lanefabulous - 42

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) seem to be the one form of infill that just about everyone can get behind.  Even after pulling back on his earlier support for allowing more flexible construction in single family zones, Councilmember Mike O’Brien, for example, is still a big proponent of the ADU, as you can see on his website.  A “backyard cottage” sounds so non-threatening, who could possible oppose it?

However, despite their attractiveness to many stakeholders, very few actual ADUs have actually been built in the city (159 as of last December).  Despite efforts by O’Brien and others to streamline the process by providing pre-fab designs and other supports (which I’ve praised), ADUs haven’t taken off.   There are good reasons for this.  Many single family home owners simply don’t have the estimated $55,000 sitting in a bank account.  Furthermore, many lots are irregularly shaped, limiting the utility of pre-fab designs.

One option would be to allow an investor – someone with access to capital – to buy a property, build an ADU, and rent out both units, but unfortunately that’s currently illegal (though that could change as part of the HALA process).  In the current context, then, saying “we need more ADUs” is a bit like saying “we need to bring more jobs back home.” Unless you’ve got a plan to change the fundamental economics, it’s just cheap talk.

Now comes a timely Globe & Mail article from our neighbors to the North in Vancouver, BC, who seem to have reached a limit on ADUs (or “laneway houses”, as they’re called) in certain neighborhoods (via @MarketUrbanism):

…on the west side, laneway houses just aren’t serving their intended purpose. They aren’t marketable to the new offshore buyer, who generally wants a garage instead of a rental stream, she says. Most people who build a laneway on the west side have a very specific purpose, such as providing housing for a disabled or elderly relative.

“If someone has gone to the expense of spending $300,000 on a laneway house, I hope they don’t feel it’s adding value to their 80-year-old house,” she says. “Because unless he can convert that to a garage, the new owner will take that house down. It won’t be what the new owner wants.

($300k? Unless the exchange rate’s gone to hell again, Laneway houses are clearly bigger in Vancouver.)

As single-family homes become more valuable, one might expect similar results here in Seattle.  If you don’t need the money, and don’t have an elderly relative, why go through the trouble of being a landlord when you can have a  bigger backyard or a garage instead?  Or, better yet, tear down that aging, 1,500 square foot bungalow and build a modern, 3,500 square foot home instead.  That’s what current zoning laws seem to be driving toward, anyway.

Which is why, in the long term, we can’t preserve affordable housing by retaining single-family zoning.  Eventually the land in centrally-located, transit-adjacent neighborhoods will become so desirable that the house itself will be a rounding error.  Over the next few decades, many of Seattle’s single-family houses will be torn down whether we re-zone or not. The ones that are left will be gutted, renovated, and completely unaffordable. Back to Vancouver:

“Knock down a house and replace it with a bigger building for a single family … is hardly in line with our city’s goals to become more sustainable,” Mr. Yan says. “But knock it down and replace it with two family homes that are sensitive to the neighbourhood context, I’m okay with that one. And the family amenities are already there.”

Sounds about right.  All of which is not to say ADUs are a bad idea. They’re great! But they’re just one part of an overall affordability toolkit. Relaxing owner-occupancy requirements on the primary unit, so that both could be rented out, would be a sensible next step in getting more of them built.

100 Replies to “Backyard Cottages: Charming but Insufficient”

  1. Where do your $50k cost estimates come from? Based on my discussions with architects and contractors about remodeling costs in central Seattle, that sounds like not very much money to build a whole new structure. I’m not surprised by the 300k cost in Vancouver; that’s an expensive place too.

    1. Agree. I rebuilt a double garage to an adu 8 years ago. No foundation work, a simple box and all the labor myself. Permits and materials were over 30k.

      1. O’Brien depends on the expertise brought to him by the interested parties. He said as much at the end of the last HALA hearing.

      2. I would be willing to bet the $55K number is a mix-up on DPD’s part. I can imagine $55K being an average for ADU conversions (mother-in-law apartments within an existing house) but it’s not anywhere close for new DADUs (backyard cottages.) Figure a minimum of $200/SF, and likely closer to $300/SF, depending on size and complexity. So more like $200,000 and up for a typical 600 SF backyard cottage including design, permit and sitework. The HALA recommendation to ease parking and setback requirements will make backyard cottages fit on more lots–and that’s a great thing–but those changes won’t affect the cost much.

