Editor’s note: In light of the recent ruling in favor of the Queen Anne Community Council’s appeal over detached accessory dwelling units (DADU) reform passed by the City Council, there is a great deal of false information permeating the public debate over this issue. We are republishing this article from June by Caleb Heeringa about backyard cottages as it has only become more relevant now. We also picked apart the Seattle Times’ recent editorial on the issue. 

Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s legislation that seeks to encourage more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments hit a snag last week, as the Queen Anne Community Council filed an appeal with the City’s hearing examiner that will delay the legislation for at least three to six months.

With its talk of a “full assault upon our single-family neighborhoods,” the community council’s opposition to this legislation (as well as related proposals to diversify the types of housing in single-family zones as part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) paints a picture of radical changes to the density and character of Queen Anne, turning quiet residential streets into dense, traffic-choked thoroughfares.

Luckily, we don’t need to imagine what Queen Anne and other neighborhoods would feel like with more of this type of housing—we’re blessed with living examples all around us. Jeffrey Linn’s excellent work mapping all of the multi-family housing (including duplexes and triplexes) in the city’s single-family zones shows how much of the city is already living the community council’s nightmare and enjoying themselves just fine, thank you.

Multi-family housing in Queen Anne single-family zones. (Jeffrey Linn)
Multi-family housing in Queen Anne single-family zones. (Jeffrey Linn)

As a resident of one of these neighborhoods and someone who has lived in (and been priced out of) this type of housing in multiple neighborhoods around the city, I can assure the community council that it’s not what they fear. I currently live near the corner of 10th and Howe, in an older apartment building a block away from a single-family zone (along 10th Avenue West and Olympic Way West) that features just about every conceivable type of housing stock: multi-million dollar single-family homes, modest old brick ramblers, Craftsman homes that have been converted into multiple units, duplexes, triplexes, ADUs, DADUs, old apartment buildings, and brand new apartment buildings. While I’m sure the neighborhood isn’t immune to a parking or noise conflict here or there, for the most part it’s a wonderful place to live.

This is the “Missing Middle” that is increasingly lacking our city—modestly sized housing units that provide a middle ground between apartment living and homeownership, which is increasingly becoming a pipe dream for middle-class Seattleites. It’s also the kind of housing that may soon be allowed city-wide in Portland, but is apparently political kryptonite in Seattle.

This kind of housing has provided a perfect option for my wife and I. It’s allowed us to enjoy the benefits of living in neighborhoods that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, being two young professionals who had the misfortune of the Great Recession occurring during our 20s. I don’t bring this up seeking pity, but only to serve as an illustration for how housing affordability affects the entire economic spectrum. We’re middle-class white people with dual income and no children; I can’t imagine what it must be like to watch rents rise for single parents, disadvantaged communities, the disabled, or those living on fixed incomes or Section 8 housing vouchers.

To hear the community council tell it, HALA’s proposed changes to single-family zones, including removing barriers to the construction of ADUs and DADUs, ignore the spirit of Queen Anne’s Neighborhood Plan and previous neighborhood planning processes.

Given the multiple stakeholders and viewpoints that go into their production, these plans inherently contain conflicting goals and policies. But the community council seems to be subjectively cherry picking which of the Neighborhood Plan goals and policies should be honored and which should be ignored.

QA-P5 reads:

Encourage an attractive range of housing types and housing strategies to retain Queen Anne’s eclectic residential character and to assure that housing is available to a diverse population.

With its opposition to efforts to encourage ADUs, DADUs, and other forms of housing diversity, the community council seems to be dismissing this goal out of hand.

Can you tell the duplex and single-family home apart? (Google Streetview)
Can you tell the duplex and single-family home apart? (Google Streetview)

The community council’s contention that ADUs/DADUs won’t provide affordable housing (Page 6) seems to misunderstand the benefit of adding this type of housing and is indicative of something that often gets overlooked in discussions about housing affordability—the middle class. To my knowledge, no one is contending that the owner of a single-family home will build an ADU or DADU and rent it out for $350 a month out of the goodness of their heart. (Though some very well may rent below market value for friends or family or in hopes of retaining a good tenant year to year.)

