Mt.Baker 09'1017 - 001

As we noted in the news roundup, Councilmember Mike O’Brien wants to update the rules around detached accessory dwelling units, a.k.a. backyard cottages, a.k.a. DADUs. Erica Barnett at PubliCola notes that O’Brien is looking at streamlined permitting and prefab designs that would reduce some hurdles to installing a backyard cottage. Some of the designs actually look pretty cool.

What I like about O’Brien’s thinking here is that he’s looking to reduce up-front capital costs. While there are all sorts of regulatory hurdles to DADUs (and excessive parking requirements), the main impediment, it seems to me, is that most homeowners don’t have tens of thousands of dollars sitting around to build a DADU, and banks aren’t giving out HELOCs like they used to. Prefab designs could help reduce costs.

Another step the Council and DPD could take would be to remove the owner-occupancy requirement for DADUs and ADUs (mother-in-laws), which I’ve written about previously. Requiring the property owner to live in one of the units makes banks less likely to lend and prevents investors from building more DADUs and ADUs in the first place. I hope the Council and DPD consider it.

35 Replies to “DADU, DADU, to You and You and You”

  1. If it’s legal, permittable, and finanecable for a property-owner to expand his house- as too many of them already do just to have a bigger house than their neighbors, how is anybody going to know if a relative is going to live in it if no rent is collected?

    A room is a room, and a bathroom is a bathroom. How does any official or banker know or care whether the owner, his boomeranged kid, or his mother-in-law going to use the facilities? Especially if they don’t have a car?


    1. I think this is the way it goes – someone from the house parks in front of a neighbor’s house. The neighbor, justifiably horrified by this offence, watches to see where the driver came from. The driver, seeing the neighbor as he gets back into his car, asks if it’s ok he parked there. The neighbor smiles, assures it perfectly fine, and goes away assuming, correctly I might add, his passive aggressive response made clear repeat offenses would result in more painful passive aggression. Some time later, a friends or a different occupant of the house makes the same mistake. The neighbor realizes he must take action. A little investigation reveals the house is occupied in an ILLEGAL fashion! Suddenly it all becomes clear; criminals willing to break zoning laws would be willing to break all sorts of laws, like parking in front of other’s houses. As a good citizen the neighbor does the right thing and reports the living arrangement to the appropriate authorities.

      1. How likely is it that someone who doesn’t know a basic point of law (namely, that the asphalt in front of his house is public right-of-way) will be knowledgeable about land use and zoning laws?

      2. Ben’s going a bit far, but I’m sure parking is the main concern, and the main reason people are reported. Though it’s also likely they’re reported during neighbor disputes.

      3. I’ve lived in a couple of illegal duplexes in Seattle. Illegal DADUs and ADUs are much more common than most realize.

        I will say it is unfortunate some people feel the on-street parking in front of their house is “theirs”. We have a bit of that in my neighborhood but the glares and passive-agressive “hints” are fairly minimal.

        When I lived in Ballard one neighbor was particularly crazy about other people parking in the street next to her house. She would put up cones or those “no parking” barricades in both streets next to her house (she had a corner lot). She would call parking enforcement and report vehicles as abandoned if someone did park next to her property or report them for being too close to the corner or the alley. My housemate at the time took particular delight in tormenting her by making a point to park directly in front of her house whenever possible. He also would report her to the city every time she put cones or barricades out.

        As she had off-street parking she used I don’t know why she had such a thing about people parking in front of her house.

      4. The friend I stay with when I am up that way got nailed with the 72 hour failure to move thing. It seems that on that particular block there is some sort of aggressive call the police on the 75th hour thing going on with one of the neighbors.

    2. Mark, I’m a bit confused as to how your question relates to the post. The post is about DADUs (Detached Accessory Dwelling Units), also known as “backyard cottages.” These are permitted under very different rules than expanding your main dwelling unit.

      In Seattle you may have as many relatives live in your house as you want, whether rent is charged or not. If non-relatives live with you, the maximum occupancy is eight people. If you do have a (D)ADU, the eight-person limit applies to the sum total of the two units. Strangely, a single house with eight people in it is only required to have a single parking space, but if you add a second kitchen you have to add a second parking space to go with it.

  2. I talked to an architect regarding DADUs when I was shopping for houses. I wanted to know about the process so I could pick a property that would let me build one.

    We talked about it over coffee, and one of the things he mentioned is that prefab designs are seldom much less expensive than custom or adapted designs for a few reasons.

    1. Given central Seattle’s relatively small lots (4000-5000 sqft), maximizing DADU size requires a custom design, or changing a prefab design enough that it’s no longer standard enough to save on construction efficiencies.
    2. Site access to get large prefab units onto a site is often prohibitive. (Working in backyards of sites with no alley access)
    3. The framing of a DADU is actually pretty quick/inexpensive. He said a contractor can often have much of the framing done in a day or two.