      3. I got a an estimate of $100,000 for a simple DADU — basically an apartment on top of a single car garage. We never did the design of it – just remodeled the main house.

  2. You mentioned the owner-occupancy requirement as one large barrier to backyard cottage construction. The parking requirement is another. When you add a DADU, you are required to have two off-street parking spaces on your lot. You may build the cottage with a two-car garage to meet this requirement. Unfortunately, any square footage you use on the garage counts toward the 800 square foot maximum unit size, meaning your “cottage” ends up being about the size of a studio apartment.

    Alternatively you can put the parking on the surface, but unless you have a lot significantly larger than the 5,000 square foot minimum, doing so likely means the cottage and parking will completely consume your back yard. Without a back yard, why even bother with a single-family home? Just buy a townhouse and skip the hassle of being a landlord.

    1. This is one of the huge reasons that keeps an ADU from being viable for me, and its a great example of braindead zoning. Down near the “dense” arterial, they can tear down a single family home and build 6 townhouse units, with 6 teeny tiny little garages, but if I want an ADU I have to have ample square footage for two cars. Nope not broken at all.

    2. Urban Centers, Urban Hubs, and Residential Urban Villages have no parking minimum. This applies to Backyard cottages within those zoned areas. Only outside those areas do the parking minimums come into effect. But one can apply for a parking waiver with DPD, which they have demonstrated they are willing to do according to their Backyard Cottage Annual Report and DPD Tip 117. Perhaps this latest HALA debate has loosened their willingness to grant these parking waivers even more.

      1. There’s very little single-family land in urban hubs, villages, etc. The HALA recommendations include upzoning most of the remaining single-family land in urban villages.

        As to the waivers, the DPD tip seems to indicate that they can only be granted when “topography or location of existing principal or accessory structures makes provision of one or both of the parking spaces unduly burdensome.” So if your house is on an extremely steep lot or is wide enough that there’s no room for a driveway on either side, you could get a waiver. If, on the other hand, you could pave over your back yard to provide the required parking but simply don’t want to, no waiver for you.

        I strongly support any reduction in parking minimums.

    3. It is completely bonkers to require two off-street spaces per unit for any housing.

      Two is the *maximum* number of cars that any normal family has. I mean, I do know people with four or five cars, but they’re *weird*.

      Legislating a minumum of two spaces per unit guarantees that you’re legislating too many spaces.

      Legislating one space per unit is more like it. There are lots of one-car families.

    4. I’m out of town, so I’m typing on a clunky laptop; so let me just say this: I agree completely. The ownership requirement is bad, as is the parking requirement, as is the square footage regulation. They all add up to … only 159 a year.

      Also — Vancouver is adding very few ADUs because they are saturated. Our urban villages will soon be saturated. Rent will be sky high, and very few new units will be added because tearing down 4 story buildings to construct 6 story buildings never makes sense.

      By all means, we should push for more density everywhere, but the biggest potential cheap housing is in SFH. If all we can get is more ADUs, it is still a huge improvement.

  3. “One option would be to allow an investor – someone with access to capital – to buy a property, build an ADU, and rent out both units.”

    NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. We don’t need to continue to hand control of our country over to corporate America. Look at the profile of the average person who owns a home in Wallingford, Fremont, or Ballard, working at Boeing, Amazon, or Microsoft, and tell me that they can’t afford a home equity load that will pay itself off in rent in five years or less. It’s bad enough that the machinists, longshoremen, waitresses, clerks, and writers have been forced out of Seattle. We don’t need to hand the control over from individuals who work high-paying jobs to Wall Street.

    1. Small time investments like this are more likely to be smaller local investors. It becomes a wealth building opportunity for enterprising residents.

    2. “Wall Street” companies aren’t going to be buying these homes. It would be individuals and maybe small, local rental companies at the largest.

      The current owner occupancy rules are quite onerous. A homeowner can build a backyard cottage, but when they do so they have to file a covenant promising that the owner will live in one of the two units in perpetuity. This covenant is binding on all future owners.

      There are plenty of ways this can go wrong for homeowners.

