City Council Member Mike Obrien calls for the addition of 4,000 backyard cottages
Mayor Murray's Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee (HALA) report and the subsequent action plan have deservedly drawn harsh critiques. The one item that everyone seems to agree on is that the cost of living in Seattle is high (See previous post on this impacts backyard cottages). One of the least controversial solutions to providing more affordable housing options seems to be adding backyard cottages. To this end, council member, and head of Planning Land Use and Sustainability Committee, Mike O'Brien, wants to add 4,000 backyard cottages to Seattle. This means more cottages like Jennifer's cottage on capitol hill.
Jennifer's cottage like many, will provide a home for a family member in the long term and in the short term will be used as a rental property. It and other backyard cottages, can provide what many housing advocates are seeking, an increase number of housing units within the city. As of a year ago, there have been around 100 backyard cottage built in Seattle since the program was expanded at the end of 2009. Even though interest in backyard cottages is increasing, it seems unlikely that anywhere near the number of cottages envisioned by Mike O'Brien will be built. Why? Based on ongoing study being prepared by the City of Seattle, when those who had built cottages were asked to list the "significant barriers to building a backyard cottage" the number one reason was given was development regulations (71%) followed by the basic cost of construction (64%).
The Seattle City Council is currently considering ways to ease regulations to increase the number of backyard cottages. Of these, the one proposal that would be most likely to have an impact, and one that we are opposed to, would be to eliminate the owner occupancy requirement for accessory dwelling units. Currently, to add an accessory dwelling unit you must live in either the primary residence or the accessory unit for a minimum of six months out of the year. This requirement is almost universal among municipalities that allow accessory dwelling units. Why? It is widely believed that having the owner living in the unit will minimize the impact of having what could otherwise be considered multi-family housing within single family zones. More importantly, it also restricts the types of investors that can buy and hold these properties. Currently purchasing a single family residences as rental property is cost prohibitive which favors owner occupants. However, if developers are allowed to build two units on a single family zoned lot it becomes a much more attractive investment package for a absentee landlord. This would further escalate the prices for single family zoned land and houses.
Owner occupants act differently than developers in a number of important ways. To a home owner building a back yard cottage is a major long term investment. The majority of homeowners finance their cottages with cash or by taking equity out of their primary residence. This makes them cautious by necessity. Also, the primary impact of their development is going to be on their lot and in their neighborhood. When we begin a project a typical client wish list contains the desire to minimize the impact to their neighbors. We have and continue to work with residential developers. Not once has one of them expressed the least concern over how the neighbors might be impacted by their development.