The Seattle Timidity

Last week Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels proposed legislation that would allow backyard cottages in single-family zones city-wide.  It’s a good policy move, potentially bringing the benefits of both density and affordable housing to single-family zones, with minimal negative impact.

Ah, but then there’s the caveat:  a maximum of 50 permits will be issued per year.

As of 2006, there were 135,000 single-family houses in Seattle (that’s just under half of all housing units).  Guestimating that 100,000 meet the minimum lot requirements, with a limit of 50 permits per year it would take 2000 years before every single-family home in Seattle could get a permit.  In 100 years, a maximum of about five percent of single-family homes could apply to build a backyard cottage.

In other words, 50 permits per year means the proposed legislation would have very little impact on the City’s urban form in our lifetimes.  So then, what’s the point?  If Seattle’s policy makers believe that backyard cottages are a good thing, why so timid?

There is unlikely to be a mad rush for permits.  Since 2006 when backyard cottages became allowed in Southeast Seattle, only 18 households have applied.  Indeed, this would suggest that the 50 permit per year limit is a moot point.  But then why bother including it at all, when it sends a mixed message that there’s something to be feared about too many backyard cottages?

It’s safe to assume that the permit limit was tacked on to appease a certain breed of single-family home owner, the type inclined to fits of shrieking when faced with any perceived threat to the sacredness of single-family.  But even the City’s own survey (pdf) found that the majority of people living near new backyard cottages had favorable opinions of the program.

A second stipulation of the proposed legislation that will limit the number of backyard cottages built is the requirement (pdf) for one additional off-street parking space.  A typical parking space takes up about 150 to 200 square feet, which will be impossible for many single-family lots to accommodate, and also eats into the area available to locate a cottage.  But alas, even in the age of Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize, in one of the most progressive cities in the country, it is still politically toxic to speak of adding housing units without off-street parking to single-family zones.

What’s needed is leadership.  If backyard cottages are good for the city, then city leaders should act as if they actually believe it.  This means active advocacy and promotion, such as incentives, permit fast-tracking, and pilot programs, in addition to elimination of the permit cap and parking requirement. 

Or how about this:  a City-sponsored design competition for a net-zero energy backyard cottage.  Nevermind.  Portland will do it. 

29 Responses to “The Seattle Timidity”

  1. Ellery

    When I heard that Nickels was going to propose this, I was impressed that he would do it in an election year and jeopardize the big checks that he might get from the don’t-touch-my-SF-zoning crowd. But I guess he thought of that. What a shame.
    Maybe Council will show the leadership to remove the annual permit limit.

  2. Matt the Engineer

    I had heard of the 50-unit limit, and had hoped it was just to test the waters. But the parking requirement just kills it. With all of that garage space, where will the cottage go?

  3. Joe G

    This is absolutely ridiculous and just another example of why this useless mayor has got to go!

  4. michael

    What about having a exemption for the parking requirement if within 1/2 mile of a transit stop? That seems like a sensible way to maybe, possibly, appease the SF defenders while promoting density in close proximity to transit. Plus 1/2 mile would cover the majority of the single-family areas. The more politically acceptable alternative would be to 1/4 mile radius I suppose…

  5. holz

    is this the DADU? (detached accessory dwelling unit?)

    and the vandervort ZNEB in issaquah wasn’t a competition, it was an RFQ, iirc.

  6. Kathryn

    I’ve been arguing that we need a duplex zoning designation in Seattle that respects the form that is largely seen in Madison Valley and some other areas. It’s not multifamily like we have. The building is the same lot coverage as allowed in single family zones and the areas we are talking about are zoned single family.

    Now, the duplex that had two household is torn down and replaced with a mini mansion and it takes the whole DPD departure approval and community notification process to – tada – replace a duplex with a duplex! Wouldn’t we be going in a better direction to allow this doubling up option via a SF -D designation which keeps the rest of the lot coverage, size, etc., in place in neighborhoods that choose to be so zoned? Especially as average household size in Seattle is 2.08 persons.