      1) Suppose the owner decides to retire to Phoenix and wants to rent out their home and backyard cottage for some retirement income. They can’t do it. If an owner is not living in the home or the cottage, they must dismantle enough of the cottage that it no longer qualifies as a separate living unit.
      2) Suppose the owner wants to sell the house. Because of the owner occupancy requirement, only families who are interested in being landlords while living in one unit are able to buy the house. This causes the market price to be lower than if people who wanted to rent out both units were allowed to put in bids.

      Frankly, I see no reason why we should be more concerned about “absentee landlords” when there’s a backyard cottage than when there isn’t. There are no restrictions on renting out single-family homes with only one unit. Why does the addition of a second unit make rentals so much worse for the neighborhood?

      1. Because when people see a block of houses they assume they’re all owner-occupied even when some of them aren’t, but when they see an ADU they assume it’s a rental, and thus the inhabitant is less affluent than the rest of the people on the block, and the block is less exclusive than one without ADUs.

      2. Worth noting: Here in semi-rural upstate NY I live in an area of so-called single-family homes. I think I’m the only owner-occupied residence. They’ve all become rentals, all of them.

        That’s just life these days.

    1. Nothing. But a supply increase can slow the rate of rental inflation.

      Expecting more housing to reduce housing costs is like expecting more transit to reduce traffic congestion.

      Want to actually reducing housing prices? That pretty much requires tanking the local economy. (And, yes, some anti-displacement activists have even suggested doing that.)

      1. If you built a hell of a lot of housing you could actually reduce housing costs. But based on the current Seattle economy with its terrible housing shortages…. it would require a hell of a lot.

  4. I would like to see Seattle allow lots with back egress (via alley or side yard) to be short platted. Then “backyard” cottages could be sold fee simple, allowing more families to afford home-ownership in Seattle. This would require allowing lots as small as 2,500 sq ft (which is only about 500 sq ft smaller than the historic lot size in some neighborhoods). It would also help prevent the front home from being torn down (due to less land available to replace with a McMansion).

    And, yes, obviously the parking requirement is absurd.

    1. It’s hard to imagine the scale and scope of the NIMBY freak-out that would cause, but I strongly agree.

    2. I’m all in favor of this. Not going to happen this decade, but might enter the realm of reasonable discussion when prices go up a bit more.

    3. Nice. You’d have to have rules regarding the required sliver of driveway /walkway access to the back lot, whether in fee simple or by easement, but those would be straightforward enough to write…

  5. Well said. I totally agree that ADUs will be a very minor player in raising density.

    I’m not sure that “many of Seattle’s SFH” will get knocked down, however, because as in Vancouver the economics don’t really make sense. You can’t build anything of scale on a single lot, and acquiring multiple adjacent lots in a short period of time is a terribly difficult coordination problem. Meanwhile, there will always be a deep-pocketed buyer who wants a large SFH. Much easier for builders to remodel existing homes and maintain SFH as luxury housing.

    As far as adding density, Seattle can’t do it alone while the inner suburbs retain primarily SFH zoning. A sizeable segment of Seattle’s population actually works outside the city and lives in Seattle for what I’d say are “lifestyle” reasons. This generates traffic and “artificially” raises demand for Seattle’s housing. If Seattle is the only city adding density, it will attract even more reverse commuters who simply won’t be able to find available housing (or the walkability that comes with more density) in the suburbs. If they could live in Edmonds, Kirkland, or Tacoma and enjoy a similar lifestyle with a shorter commute, perhaps that would take the pressure off of Seattle rents somewhat.

    1. A sizeable segment of Seattle’s population actually works outside the city and lives in Seattle for what I’d say are “lifestyle” reasons.

      What percentage?

      1. No idea of hard numbers, so I’m going from who I know among friends/family/neighbors (not coworkers, obviously). I’d say 15-20% of those people are working outside Seattle but living in the city.

        Expedia said 25% of its workforce commuted to Bellevue from Seattle. Based on that figure, other large employers may also have double-digit percentages of reverse-commuters.

      2. That doesn’t get to the “lifestyle” component of your claim. When I worked in Bellevue and lived in Seattle my wife worked in Seattle.

        Besides, being afraid to add units because you think some will be wasted by people that want to live here seems like a very strange argument. Unless you’re claiming all of those units will be taken up by lifestyle residents, which you aren’t.

      3. What’s a lifestyle resident? What’s a lifestyle? It’s always seemed to me that one’s lifestyle is chiefly determined by the way one earns a living, and is pretty much the same worldwide. Fishermen have one lifestyle, farmers another.