HALA contains many strategies aimed at providing housing for those that make 60% or less of median income, including the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, the expansion of Seattle’s Housing Levy, and direct investment in existing affordable housing stock. But the plan also speaks to the need to create additional market-rate housing for those at or around 100% of the median income, like my wife and I and thousands of other Seattle residents. A City survey found that most ADUs and DADUs rent between $1,200 and $1,800. A household making the city’s median income of around $67,000 and spending 25% of their income on housing would expect to pay about $1,400 a month on housing, making the DADU and ADU right in their sweet spot.

The concern about the role that short-term rentals such as Airbnb or VRBO plays on Seattle’s housing market is valid, and something that the City is currently seeking to address. But opposing the creation of new, moderately affordable housing stock because some of it may be used as short-term rentals overlooks that homeowners may be using that extra income from to help pay off mortgage costs. The City’s survey of DADU owners found that 43% of DADU owners found short-term rental income “very important” or “somewhat important.” Significantly more DADU owners (60%) said that the income from long-term rentals was “very important” or “somewhat important,” suggesting that more of these are being used as permanent rentals than vacation rentals.

QA-P12 reads:

Legal non-conforming uses exist in Queen Anne’s single-family neighborhoods, and these shall be allowed to remain at their current intensity, as provided in the Land Use Code, to provide a compatible mix and balance of use types and housing densities.

This goal seems to coincide with SF:1c in the HALA Plan (“Develop a clemency program to legitimize undocumented ADUs and DADUs”), which would help legitimize existing affordable housing stock in Queen Anne. By questioning these units’ “legal right to exist,” the community council appears to be suggesting that the duplexes, triplexes, ADUs, and DADUs that predate existing zoning code and were “grandfathered in” should be eliminated, which is surely the wrong direction to be moving during an affordability crisis in our city.

QA-P19 reads:

Promote methods of ensuring that existing housing stock will enable changing households to remain in the same home or neighborhood for many years.

ADUs and DADUs can play a vital role in helping meet this goal. ADUs and DADUs can provide flexibility for families that experience changing circumstances. There’s a reason they are often referred to as “mother-in-law apartments”—ADUs and DADUs can provide a separate living area for a child home from college for the summer or an ageing parent. The City’s survey found that 77% of DADU owners said that they built the extra unit for this reason.

Two great examples of multi-family housing in a single-family neighborhood, near the corner of 10th Avenue West and West Blaine Street. (Google Streetview)
Two great examples of multi-family housing in a single-family neighborhood, near the corner of 10th Avenue West and West Blaine Street. (Google Streetview)

They also make it possible for an ageing homeowner who wants to downsize to stay in the same neighborhood while renting out their primary residence. A DADU could also provide a place for an in-home care provider to stay. The City’s survey indicated that 32% of DADU owners said it was “very important” or “somewhat important” to have the extra unit to house a “live-in service provider such as a childcare provider, assisted living professional or property caretaker.”

QA-P29 reads:

Strive to diversify transportation modes and emphasize non-SOV travel within the Queen Anne neighborhood.

QA-P37 reads:

Strive to provide improved facilities for transit.

With limited public funds, transit agencies are often forced to prioritize service to the most productive routes based on ridership. On the east side of Queen Anne, King County Metro is currently in the process of consolidating the 3 and 4 routes into a combined corridor, making a longer walk to transit service for approximately 120 to 135 riders per day in single-family neighborhoods. Adding more residents to these areas puts Queen Anne in a better position to argue for more frequent transit service, particularly given its relatively close proximity to regional job centers like Downtown and South Lake Union.

Finally, the community council’s appeal of the City’s Office of Planning and Community Development Determination of Nonsignificance on this legislation questions the environmental implications of allowing more ADUs and DADUs in our community, but makes no mention of the largest environmental threat facing this generation—carbon and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change. As Queen Anne residents, we are truly blessed to live in a walkable, bikeable, and transit-rich community that is in close proximity to job centers in Downtown and South Lake Union. Nixing potential housing units in our community does one of two things (and probably a little of both): it drives up the price of existing housing stock as more people compete for a fixed amount of housing, and it pushes residents who would prefer to live in Queen Anne to further flung neighborhoods and suburbs, where they are more likely to commute to work via more carbon-intensive transportation options. Land use and transportation is where the rubber meets the road on climate change, and as residents of a neighborhood well-suited to low-carbon lifestyles, we have a responsibility to the next generation to welcome more neighbors into our communities.