    Even better would be to see McMansions in the burbs being internally reconfigured to support two households. Gee, houses could be rehabbed and greened up, at the same time house more people. Actually, many immigrant communities already tend to have extended families living together.

    I do get tired of those who scream about overcrowding or too many parked cars when I remember the suburb my parents ended up in. Every family had 3-7 children, all of whom hit teenage years and had adult children moving back, with the requisite car per person parked on the street.

    I really appreciate Richard Morrill. Love him or hate him, he is usually telling about realities of human settlement behavior so I try not to be mad at the messenger even when I disagree. I’m smart enough to pick out the information and he provides a lot. Worth a read by searching Crosscut for Morrill.

    He proposes:
    ‘Further, auxiliary units, as well as doubling up in existing single family homes, should be permitted and encouraged almost everywhere. This is by far the cheapest way to accommodate more people, without unnecessarily destroying houses and neighborhoods by replacement by repetitive, non-family friendly apartment structures. …’

  7. holz


    the reconfigured mcmansion is SOP for most of “old europe” where large residences (ok, not mcmansions, but just as large, yet packed in tightly) in urban centers have been divied up into several apartments.

  8. Kathryn

    Ah Holz, I wish we would feel confident that would happen in some of the areas we should rezone Multifamily. Seems unless you go for the whole Historic Landmark process, it gets torn down.

  9. Renee

    Thanks for posting on this Dan. I love this proposal and would like to build a cottage on our lot instead of making our house larger.

    I agree that the parking requirements are silly and seem even sillier to me because we live a few houses from a transit stop on a major arterial and we don’t use all the parking we have now.

    Kudos to the mayor’s office for moving forward on this. It is a step in the right direction even if it is a carefully placed step.

  10. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Kathryn, this sort of duplex (or triplex) to townhomes is common in the U-District as well, but I don’t understand your proposal. Are you saying a “SF-D” would be better than something like NC65 (which is what I’d prefer for somewhere like 11th Ave NE)?

  11. Frank

    One man’s timidity is another man’s shrewd reading of the political climate, I guess.

    Note how the city website bends over backwards to explain how successful the trial run was in SE Seattle, and even links to the actual survey data. This is very smart: “see, NIMBYs, we have numbers!” (BTW: NIMBY is a funny word in this context, since the cottage will, by definition, be going in someone else’s backyard)

    The next step is to open it up city-wide, at 50 units per year.  Is this paltry? Yes, but given the glut of housing currently, and the difficulties obtaining the kind of financing needed for cottage construction, it’s doubtful, as you note Dan, that all that many applications will be submitted in the first few years anyway. 

    So, now we have a very mild proposal that it’s almost impossible to argue with: just 50 units! who could possibly complain?  Then, in a few years, the cap can be quietly removed, and everyone will be so accustomed to it that it will be old news.

    It’s a fine line between being timid and killing the baby in the crib. I’d rather see us err on the side of the former.

    I agree, though, that the parking requirement is absurd, and potentially a deal-breaker. But perhaps I’m being optimistic: like Matt above, I think this is a way of testing the waters.


  12. Narrows Bridge

    The parking requirement is a conundrum. Where there are no sidewalks and/or no parking along the street, just where would an additional car stay when not in use?

    In some communities, this means parking on lawns. If you want a model to show other communities how density can be “infilled” in a neighborhood compatible way, then parking will be an issue, even within 1/2 mile of transit opportunities.

    Any ideas or examples anywhere?

  13. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Narrows Bridge, for the past five years I have lived in a very transit-friendly area without owning a car (though I am an occasional car user). The point of density plus transit is that there is no additional car.

    Yes I go shopping and have kids and pretty much lead a fairly conventional life. I just don’t need to own a car.

  14. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Whoops, sorry for the extra bold there. No preview!

  15. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Hmm. OK, I guess I have to make it stop like this.

  16. R on Beacon Hill

    I can’t get excited one way or another about extending the backyard cottage zoning. If there was any demand, to speak of, homeowners who wanted them in their back yards, there would’ve been a lot more than a few dozen built in SE Seattle, in the years since they were legalized there.

