New backyard cottage laws approved by Seattle City Council

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A small modern house under construction.

On Monday, Seattle City Council approved laws that could facilitate the construction of additional residential units (ADUs) – such as backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments – along with a language that would restrict McMansions in single-family zones.

More specifically, the legislation allows two ADUs on one lot instead of one and places a requirement for off-street parking, a sometimes onerous and expensive hurdle for homeowners to jump. Previously, homeowners had to live on the property with an ADU to rent it out, but legislation is removing that requirement as well.

ADUs are also gaining more living space: The ordinance increases the maximum ADU size from 800 square feet to 1,000 square feet and increases the allowable height slightly.

In addition, the FAR limit (Floor Area Ratio) is set in one-family zones, which limits the area of ​​a house in relation to its property to 0.5. For example, a one-story house might only be a floor area of ​​half the lot, or a quarter for a two-story house of the same area.

Councilor Mike O’Brien, who represents District 6 on Seattle City Council and has campaigned for legislation for years, said before the vote that despite record growth in the Seattle population, “We have seen the population in our single-family zone decline Over the years, because there is really no way to add capacity in single family zones. “

“What do we do with our single-family neighborhoods?” asked O’Brien. “Who has access to them and who is locked out?”

“This legislation creates modest but significant changes to provide families, homeowners and tenants with flexible and affordable housing while preserving the look and feel of single-family neighborhoods,” O’Brien added in a statement emailed after the vote.

“We think this is a major change point in general,” said AIA Seattle representative Matt Hutchins during a public comment. The organization strongly supports the legislation.

Hutchins added that legislation is crucial in “deciding who can live here, how and what our neighborhoods look like”.

While it’s been in the works for some time, the ADU reform is mostly about affordability: The ADU reform was one of the recommendations of the Committee on Affordability and Viability of Housing (HALA) in 2015.

It also paves the way for more homeowners to participate in programs like the Block Project, which is building backyard cottages to house the homeless.

A Block Project house – a backyard house that will provide permanent shelter to people with homelessness – is being built. Courtesy King County

The final legislation made some exceptions to the FAR rules. A garage of up to 250 square meters is not included. Neither will there be up to 35 square meters of dedicated bicycle parking space. Houses that already exist on the property receive a one-time pass to expand up to 20 percent beyond the limit so as not to step on planned renovations. Basements don’t count either.

This is where the ADUs come in: They don’t count against FAR and ideally encourage more of them to be built.

Zoning of single family homes in Seattle is currently extremely legal and has no FAR limit. In essence, you can build as many houses as you want, as long as it is only one house. This enables one major factor in what is colloquially known as McMansions (made popular by Curbed columnist Kate Wagner): the dramatic departure from neighborhood.

The city council will also receive annual reports from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) on the impact of the legislation, including the number of permits issued, geographic data, and the impact on parking.

This legislation has been in the works since 2014, but has been included in appeal procedures. Most recently, a city study published in October was challenged by the Queen Anne Community Council (QACC) – by Marty Kaplan, a long-time opponent of backyard hut reform. (The same group successfully challenged an earlier impact study in 2016.) A hearing examiner approved the legislation to move forward in May.

During the public comment phase, Kaplan spoke to the city council about the fact that the legislation “encourages uncontrolled development of the market price [duplexes and triplexes] by developers and speculators “, the bill as” comprehensive conversion of our single-family quarters “.

Regarding similar allegations “in the print media,” Councilor Lorena González said the legislation was not a dramatic zoning change: “That kind of rhetoric doesn’t make it true just because you keep saying it.”

However, there are some concerns that have emerged during the fierce public commentary on the process. Perhaps the loudest concern is the impact on parking – that failure to follow off-road parking requirements will result in overcrowded on-street parking. Other topics include concerns about developers’ speculation about the exemption of owner-occupancy and the question of whether legislation is actually creating more affordable housing, rather than just vacation rentals like the ones listed on Airbnb.