Calling Seattle’s rising rents a “crisis” isn’t hyperbole—by some metrics, Seattle is one of the only major metro areas in the country where the pace of rent increases is actually accelerating—from 8% in 2014-2015 to 12% in 2015-2016. Job growth in Seattle shows no signs of slowing in the immediate future, which means housing will be no less in demand in the coming years. Even at last year’s more modest 8% rate, we’re on pace to be at San Francisco levels (~$4,500 a month) in 8 years. I don’t believe that outcome—a beautiful coastal city that has no place for the middle class—is consistent with the community values of the Seattle that I know.

Even if Councilmember O’Brien’s optimistic projection of 4,000 new units city-wide becomes a reality, DADUs and ADUs alone aren’t going to solve our affordability crisis. But they do represent low-hanging fruit in the effort to provide more housing in our city. They provide more options for middle class Seattleites while respecting the aesthetic and architectural character of our existing single-family neighborhoods. The community council’s opposition to efforts to encourage this type of housing is inconsistent with many of the community’s stated planning goals and counter-productive in the fight to ensure that the middle class still has an outside chance at calling Seattle home in 2030.

Caleb Heeringa is a former journalist that has worked for the Bellingham Herald and Sammamish Review. He is pursuing Master’s Degrees in Urban Planning and Public Administration at the University of Washington. He likes his cities dense, his wilderness wild, and his baseball teams winning.

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The Urbanist encourages dialogue on important urban issues through guest contributions. Over the years, we've had dozens of guest authors share their opinions and insights ranging from commentary on current events to community interviews and researched think pieces. If you would like to see your name behind a byline on The Urbanist, feel free to reach out to our Editorial Team at editorial[at]theurbanist[dot]org.
The Urbanist encourages dialogue on important urban issues through guest contributions. Over the years, we've had dozens of guest authors share their opinions and insights ranging from commentary on current events to community interviews and researched think pieces. If you would like to see your name behind a byline on The Urbanist, feel free to reach out to our Editorial Team at editorial[at]theurbanist[dot]org.

33 COMMENTS

  1. 4,000 units doesn’t sound very optimistic to me. If anything it greatly undersells the potential we have in increasing density in single family zoned neighborhoods. In Vancouver B. C. over one third the houses have ADUs of some sort. We have about 140,000 detached houses. If we managed to 45,000 units, then we would still be behind Vancouver B. C.

    It could all be achieved if the city liberalized the rules. There is plenty of churn in the market, landlord owned houses and home owners who want to make a few bucks. They can easily generate this kind of housing if allowed to do so. Unlike waiting for someone to tear down a perfectly good house (or small warehouse) and put up an apartment building, it makes financial sense to build this thing now. It also will makes sense even if there is a rent bubble, and prices dramatically fall. The cost of construction is minimal — backyard cottages can be built for 150 grand, typically, and a basement apartment is often much cheaper. The net cost per place is tiny, because you lose so little of the value of the existing property (most people don’t mind if there is a house next to them). The end result is that building them is likely, even if we manage to push down rents by building new apartments.

  2. Home ownership is what makes Seattle great, we need to keep that a viable option and goal for all. No need to fight market forces and subsidize what people cannot afford.

    • What exactly does that mean? Are you suggesting we allow subdivisions all over the city, instead of forcing people to own ridiculously large lots? if so, then I’m all for that. Basically that would mean allowing market forces to build what people want to buy — more homes.

      • Yep we live in a detached house on a 2,500 SF lot – impossible to build now since the City Council changed the rules not to allow homes like ours. We can afford more SF of land, but we didn’t and don’t want it. 200% bad all around policy: force people who can afford it to buy more land than they want, in the process making more homes for more people who can’t less available. Just brilliant … /

  3. Too bad the City chose not to take their Backyard Cottage proposal back to the community. They got a pretty receptive audience at their two public forums last winter (I attended both). The feedback from a second round of such events would’ve allowed them to tweak their draft and perhaps avoid the QACC appeal. But instead, their community outreach was “one and done,” and they reverted to the bureaucratic Top Down model still preferred by many in City Hall.