        In Ballard, in the decades before the local economy went from light industry to heavy real estate speculation, just to say “fisherman” or “carpenter” said it all about the person’s lifestyle.

        “Gay lifestyle” is currently most ridiculous usage of the word. Getting up at three in the morning to feed the animals must be exactly the same experience across all gender boundaries.

        In other words, whatever the “look” of one’s house, or the decor of the neighborhood’s restaurants doesn’t change the facts of transit driving life.

        Going full-time does, though. In Coach Operator Ralph Cramden’s day, description of the “Full-time” lifestyle always started with “a dog’s….”


      4. Just look at why they’re living in the city in the first place. A few of them want to live near the very best clubs and restaurants (call them hipsters), but many of them just want a walkable neighborhood (call them normal people). They’re looking for any place where they can walk to the store/library/gym/park and have full-time frequent transit. There are only a few places that fit the bill, and they crowd into them. But really, a walkable neighborhood is a reasonable request that should be available to everybody, and was so until after WWII when car-dependent neighborhoods became the norm. So we shouldn’t say “They should live on the Eastside.” or “They’re too rich to deserve to live in the city.” Instead, we should have enough walkable/transit-rich neighborhoods for everyone who wants it.

      5. Sorry, “lifestyle” was a poor choice of words.

        I’m getting at things like walkability, nearby shops and amenities, decent transit service, etc. A “car-optional” life instead of a “car mandatory” one, basically what Mike is saying.

        Since these workers can’t find those neighborhoods near their workplaces, they live in Seattle and deal with the long commutes (ironically, the commute may require a car when living in Seattle). They may prefer a shorter commute, but not at the expense of losing out on neighborhood amenities. That’s unfortunate and highly inefficient (in commute time and costs).

        I’m not saying “you shouldn’t live on the Eastside or shouldn’t live in Seattle” or anything like that. People should live where they want to. But it would be great if people had some options to live in “low-car” neighborhoods closer to work. ADUs can help in Seattle, but they don’t make Bellevue or Issaquah more walkable.

      6. Apparently, over 2/3 of Seattle residents work outside the Seattle city limits. This is a big reason why traffic has gotten so bad. 62 percent of Seattle’s workforce is commuting into the city from the suburbs, while only 38 percent of Seattle residents are staying inside the city to work.

        “Seattle doesn’t have a problem in attracting residents — the number of city households is growing as predicted. But there are many consequences to the weak job growth. One is the stress it puts on transportation. For all the discussion of live/work, only 38 percent of Seattleites both live and work their primary job in the city. And 62 percent of those who work in the city live outside of it, according to U.S. Census figures. The number of jobs per household in Seattle has declined even as the population has grown. To achieve a target figure of 1.8 jobs per household, Seattle would need to add 180,000 jobs in the next 20 years, 65,000 more than are projected, estimates Steinbrueck, who recommended a reassessment of job growth strategies. Certainly, this picture of Seattle as an urban bedroom community to the suburbs defies some of the narrow thinking about the urban-suburban relationship.”

      7. “Apparently, over 2/3 of Seattle residents work outside the Seattle city limits.”

        This makes it important to extend Link and Sounder to job centers outside the city limits, I think. If there are job centers. If the jobs are sprawled, I don’t see what you can do about it.

      8. j-lon,

        Thanks for that stat, it is way more than I thought. Some of this is probably because of the rise of two-earner households combined with the centricity of Seattle to the transportation network.

        It is easier to live in Seattle and then if one (or both) earners loses his/her job, most of the suburban job centers are drivable. Much harder to do if you already live in a suburb. Kent to Seattle is manageable. Kent to Everett, not so much.

      9. Could be Alex, although that’s not been my experience. I’ve lived in Seattle for 23 years now. I know a lot of people who work in the suburbs (e.g., at Microsoft). Seems like your initial premise is the correct one. People chose Seattle and have stayed in Seattle, rather than moving to the suburbs, because they like living in the city when they’re not at work. So they put up with the commute, deal with the challenges around the schools if they have kids, etc., because it’s worth it to them to be in Seattle. I think the cost of housing is a little bit cheaper in Seattle than on the east side as well.