    He told me that they had been excited about doing a line of prefab DADUs, but that they got shelved due to the fact that the marginally lower costs never justified the tradeoffs that they required.

    1. Fascinating John, thanks for the info. All the more reason to push for more duplexes.

    2. My friend looked into putting a prefab house on his family’s Rainier View property. I think it would be a lot division rather than a DADU. But in any case, the local manufacturers are all ready to help with permitting in the relevant city/county, but they said it’s much more difficult and expensive in Seattle than in the suburbs because of the regulations.

  3. Funny, a hundred years ago they called “microhousing” SROs, “ADU”s were part of your flophouse, and the DADU was the old chicken coop…

    1. Here’s a thought (picking up a discussion from the previous post).

      Why if Seattle eliminated a substantial portion of parking space in the city?

      Lots especially (I mean, look at all that free space on 7th, 8th avenue downtown!)

      But then every where else.

      Supermarkets and so on.

      Force all lots to turn into residential housing.

      Eliminate garages.

      Then, the coup the grace…extend the residential building area further out into the street by eliminating parking on one side of the street…and get rid of the sidewalk too. Just have single lane with one sidewalk on one side of the street.

      No parking. Just a way to get in and out of personal garages if you really need a car. Or for ambulances and cop cars to travel.

  4. A typical SF-5000 property (the most common type in any reasonably walkable area) is between 3,000 and 4,000 sf. Of course, 4.000 sf is the minimum for a DADU, so there goes a large portion of the market. A typical alley-to-street length is 120 feet, so that makes the width 33.3′. As your parking requirements is now two vehicles, you need to find space for them, which is effectively this whole width. Assuming you have an alley the logical place for that is under the units. However, you’re only allowed to build up 12′ at the alley, and that’s not enough room for a unit on a garage. So you put your unit where your back yard used to be, with a garage behind it. However, the square footage of your garage is counted against your DADU, so you go from 800sf down to 300sf for your cottage. As that’s not acceptable, you remove the garage and put in surface parking.

    And this is where the homeowner gives up. You’re left with surface parking in the alley, a DADU where your back yard was, and structures pushed up against each other. You consider just planting grass on this required parking strip, but it’s just too goofy of a configuration and you’re worried about being able to resell your house.

    I hope this process looks at all of the goofy zoning and building rules Seattle has, or I have a feeling we’ll never have a substantial number of these.

      1. Those are nice, but they’re also 6,000 sf lots, which is why Magnolia isn’t very walkable (well, that and the hill!). To get to 4,000sf you basically take out that yard in the middle. Which is fine for some, but often people live in SF homes specifically to have a yard. The frustrating part is that you could keep the yard on a 4ksf lot by either easing the parking requirement or allowing taller buildings in alleys – you wouldn’t even have to do both (though doing both would free up even more room).

      2. The frustrating part is that you could keep the yard on a 4ksf lot by either easing the parking requirement or allowing taller buildings in alleys – you wouldn’t even have to do both

        Yeah, if O’Brien or the council is at all serious about this, the parking requirements have to go.

      3. I measure them at closer to 4,000 (40×100), with the DADU access usually on the alley. It does mean basically subdividing a lot without actual legal subdivision. There is a growing number of tear-downs and replacement with huge houses that only have several feet of yard on each side, but that hasn’t impacted the area around 22nd & Dravus too much yet.

    1. Which rules specifically are you objecting to? All the ones you cited seem reasonable. The problem is that you are trying to shoehorn two dwelling units and a yard into a lot that’s barely big enough for one and a yard.

      1. Two dwellings and a yard fit just fine. Even two dwellings and a yard and a garage would fit. Two dwellings and a yard and a 2-car garage, where there are unreasonable height limits is where we hit problems.

        Why is the alley height limit reasonable? I haven’t found anyone at the city with an answer to this.

        But parking is my main issue. If you don’t want parking you shouldn’t have to build parking. Most houses in my area were built without parking, and my neighbors all park on the street. Someone renting a house in a backyard is much less likely to drive than homeowners, yet it’s often these homeowners without parking that insist on parking provided in new construction.

    2. Can you point me to the code section that says you can’t build higher than 12′ next to an alley? I can’t find it. Section 23.44.041 (that deals with DADUs) mentions that the garage portion of a DADU can’t be within 12′ of the center of an alley, and that DADUs in general can’t be taller than 12′ if the lot is less than 30′ wide, and that only 40% of the rear yard (as defined elsewhere in the code) may be covered by accessory structures. I skimmed through some other sections and couldn’t find the part about special height limits next to alleys. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there, merely that I wasn’t reading the right part of the rather huge document.

