitors as a close second.

Planners from the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) are still in the public outreach phase of the project, but draft legislation will be developed later next month after hearing from stakeholders. Two upcoming meetings will be held in the north and south ends of Seattle so that community members can learn about backyard cottages and discuss ideas for changes. OPCD staff and Councilmember Mike O’Brien will be on hand for both events with the first evening meeting scheduled for next week and another to follow in early February.

Tuesday, January 19th
6pm to 7.30pm
Filipino Community Center
5740 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way S

Wednesday, February 3rd
6pm to 7.30pm
Wallingford Community Senior Center
4649 Sunnyside Ave N

For specific information on the project, refer to the planning page on the topic. You can also provide feedback to Nick Welch, Project Manager, and Councilmember Mike O’Brien.

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Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.