Morning Crank: “I Have Not Seen Any Speculative ADU Bubble”

1. The city council finally adopted legislation to loosen regulations on backyard and basement apartment construction Monday, 13 years after the city allowed homeowners to build backyard cottages in Southeast Seattle on a “pilot” basis in 2006.  The city’s analysis found that the new rules, which would allow homeowners to build up to two accessory units (such as a basement apartment and a backyard cottage) on their property, will add up to 440 new units a year across Seattle, or about one unit for every 80 acres of single-family land.

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The city expanded its initial backyard cottage pilot to include the rest of Seattle in 2009, but it never took off in a major way, thanks in large part to restrictions on lot and unit size, owner-occupancy requirement, and parking mandates that made accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, difficult and expensive to build. Efforts to make it easier to build second and third units ran against the usual objections from single-family homeowner activists, who claimed that changing the law would turn Seattle’s exclusive neighborhoods into triplex canyons, and from left-leaning development opponents, who claimed  that loosening the rules would lead to a frenzy of speculative development, with builders snatching up affordable single-family rental houses and destroying them to make way for new houses with two additional units, which they would rent out at higher prices or turn into Airbnbs.

Litigation by a group of homeowner activists dragged the process out for years, but the city prevailed in May, enabling the legislation to finally move forward. Although council members generally supported the proposal, some of them wanted to add new restrictions, such as owner occupancy and ownership requirements and even a ban on leasing the units as short-term rentals, which would have subjected backyard cottages and basement apartments to more stringent anti-Airbnb rules  than any other kind of housing in the city.

Ultimately, the only one of those amendments that saw the light of day on Monday was Lisa Herbold’s proposal to require homeowners to own a property for one year before building a second accessory unit—a provision Herbold said was necessary “to address the speculative market that will flip these units”—with even socialist council member Kshama Sawant saying that she saw no reason for the restriction. While she is concerned about “corporate developers” building luxury apartment towers, Sawant said, “I have not seen any speculative ADU bubble anywhere.”

The legislation, which Sightline called “the best rules in America for backyard cottages,” passed 8-0, with council member Bruce Harrell absent.

2. Often, when the council passes a piece of legislation they have been working on for some time, Mayor Jenny Durkan sends out a press release praising the council for passing “the Mayor’s legislation.” That didn’t happen with the ADU bill that passed yesterday—not because Durkan didn’t have her own version of the proposal, but because she never sent her own version of the ADU legislation to the council. Instead, after a team of staffers spent months working on draft legislation and crafting an outreach plan for an alternative proposal, the mayor apparently decided to support O’Brien’s legislation after all.

It’s hard to quantify how much staff time the mayor’s office and city departments dedicated to drafting legislation that never saw the light of day, but the sheer volume of communications in the first three months of 2019 suggests it was a substantial body of work. (I filed my request at the end of March and received redacted records in mid-June, which is why I don’t have any documents dated later than March 31).

At the moment, it’s also hard to know what problems Durkan had with O’Brien’s proposal, since most of the documents her office provided about her strategy and legislation look like this:

I would show more, but it just goes on like this.However, series of text messages between two mayoral staffers that were provided without redactions shows that one of the changes Durkan was considering was an even longer ownership requirement than what  Herbold proposed—two years, rather than one, before a homeowner could build a second accessory unit.

I’ve asked the mayor’s office for unredacted versions of the documents I received in  and will post more details about her proposal  when I receive them. In the meantime, here’s one more page from those redacted documents—this one a list of ideas the mayor’s office had to “further allay concerns” about “speculative development.”

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