        Walkability, etc. undoubtedly plays a role for some people. But at least for me, there’s just a lot more cultural stuff to do in Seattle (e.g., live music, lots of places to eat and drink, etc.). If I didn’t value those things, I could have a relatively walkable experience living near downtown Kirkland, downtown Edmunds, or in downtown Bellevue.

        It’s more of a cultural thing I think. Generally, people who self-identify as “hipper” have tended to gravitate towards Seattle, or towards suburbs like Shoreline, that are very close to Seattle.

        This is going to be an incredibly coarse generalization, but in my experience, the graphic designer at Microsoft is more likely to be a Seattle resident, and the engineer/developer is probably more likely to live in the suburbs near Redmond, especially if they have a family.

        Also, the more religious and politically conservative person is also more likely to live in the suburbs, because more that’s where more of their people live.

        Engineers/developers tend to be more pragmatic. So they value being closer to work, and if they have a family, they’re less likely to want to deal with the school situation in Seattle, because it doesn’t seem rational to do that when you can live somewhere near work that has great public schools.

        Honestly, for people with families, I suspect schooling for the kids is the single biggest factor in determining whether people choose to move to the suburbs. My brother and his family moved out of Seattle when their kids were school age, and I’ve seen a lot of other folks do that too. Indeed, other than San Francisco, Seattle has less children per capita than any city in the country.

        So it’s all well and good to argue that we need more affordable housing for families. But if we don’t improve the public schools in Seattle, I’m not sure that’s going to make much difference for a lot of folks. Once their kids are school age, they’re moving to Bellevue, Shoreline, etc. I mean Shoreline is essentially Pinehurst or Haller Lake with better public schools.

        Anyway, my takeaway from all this is that the Seattle Metro area is complicated and it’s important not to get too locked into assumptions. I have to remind myself that the east side is actually more diverse than Seattle now. That wasn’t true when I moved her in the early 1990s. Yet my old stereotype often persists, even though times have changed.

        So it’s much harder to make assumptions about where certain people will live and where they will work. That’s what makes all this complicated.

        But what is clear is this: As long as lots of people are driving both directions in and out of Seattle to get to work, the traffic is going to be terrible no matter how much housing we build inside Seattle.

        So we’re likely to be in an ongoing bad traffic spiral for another decade waiting for the light rail improvements to come online.

        But in the mean time, we should probably be supporting efforts to draw more jobs to Seattle (e.g., the proposed development where Lowes on Rainier Ave S, near the Mt Baker and I-90 link stations). Office space at this location may seem weird right now. But if you think about its proximity to both downtown and the east side, it could be a nice location for smaller tech start-ups, creative businesses, etc.

      10. There are certainly plenty of people sending their kids to Seattle schools, otherwise there wouldn’t be the cording situation there is in some parts of the city.

        Compared to other urban districts nationally and even to other districts in the state, Seattle schools are actually quite good. It is just that some of the suburban districts like Lake Washington, Mercer Island, Shoreline, Northshore, Bellevue, and issaquah are outstanding.

        As to the yard issue I blame our zoning again. In the DC metro when people talk about townhouses they mean row houses. Typically depending on location these may have a back yard and even a front yard. Land use wise They appear to be about as dense as the typical n-pack Seattle town home but with a much more appealing built form and the space taken by driveways and setbacks put toward usable yards.

        the beauty is you can go even denser by eliminating the yards but still have something less dense than a 6 story apartment building.

      11. I would agree that the trend seems to be upward in terms of people sending their kids to Seattle schools. I’d also agree that the Seattle schools are better than many urban districts. Nobody with money is going to send their kids to the Cleveland or Detroit public schools. Everybody with money in those places lives in the suburbs, and the few people with money who don’t live in the suburbs send their kids to private school.

        That being said, the reason why we have the crowding issues in the schools now is because so many schools have been closed over the last 40 years due to declining enrollments. Maybe we’ve hit bottom on that. But the fact remains, most people in the Seattle metro area with kids don’t live in Seattle.

        I doubt that’s going to change anytime soon. But I guess we’ll see.

      12. There is nothing particularly wrong with the Cleveland public schools.

        Detroit public schools are of course bankrupt.

