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.