City council member Mike O’Brien is proposing, and the city’s Office of Community Planning and Development is drafting, a change to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Plan designed to assuage some homeowners’ complaints that allowing more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments will lead to a building boom by speculators hoping to cash in on the new, less-restrictive rules. OCPD confirms it is working on the proposal for O’Brien as a response to community input at meetings on HALA over the past few months.
Currently, anyone who wants to build a backyard apartment or a mother-in-law apartment inside their house (known as detached accessory dwelling units, or DADUs, and attached accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, respectively) must live on the premises, either in the new unit itself or in the main house on the property. One of the proposals in the original draft of HALA called for loosening that requirement to encourage more homeowners to build secondary apartments, as a way of enabling less-wealthy folks to live in the city and to very slightly nudge density in the two-thirds of the city zoned for exclusive single-family use.
Some neighbors objected to the proposed rule change, suggesting that it would lead speculative developers to descend on single-family neighborhoods, buy up houses, build backyard cottages, and then rent out both the main house and the secondary apartment. Some also said that rental properties tend to fall into disrepair, suggesting that renters are worse neighbors than homeowners are.
Under the new compromise proposal, property owners would be required to live on their property for at least a year after building a backyard cottage or mother-in-law, on the theory that no speculator would bother buying up single-family houses to build and profit from secondary apartments if they had to live there. The proposal is also based on the assumption that if a homeowner has to live next to a new backyard cottage for at least a year, they’ll be less likely to build something that looms over their neighbors, or that doesn’t fit the “character” of a neighborhood.
O’Brien acknowledges that his compromise is, to some extent, a solution searching for a problem. “No developers are building backyard cottages that I’m aware of,” O’Brien says. “I haven’t looked at any financial analysis, but it’s hard for me to imagine that the math would work for someone to come in and buy single-family homes and build backyard cottages.” Most development in what people consider single-family areas occurs in multi-family zones that have been historically underutilized; developers buy up houses, raze them, and replace them with small apartment buildings.
Backyard cottage opponents’ nightmare scenario–the house/backyard cottage combo, with renters instead of homeowners in both units, is “pretty far-fetched,” O’Brien admits. And he says he’s heard from plenty of people who just don’t want renters next door. “I completely reject that perspective,” he says. “I’m not going to defend anyone who thinks this is going to be bad because there will be more renters living in a neighborhood.”
So if the nightmare scenario is implausible, and not really a nightmare to begin with, why capitulate? The way O’Brien describes it sounds an awful lot like he’s responding to a concern about problem that doesn’t exist and is unlikely to exist in the future, simply because so many neighbors have expressed that concern.
If that’s the case, O’Brien is surely aware that the Ballard and Phinney Ridge residents who show up at his office hours, write him furious emails, and complain about him on social media because they believe he’s in the pocket of developers won’t be swayed by this small concession. And preserving the owner-occupancy requirement could not only hurt homeowners who need the flexibility to move due to unexpected job changes or family obligations, but prospective renters already being priced out of Seattle by strict city zoning that “protects” most of the city from new housing supply.