    A better strategy might be to avoid going to war with NIMBY single-family neighborhoods and focus on concentrating growth in Urban Centers, Urban Villages, and light rail station areas.

    I expect that increasing allowed density in such centers by a few percentage points would yield far more additional dwelling units than would ever get built in Seattle backyards.

  17. Kathryn

    Joshua. I’m saying a SF-D is better than SF for some Single Family neighborhoods that have those buildings or that want it. It’s really not upzoning, it’s recognizing and preserving doubling up. it’s different than auxiliary because you can have two owners.

    Zoning to get your neighborhood commercial area is different.

  18. jake l

    Can someone explain what the opposition towards this is about? What is the best possible argument that can be had for no DADU’s? I can’t help but think that as long as light and air is still maintained for the neighboring dwellings, infrastructure is properly set up, and people communicate with each other, there should be no problem….right?

  19. Kathryn

    Concerns I’ve heard have to do with how far it’s set back from the property line — many garages which are uninhabited are really near property lines. People would rather not have the noise, etc. Also, if parking is required then will huge parts of yards be tarmacked? It’s also not gaining any energy efficiencies to build an unattached unit.

    Most are supportive of the idea that family homes now occupied by smaller families or people who want to age in place can accommodate another single person or couple, and that rental can help with the costs of owning a home. This scenario is is part of the ADU provisions,

    The focus on the Urban Village strategy is important because densities, walkable neighborhoods and healthy neighborhood economic development all play together. While some zoning might need tweaking, and contract rezones that flow from the plans will usually be accepted anyway, the plans have been not realized in many areas. It’s not for lack of building activity. I’ve been involved in reviewing the Central Area Neighborhood Plan. We have looked at the zoning and what has happened in the last ten years. In instance after instance, new building in L3 zones has been of L1 densities. Great swathes of land that should be built for enough people to support lively neighborhood mainstreets are built as Seattle 4-packs and 6-packs!

  20. Lazy Link Of The Day v.2.0 | hugeasscity

    […] possibly not comment on  this bit of Seattle Times lameness regarding Seattle’s proposal to allow “backyard cottages” in single family zones.  The set up of the […]

  21. I Skim The Seattle Times And Crosscut So You Don’t Have To | hugeasscity

    […] at Crosscut today, some dude apparently has some fear to monger about scary scary backyard cottages.  I would rather work on my income taxes than read it.  It pains me just to link to it, all the […]

  22. A Criminally Unfair, One-Sided, Amateur Blog-Style Q&A With (Or Without) David Miller | hugeasscity

    […] cottages in all single-family zones in the City?  Would you support removing the proposed limit of 50 permits per year, since that limit is would only allow about 5% of Seattle’s single-family homes to get a […]

  23. A Voice Of Reason That Needs To Be Louder | hugeasscity

    […] with the important caveat that the 50 unit per year limit be removed, as was discussed in this HAC post.  The second letter recommends several constructive tweaks to the proposed multifamily code […]

  24. File Under Portland Envy | hugeasscity

    […] envy among urbanists has become a cliche, and there may well be more hype than substance. But still, […]

  25. Miles Nilsby

    I am starting to share this news my friends! thanks a lot

  26. Just Say Nay | citytank

    […] What on earth is everyone so afraid of? It’s like Seattle’s angst-ridden debate over backyard cottages all over […]

  27. Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program: A Case Study in Progressive Divisiveness | citytank

    […] more than any other U.S. city. So the circus of angst that typically erupts around what ought to be no-brainer sustainability policy decisions shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, though that doesn’t make it any less […]

  28. Let The City Builders Do Their Thing | citytank

    […] building is messy. No great city ever arose from timidity. Like any transformative  endeavor, creating a city that advances humanity requires innovation and […]

  29. Charlotte Web Design company

    Digital marketing agency digital marketing companies marketing agency Raleigh NC digital marketing services social media marketing services…

    The Seattle Timidity | hugeasscity…

Leave a Reply