Supporters Outnumber Naysayers as Backyard Apartments Move Closer to Reality

A couple of weeks ago, I schlepped up to the Queen Anne public library to watch a presentation by Marty Kaplan, the architect and homeowner who sued the city to stall a proposal that will make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages and basement apartments on their property. Kaplan’s lawsuit effectively forced the city to do a full environmental review, or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), on the policy—a review that concluded that not only do garage apartments not harm the environment, they provide significant benefits, such as reducing the number of single-family homes that are torn down and redeveloped as McMansions and improving equity in neighborhoods that were originally designed to keep poor people of color out.

The “full build-out” scenario, included in the EIS for illustrative purposes only, shows massive single-family houses on every lot, an outcome that is already allowed under current rules.

Kaplan’s presentation, delivered to several dozen members of the Queen Anne and Magnolia Community Councils, was ostensibly about the results of that review, but anyone who actually read or even skimmed the 364-page document would be understandably confused by his interpretation of the report. The city’s preferred alternative, Kaplan claimed, would lead to the development of “three houses on every lot,” with “12 [unrelated] people on every lot. … If you’ve got a big family, 20 people could live there, I guess.” And without rules requiring homeowners to provide parking for all those new tenants, Kaplan continued, “if there’s 12 people living on site and ten of them own cars, then they’re going to park them in the neighborhood,” contributing to an already untenable parking situation in neighborhoods like Queen Anne. (As he said this, I thought of the four parking spots directly in front of the library that I had walked past on my way into the meeting.) In the background, as Kaplan spoke, was a slide of the city’s theoretical “full build-out” scenario (above), which Kaplan characterized as what the city hopes will happen within the next few years. Moreover, Kaplan said, backyard units would never be affordable to regular people: “It’s proved that in order to build a unit, you’re going to spend $300,000,” he said. “You’re not going to rent that out for $80 a month.” (Fact checks on all of those claims below.)

The preferred alternative, Alternative 2 in the EIS, shows the actual anticipated development pattern after 10 years under the new rules.

It was refreshing, then, to go to a well-attended public meeting at city hall a few days later—a meeting that Kaplan had told his neighbors would be “basically Madison Avenue coming in and telling you what you should like”—and see that the proponents of the long-delayed proposal outnumbered the naysayers by a factor of about 15 to 1. (Maybe the housing opponents were put off when Kaplan told them it wouldn’t make any difference if they showed up?) Tech workers in their 20s talked about their desire to share the city with people who didn’t have the good fortune to work in industries that pay six-figure starting salaries; homeowners talked about wanting to build backyard apartments so that they could share the city with new neighbors; and environmental advocates talked about density as an important solution to the climate crisis. Several people said they hoped the city would go even further than the preferred alternative and allow three accessory units per property—two inside the main house, and one in the backyard.

But my favorite comment of the night came from Zach Shaner, a renter who lives on Beacon Hill. Shaner (whose name you may recognize because he used to write for Seattle Transit Blog) started off by noting that in the time the city has been working on the EIS, the cost of a median home in Seattle has risen from $591,000 to more than $725,000. “This political process is not morally neutral,” Shaner said. “While we’ve talked and studied and dithered, owning a home has gotten $131,000 harder. In the meantime, my family has given up on owning a home in Seattle.” Shaner and his wife would like to help their friends build an extra unit on their property, he continued, but the current rules make it illegal for them to do so. “I really dream of the day that we have painstaking processes to stop housing rather than to permit it, but in the meantime this is a small but substantive step in the right direction.”

Now for that fact check: In reality, the preferred alternative would increase the number of unrelated people who can live on a lot from the eight allowed under existing rules to 12, and would allow homeowners to build one backyard cottage and retrofit their basement into a living space. The maximum number of buildings on a single lot, in other words, would be two—and any new construction would still be subject to the same rules that limit the amount of lot coverage on single-family land today. The “full build-out” scenario, which Kaplan portrayed as the city’s desired outcome, is clearly captioned, “The Full Build-Out Scenario is included for illustrative purposes only and is not an expected outcome of any alternative analyzed in the EIS.” And it actually looks overbuilt not because of backyard cottages, which are the small red boxes in the image above, but because of all the enormous single-family houses that are technically legal now but have not been built because most homeowners would rather live in charming homes with backyards than cover their lots with eight-bedroom megamansions. The city’s parking study concluded that “each additional ADU would generate between 1 and 1.3 additional vehicles using on-street parking,” not 10. And although higher-cost garage apartments can certainly cost well over $300,000 to build,  many cost substantially less; and it would require a breathtaking ignorance of the current rental market to actually believe that you could rent so much as a bean bag in the corner of an unfinished basement in Seattle for $80 a month.

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One thought on “Supporters Outnumber Naysayers as Backyard Apartments Move Closer to Reality

  1. The poll regarding questions about homelessness resources has a false statement that seems to be repeated just about everywhere now: “But the city needs an additional $410 million a year to tackle homelessness, and this tax will help.” That $ figure came from the McKinsey Report which covered all of King Country, not Seattle.

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