City Proposes Code Changes to Promote the Construction of Back Yard Cottages

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Seattle is seeking new and innovative ways to preserve affordability as housing costs continue to soar. Along with programs like the Affordable Housing Impact Mitigation Program and the Mandatory Housing Affordability Program, the city of Seattle is proposing to ease land use restrictions that hinder the building of backyard cottages, or in official parlance “accessory dwelling units.”

Since 2010 backyard cottages have been permitted in Seattle, but they are rarely built by homeowners. Only 159 were built in Seattle between 2012 and 2014.  Advocates for backyard cottages lament that the reason so few have been built in Seattle is due to the stringent regulations placed on them in the city’s land use codes. Under current city code, backyard cottages are subject to height limits, footprint, and square footage limits, and require off-street parking.  Along with these restrictions, the city has recently mandated that backyard cottages are subject to King County’s sewer connection charge, which cost one homeowner $10,000.

Portland, which is facing similar affordability issues as Seattle, has softened restrictions placed on backyard cottages. The city, which has allowed backyard cottages since 1981, removed requirements that each cottage must have dedicated off-street parking and a mandate that owners must live on the property, in either the main house or cottage. What made the largest difference to builders, however, was when the city waved the System Development Charges. These charges, which are a set of one-time fees for new or increased use of property, can run up to $12,000 and were a sizable deterrent to potential builders.  Since the city waived these charges, the number of accessory unit permits has drastically increased.  In 2015, there was approximately one permit filed per day.

In Seattle, the changes that the Office of Planning and Community Development are proposing will remove certain barriers that have kept homeowners from building backyard cottages. The most significant changes are an increase in allowable size for detached accessory dwelling units from 800 sq. ft. to 1,000 sq. ft. and decoupling the garage area from the allowable size.  An increase in height limit will also make a big difference in some situations. Under the proposal, owner occupancy would be required for only one year, rather than being abandoned altogether, in an attempt to limit speculative development interests. In making these changes, the Office of Planning and Community Development hope to increase the stock of moderately-priced housing options in Seattle’s low-density neighborhoods.