As for parking: While the council came up with an idea to require off-street parking for a second ADU, this ultimately did not materialize. However, legislation requires a park report as part of the SDC’s annual presentation, which contains recommendations for necessary changes, which may be geographically specific if necessary.

O’Brien told us in early May that two- or three-unit projects are not particularly appealing to real estate investors: “Analysis shows that this is not really going to happen,” he said. “It’s not a viable economic model … but we see a lot of developers demolishing single-family homes, and what they are building are larger single-family homes. And if we want to encourage people not to do this and instead maintain existing family houses and build backyard houses or in-laws. “

A real estate investor stood up and found that investors were already examining real estate but were not giving precise details. Investing in ADU real estate is not uncommon, although, as Councilor Teresa Mosqueda pointed out, this was not the case in Portland, where ADUs are not required to use their property.

“The data shows … that mostly two-thirds of [homeowners] Those who currently have a backyard cottage in Portland have been living in their primary residence for more than five years, “Mosqueda said before the vote. 95 percent of Portland homeowners who have built an ADU have lived on the property for more than a year.

This data is in line with a 2018 study by Portland State University that also found that 41 percent of homeowners with ADU have lived there for more than a decade.

Also, O’Brien pointed out that if the homeowner has to move, they have to kick out a tenant if they have to move.

Council member Lisa Herbold was not convinced and tabled an amendment originally published on the committee that would require a watered-down type of owner-occupation – homeowners would have to live on the property for at least a year before they could build a second ADU.

A woman and child interact on the front deck of a small, modern house.

An ADU from Node that was recently built in a backyard in West Seattle. Andrew Pogue / Courtesy of Node and Wittman Estes

“We don’t know what will necessarily happen in this real estate market and we cannot prevent speculative development,” said Herbold when he tabled the amendment, “but this will give a boost to the speed.”

Councilor Abel Pacheco said he shared Herbold’s concern but cited a lack of data to secure it. He noted that the SDC’s annual report was a good opportunity to keep an eye on it.

This change in ownership was largely not accepted.

Relatively new requirements for the regulation and taxation of short-term rentals open the door to the analysis of ADUs, which are also used as holiday homes. Legislation directs the Seattle Department of Finance and Administrative Services to work with SDCI to assess how many ADUs are renting short term rather than long term and make recommendations for legislative changes. If a “significant number” of these ADUs are being used as vacation rentals, the bill states: “The city council intends to impose additional restrictions or a ban on short-term rentals in [ADUs]. ”

In Portland, according to the same PSU study, around a third of ADUs are used for short-term rentals.

One caveat that Mosqueda recognized: it’s still expensive to build housing between permit and utility costs. In particular, AIA Seattle have requested a guideline to simplify approval. “I will commit to keep working on it,” said Mosqueda.

Councilor Kshama Sawant has shown interest in public funding for homeowners who cannot afford to build an ADU.

During a public commentary, some speakers claimed the legislation would have a negative impact on the canopy. Former Councilor Rob Johnson announced efforts to strengthen Seattle’s Tree Protection Ordinance last year, but the future remains unclear after Johnson’s resignation. O’Brien made it clear before the vote that lot coverage requirements will not change and that the current tree regulations are “largely in place” although they could use updates.

The next stop on the bill is the desk of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. If signed, the changes would take effect in 30 days, with the exception of the FAR piece which would take effect in six months.

“ADUs and DADUs provide opportunities for multi-generational living, helping us reduce our environmental and carbon footprint, and giving some homeowners the option to stay in their homes and age in place – a key benefit when the The cost of living in Seattle is rising, “he told Mosqueda in a statement after the bill was passed. “This is a significant step in creating soft infill housing, but much more needs to be done to create the density we need to accommodate our growing city.”

This article has been updated with ADU size information and statements from Councilors O’Brien and Mosqueda. McMansion was popularized recently – not recently coined.