Will Affordable, Small, Auxiliary Housing Ever Make It Into Seattle’s Single-Family Neighborhoods?

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Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

The long boom has thickened the Seattle skyline with new residential towers. That’s what we wished to happen and zoned for. But it turns out most of us can’t afford to live in those towers, and neither can our children.  We need more homes blended into existing neighborhoods. But where? And how?

Trying to get these affordable homes in Seattle’s attractive urban neighborhoods turns out to be oddly difficult to make happen.

How about a back yard or a corner lot near you? If you live in a single-family neighborhood with a typical street grid, where the healthy can walk to transit, that’s perfect. And don’t worry, you won’t have to sell your house or tear it down, though you may need to reconsider the lawn. It could be a great place for adult family members to live, in a detached accessory dwelling unit (DADU), the same as a granny flat or guest house. Ideally, it would blend well with your landscape and your neighborhood.

These homes are not difficult to live with. Neighbors tend to forget the few that have been built in their areas. The best backyard units have got everything detached houses do except the square footage—durable materials, outdoor seating, and compatible landscaping. Generations of young and old Americans have lived in attached units or ADUs, normally in a basement. But eventually these ADUs were dropped from suburban plans to make way for lawns and garages. Family sizes shrank and generations stretched apart in space. As a result, affluent urban Americans are living on a lot more land area than their mid-20th century predecessors. Now some zoning codes explicitly forbid accessory units.

Architect-developer David Neiman has been testing the market for small-to-medium market-rate housing types and engaging with code writers to make them work. He believes we are near the end of a historic arc that began with enactment of the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) in 1990. 

That law required that we set hard boundaries around our cities, forcing homes and businesses to grow upward — not outward. No more highways and suburbs in the Cascades foothills. The GMA committed cities to using and repairing the vast urban infrastructure that already exists. It also made urban densities a certainty, along with higher prices from constricted supply.

But there was a catch. The new density would not reach into the back yards of Magnolia and Queen Anne. That, says Neiman, was the unwritten Grand Bargain between GMA proponents and the single-family neighborhoods that still cover most of the city: more urban density but not in the leafy single-family neighborhoods. 

During the Mayor Paul Schell administration (1997-2001), some architects ignored the Grand Bargain and entered a design competition for different types of accessory units, citing the 1994 Seattle ordinance allowing ADUs. Density activists rejoiced, but there was another catch. Thanks to neighborhood resistance, the city added crippling requirements to the law that made it impractical and maddeningly complex for existing owners to finance and build them. 

For instance, the requirement, “Subject to Field Inspection,” which covers many features for other housing types, applies to ADUs. Moreover, city hall still demands the full range of permitting documents for ADUs, explains architect and professor Patricia Tusa Fels, who has made ADUs a specialty. A better solution, she says, would be to allow inspectors in the field to assure code compliance.

Some other requirements—insisting on owner-occupancy of the ADUs, providing extra parking—were recently removed. So, even though the city has made it easier to build ADUs and DADUs, few homeowners know about these changes. Even fewer actually build these units, because it’s still difficult, expensive, and rare. It should not be. 

 “We as a country used to allow the building of small houses without a staff of experts,” says Fels. “Builders and owners built the majority of the now-treasured bungalows of Wallingford. Their affordability resulted from a lack of many of the upfront costs that the city now levies on homeowners trying to build a backyard cottage.”

Meanwhile, other cities are way ahead. Minneapolis eliminated single family zoning all across the city. The state of Oregon has outlawed that particular designation too, so that different kinds of conjoined and clustered living units can be allowed while heights and other limits are retained.

Not surprisingly, the Grand Bargain’s protection of single family neighborhoods is under increasing pressure. In 2015 the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), a special committee devoted to strategies for adding housing choices in Seattle, pointed out that the prevalence of single-family zoning made too much of Seattle’s land area off limits to affordable housing. At the same time, buildable square footage in other parts of the city—like downtown and all the designated low and midrise zones sanctioned in Seattle’s comprehensive plan—is getting used up. 

So before the Grand Bargain frays completely and Seattle follows places like Portland and Minneapolis and San Diego, it’s time for owners in single-family neighborhoods to step up and show us they can densify incrementally. It’s also time for the city to incentivize ADUs and DADUs, instead of miring them in regulations. Watch for an ADU near you. Or build one yourself.
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