    • It is hard to say whether it would have made a difference. It is similar to the Burke Gilman “missing link”. Almost everyone in the neighborhood wants it. This includes the businesses, and certainly the residents. But a handful of people oppose it, and they managed to get the thing tied up in the courts for years.

      The same thing could easily happen with zoning. A majority of the city supports liberalizing the zoning rules or at the very least, supports elected representatives that do. Opponents of such changes had their candidates, and those candidates were crushed at the ballot box. But the mayor chickened out almost immediately, and preferred to focus on making cosmetic feel good changes instead (the so called “grand bargain”). When O’Brien’s proposal, which had been watered down to try and please zoning conservatives passed, those same opponents didn’t care, and did the same thing that the BG missing link opponents did: tie it up in the courts.

      • What the mayor and O’Brien both understand is that few voters have any interest in land use zoning, or even know what it is. And that’s the way they like it. When something like HALA SF.2 starts to get exposure in the press, it gets buried and cloned to a more obscure place like the comprehensive plan or backyard cottage legislation. O’Brien didn’t try to please anyone but developers with his legislation. The opponents were the tiny minority of neighborhood land use wonks that understood what it was about, and he didn’t think they could make anyone else understand. Turned out to be not exactly right – they got through to a hearing examiner.

  4. Why does your article leave out the single most despised part of this law: that the owner/landlord will have to live in one of the units (this is current law). We are building an ADU in our basement right now and I am very versed in what’s going on, and that part is the only part I’m against. But articles like this talk as though this change will do something to help people like me: it won’t! We can already build an ADU or a DADU. Yes, this will make it slightly easier for certain areas/lot sizes, and that’s fine. But why remove the residency requirement? That’s the bit that people oppose.

    I honestly want to know what The Urbanist thinks on this, as I am a regular reader.

    • Also, if anyone’s interested in taking this on, please consider potential solutions. I mean, supposing that owner occupancy is a good thing in principle, is there a less onerous way to make it happen, than the provisions in the current covenant? I’m pretty sure there is.

    • Benjamin, thanks for reading!

      This piece is from a guest author and represents his views as he wished to disseminate them. The organization has not endorsed a specific position on that policy as we generally share ideas of staff and contributors as opposed to decreeing absolute positions as a body. It is telling, however, that a majority of respondents to the City’s survey supported elimination of the requirement.

      It seems to me a variety of factors are driving the opposition to the new ADU law, and it’s not necessarily clear the residency requirement is the primary one. Some arguments against the new ADU law are process focused; other fixate on neighborhood character or the idea that we are fueling speculation and developer greed. (To me it seem dubious building small homes one or two at a time would be a big money maker over the alternative of just building or remodeling to create a McMansion-type home if a property owner is seeking a quick return. Personally I’m more interested in anti-McMansion regulations like Portland is developing as a means to further economic mixing and discourage gentrification rather than discouraging granny flats and backyard cottages.)

      Meanwhile, arguments against the residency requirement have often focused on the additional hurdles it places on building more housing and. moreover, have attacked one of the ideas the requirement seems predicated upon: that renters are inferior neighbors. Following that line of reason, residency requirements encourage anti-renter sentiment by encouraging the idea that owner occupancy in a neighborhood is preferred.

      If you’re interested in sharing your opinion in an article, we’d welcome that. The residency requirement debate does have strong arguments on both sides.

      • Two points: The linked survey doesn’t ask if the city should remove the requirement, it asks if people think it is a barrier to adding more ADUs/DADUs. That’s a wholely different question.

        Also the one community organization quoted here (QACC) does list it as one of the many things they don’t like.

        While I may have used a little hyperbole in my original statement, it certainly is one of the ones that is discussed regularly.

        Also, you’re being a bit hyperbolic when you say “one of the ideas the requirement seems predicated upon: that renters are inferior neighbors.” That’s not what the argument about this part of the law is. No one is saying “renters are inferior neighbors.”

        • You’re right that “predicated” is likely too strong a phrase, but they tend to go hand in hand in my experience. Plenty have made the renters are bad for the neighborhood argument. To my face. And often since it is a HALA recommendation and would affect single family zones, the same people also oppose the new ADU law. Now, that doesn’t preclude some folks from supporting the residency requirement for reasons other that anti-renter sentiment.