      1. I think you’re right. You can’t build a garage in your rear yard over 12′ tall (plus 3′ for a peak), but there’s an exception for DADUs. That said, now you have your garage underneath you, and your garage sf counts toward your DADU sf. Only around 1/2 of your square footage is livable on the 2nd floor because of the peak, so your garage ends up twice the size of your living space.

        Another option would be to run a 2-car parking strip along one side, and build your house next to it. That’s 12′ width on one side, 5′ setback on the other – leaving a 15′ wide home.

      2. Yeah, I think it’s rather absurd that garage space counts against the square footage limits on DADUs. If you meet the two-car parking requirement with a garage, that leaves 300 square feet or less for a tiny studio apartment on top. Or you can skip the garage entirely, have a very livable 800 square feet in your DADU, and meet the parking requirement by paving over what remains of your back or side yards and parking there.

      3. I’m glad the 12′ from the center of the alley rule wasn’t around when my place was built. Despite how awful the google sat pic looks, from ground level my alley ranges from charming to fairytale.
        html links supported?
        4 garages, including the one I live in, snuggle right up to the alley which is a major contributor to its great aesthetic. Setback is one of my least favorite zoning requirements.

        Now I’m wondering if my neighbor’s recent replacing his garage with a patio and shed was legal. He just got rid of his “parking”. Of course most garages are used to store the access of belongings suburbanity seems to generate; his was no exception. I hope it wasn’t legal; good for him.

        Some of my relatives with money redid a house. They finished the basement in violation of code. Concerned jealous neighbors sick of construction might report them for something, they made the door hidden in a bookcase. The door section of the case was rigged with hydraulics and one of the books had a secret compartment with electronics. Turn the book and… schoooww… the previously rock solid bookcase moves back and turns to the side revealing a stair. Awesome setup, idiotic regulations.

        Who writes these regs? They seem so rigid, so short sighted, so asinine.

      4. The 12′ offset from the alley would definitely not have worked in the place where I stay. It is perhaps 1′ from the edge of the alley, except the chimney is right on the edge of the pavement.

  5. Recall reading about a system in Paris, where car-owners could pay to have their car garaged, washed and maintained per schedule- and have it delivered to them anywhere in town they specified. And picked in place of their choice, with the car being returned to the garage.

    Article gave example of man leaving town for the weekend would call and have his car delivered at his office for him to drive to the train station, possibly getting some shopping done on the way. The service would then pick up his car and garage it until his return.

    I think this is one of the things automatic car advocates have in mind. Of the services in France, which were said to be multiple and competitive, many were owned by people from the Middle East. My own recent taxi experience has given me some drivers from overseas- excellent, educated, well-spoken people, very much like a large proportion of current transit drivers in Scandinavia.

    ‘Til major insurance companies will cover robot cars- French system sounds better, especially if dashboard has espresso machine, like the villain in “Taladega Nights.”

  6. And BTW: relevant to both housing and transit for two reasons at least:

    1 Your car is never parked in front of your residence. You can leave it and have it picked up where your neighbors can’t see you do it, and then walk or transit home.

    2. Example used in French story specifically mentioned train station as delivery and pickup point.

    Not sure these services still operate. Maybe Uber does the same thing now. Other one has huge pink mustache on cars, that could have berserk neighbors report you to the police for just that reason.


    1. Uber doesn’t give you a guaranteed car; you have to hope a driver will be available when and where you want it. You can’t leave things in the car for ready use later. As for the French system, I wonder how much notice you have to give them. Do they always have somebody standing by, or do you book an hourly delivery slot? Finally, how does the valet (because it is essentially a valet) get back to the garage? In Paris they can take the metro or a frequent bus from anywhere. In Seattle it would take a long time to get back from some locations, unless a second driver shadowed them with a return car. Or they could put a fold-up bicycle in your car, ha ha, but some clients would not be pleased with that.

  7. So angry, entitled single-family neighbors will welcome all these backyard cottages why?

    I think it’s a bizarre non-sequitur for Councilmember O’Brien to bust out with this idea when he couldn’t even get his colleagues on board to support an additional 250 small-lot developments and he’s damaging microhousing with his current proposal. And unless he can get a course change, he and his colleagues are preparing to downzone the best zone in the city to put more growth, the low-rise zone.

    And remember when O’Brien voted down retail in the LR 3 zones? (see: Councilmember O’Brien is the guy we all want to love, but when you look at his record he’s falling far short of the promises.

    This is hard to take seriously.

    1. O’Brien isn’t as bad as the rest of the council, but no he isn’t great. Expect one or more neighborhoods to try to put an extremely anti-growth and anti-density member on the council with districts.

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