          I should have simply asked more directly, why do you think we should keep the residency requirement?

          • East coast college towns where large old houses are cup up into smaller units. The yards aren’t taken care of, the houses don’t get the upkeep, etc etc. Anecdotal, I know.

            Edited to add: I think that changing this rule is in effect a backdoor to what they actually should do: allow triplexes (or whatever the term is) in the zoning. Remove it from the discussion of ADUs, which should be about adding new housing into existing houses by subdividing them. If a builder wants to build a new building with three units in it, then it should be built as a 3 unit building, not as a “primary with ADU and DADU” or whatever. Then people will be able to argue about the merits of the proposal rather than misunderstandings about what the intentions are.

          • Home ownership changes the game, in such significant ways that you have to deliberately blind yourself in order to pretend to see no difference. To see that, and to see the value of home ownership, is not to “encourage anti-renter sentiment.”

            Single family neighborhoods are able to survive just fine with a lot of renters. Some of these renters are really no different. Read for example the article recently re-posted on Crosscut, from a renter in Ballard, who was very much about growing roots there. But of course the article is about how they were evicted after the house was sold out from under them. We have neighbors who are a lot like that, and it will be a real tragedy for the neighborhood when it happens to them, but it will, and that’s the reality of transience that makes renters collectively different, and makes individual renters who are just like their homeowner neighbors fairly unusual. I know this is an uncomfortable direction of thought for us, but the alternative is to expect people to deny common sense and their own experience, in order to accommodate an ideological principle.

            And O’Brien’s initiative compounds this with another accessory unit for a total of 3 units per lot, and the hearing examiner found that the combination could tilt the economics significantly towards conversion from equity asset to income property. These two were bad enough on their own, but together much worse.

          • If we accept that home ownership is the preferred option for the community, then we must devise a way to bring low income folks into that picture on a significant scale. Otherwise we are promoting economic segregation when it comes down to it.

            I don’t think Stephen meant to shut down conversation.

            But let’s be clear “transient” is a loaded term and, whether intended or not, using it to refer to renters is inflammatory. That direction of thought is uncomfortable because it’s built on prejudice and inherently classist when owning a house in Seattle entails upwards of a million dollar investment.

            Anyway thanks for reading and commenting.

          • It’s built on reality. To be strictly accurate, I did not use the word “transient”, and I have really never seen anyone use “transience” in a loaded way, but in any case I’m happy to use any word you like that conveys the meaning. It doesn’t make sense to pretend that terms of residence are the same – or pretend that it doesn’t make any difference.

            Home ownership isn’t just what’s good for the community, it’s good for the owners too – moving from rent to acquiring home equity has a massive role in upward economic mobility. That’s where lower income people need to come into this picture – as owners. You probably know about Homestead community land trust, that’s a route that might be worth looking at harder (is the equity enough, given changing market conditions? how could the stock be expanded? etc.) Maybe the author here is right that mother-in-law apartments can help home owners hang on in the face of economic challenges – and O’Brien could have limited his legislation to helping make that work, and very likely avoided the expensive, time-consuming legal challenge.

          • I know a little of what you’re talking about: up in Bellingham (also a college town, and a good chunk of the rentering population are college students) I saw first hand how some people just don’t take care of their living spaces… But there were also rental companies and landlords that did a good job about keeping up appearances and health standards. So it was a mixed bag and not necessarily based on whether old mansions were cut up into 4-plexes.

          • That’s not any sort of valid statistical data. That’s dots on a whiteboard from people who elected to come to a meeting.

          • Not to be argumentative, but you waived Doug’s point out of hand that a majority supported elimination of the owner-occupancy requirement which is based in factual data. Historically, the consensus amongst those who have been involved in the local planning processes assert that the results of public participation constitutes the public will.

            Should people’s participation in the process not be relevant in assessing support or opposition for a specific policy? And if not that, then how else do we assess that?

          • At the public forums last winter, the discussion I recall was that the owner-occupancy restrictions should be loosened, not abolished all together. The chatter was more along the lines of, let owner-occupants build the units, and then if they have to move away temporarily, let them rent both units. There was absolutely no discussion of allowing developers tearing down SF houses to build 3-unit rentals (main house, ADU, & DADU).

          • I can’t imagine there was much, if any, discussion about tearing down single-family residential homes in the scenario you suggest, but I have no idea how that relates to my response above.

          • A majority of who was my point. Up the thread it was presented as a majority of the community when that is clearly not the case its a majority of people in one of the two meetings (the other meeting was closer to 50/50).

            Look, I first posted to ask “why didn’t Urbanist talk about X factor of this law when I hear it is the most talked about” and the conversation turned into a shitshow. I don’t care to come back and argue points about statistics that don’t exist.

          • Benjamin –

            You never asked who the majority were. You said: “The linked survey doesn’t ask if the city should remove the requirement, it asks if people think it is a barrier to adding more ADUs/DADUs. That’s a wholely different question.”

            I’m still not sure what link of Doug’s you were referring to, but you were dismissing a fact founded upon data, and I provided the source. Personally, I don’t have a dog in the fight on the owner-occupancy issue, but if you’re going to contest facts, let’s have a discussion about the facts. They’re important.

            And I appreciate your original question, which Doug has already touched on.

          • This survey, which is linked in the original article in the second paragraph after the third picture:

            http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cs/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/s010013.pdf

            Page 10 says this:

            “The owner occupancy requirement was perhaps the most polarizing factor. More than any other potential
            barrier, survey respondents strongly agreed that the requirement for the property owner to reside in either
            the cottage or the principal unit for six months of the year was a significant barrier to constructing a backyard
            cottage. However, a third of respondents disagreed with this response. This response distribution could reflect
            the fact that, while many homeowners intend to stay in the either the cottage or principal unit, others may
            already rent their house and would rent the accessory unit as well if permitted.”

            The survey was about barriers to converting an ADU, and the survey was asked of people who wanted an ADU, not the general public.

            The other survey I’m talking about is one you linked a few comments earlier, which was a survey of people at an event for ADUs, and it was split as I noted above (50/50 on one day, 70/30 on another) but it is still not any sort of statistical anything because it was done by people placing dots on a white board (which beyond the idea of it being valid data it could also have been manipulated by people moving the dots).

            Now, going back to my original question which Doug did answer. What does the site think about this particular requirement (removing the residency requirement). He said this:

            “The organization has not endorsed a specific position on that policy as we generally share ideas of staff and contributors as opposed to decreeing absolute positions as a body. It is telling, however, that a majority of respondents to the City’s survey supported elimination of the requirement.”

            So I get it, the site officially doesn’t have a position. That’s fine. BUT his next sentence “a majority of respondents to the City’s survey” is not factually correct. The city’s survey (linked in the article, and what I quoted above in this comment) notes that the residency requirement was the most discussed item BUT (as stated above) they didn’t ask if people wanted the requirement. They asked if people thought it was a barrier to making an ADU.

            So my original point stands: the city’s own survey says the residency requirement was the most contentions point brought up but they didn’t even question the people at the meeting if they wanted it, much less the actual voting public.

            All that said, clearly you and I (and the few other people that have commented) are in the minority as most people don’t even think about land usage and zoning. So if we’re going to actually discuss this here, its important to look at the actual facts as presented.

        • The millionaire who sued the city to stop more affordable housing is literally on the record in multiple instances of stating that renters are inferior.

  5. Did I miss something, or does this article just completely steer clear of the point? I mean, there was this legislation – that does what? “Encourage more backyard cottages and mother-in-law units”, and that’s apparently all the author needed to know. I think I can safely assure you, the people who oppose it have a much more nuanced view of what it does, and the specific things they object to. But apparently here in The Urbanist it makes sense to paint the world in simpler colors – you’re simply either for us, or against us, and there’s really nothing interesting in the details, so let’s turn to applying some head-wrenching logic to the Queen Anne Neighborhood Plan.

    The section about legal non-conforming uses is utterly baffling. Nothing in the appeal has nothing to do with any of this. If the community council is known to have expressed disapproval of some clemency program (again, with no details), that would not in any way imply that legal non-conforming uses should be eliminated. For someone with aspirations to work in urban planning/public administration, this piece reflects either a startling lack of, or contempt for, analytical clarity.

Comments are closed.