    2. That’s why I’ve been urging the suburbs to densify and build larger urban villages, so that people can both live and work there without feeling stuck in soul-destroying sprawl hell. And they’re doing it to some extent, especially the ones that affluent reverse-commuters go to. Unfortunately there’s a gap between suburban density (like the Spring District probably will be) and the great city neighborhoods (which are still more walkable, have a wider variety of stuff, and have smaller streets and parking lots and more transit options). So it will never be quite like the city, but it can still be convenient enough and interesting enough that reverse-commuters are willing to live there.

      As for the number of reverse-commuters, the visible ones are the Microsoft and Google workers, and also smaller offices like Oracle. But they can afford to live anywhere so they’re not really our concern. But there are also people who commute to working-class jobs. My roommate works in a Kent warehouse, goes to navy reserve in Everett, and attends Bellevue College. We live centrally in Summit so he can take the bus to all these, but he wouldn’t be able to live there on his own, he’d be living in Shoreline or Kent or somewhere where it would take longer to get around. And that comes down to the other issue: job locations. The majority of tech jobs and miscellaneous jobs are in Seattle, Bellevue, and Redmond. Kent has a niche with industrial jobs. But if you’re in Shoreline or Edmonds or Lynnwood, you’re a long way from all of them, at least until ST2 Link opens. And if you’re in Kent or Auburn, you can’t get to anything easily except the industrial jobs.

    3. Many older SFH in my neighborhood in Kirkland are being torn down and replaced by larger SFH. If there’s space to divide the lot, they’ll do that and build two, but many lots just see one new house replacing one older house. The older ones go for $400-$500k, the new ones for $900k+. The old houses are 1200-1700SF with 1-2 car garages, the new ones 3000+ with 3 car garages. I see nothing good about this change.

      1. Well, in the long term they may become slums and house two or three poor families, especially if it becomes increasingly impractical to live in low-density areas and the affluent abandon them.

      2. That’s why urbanists are advocating for legalizing duplex conversions, subdivision into smaller lots, etc.

        Basically, right now it’s legal to demolish and build a McMansion, but it is *not* legal to subdivide the house into a duplex, build a second house in the backyard, etc.

        The result is what you see.

  6. You want to increase density and affordability?


    Take a look what’s happening in my neck of the woods , the 35th Avenue NE upzone plan. Increasing building heights at four major intersections. The upzone ( if approved ) combined with the increased frequency of buses suddenly makes sleepy Wedgwood a great place to get an apartment ( if built ).

    As for ADUs, I have got a neighbor with one and he also rents out other rooms as well ( he lives in the house as well ) AND every single person has a car…

    I have seen another ADU under construction nearby as well, problem is….where is that car going? Even with the abundance of car2go, Uber/Lyft, Metro, cycletracks, people still have those boxes on wheels…

    1. Somebody else just said you can’t upzone and densify yourself into affordability, you can only fractionally slow the rate of rent increase, which isn’t the same as being affordable.

      1. No, rents can decrease if you build over population growth. Check out rents in DC since 2012 – they’ve actually decreased, because they’ve made a concerted effort to increase supply. And the most built neighborhoods have seen the largest decrease in rents.

      2. That’s not what I’m reading in the Washington Post (in French. English is my sixth language). Most of the population growth is due to births, not net migration, and in the neighborhoods where the condos are going up, long-time residents are being priced out of the area.

      3. We should increase the housing supply at minimum to keep up with births and in-migration. That should be the baseline of any policy. The reason rents are out of control is we haven’t kept up the housing supply so we have a backlog. That applies to both countywide and citywide averages and in specific neighborhoods. Countywide and citywide rents are going up (including in south King County) because of the general population increase and some people moving to all over the county. Specific neighborhood rents are rising even faster because of people’s desire for a certain type of location: frequent transit, close to downtown, express lines, avoiding extraordinarily long commutes with excruciatingly infrequent transit, access to businesses within the walk circle, bars and clubs, seeing pedestrians on the sidewalk, etc. Some people want some of these and other people want others, but aggregately it explains why people are crowding into Capitol Hill and the U-District and Fremont and Ballard and Rainier Valley, and not as much into Lake City or Broadview or Delridge or High Point or South Park.

        If there were plenty of housing in these desirable areas, or if the other areas were made more convenient (which means upzones and more businesses and better transit), then an affluent newcomer would take a luxury unit and a starving artist would take a lower-priced unit and there would be less competition for either unit. But because there’s a housing shortage, they’re both competing for the same unit and the starving artist gets priced out.

    2. I think, on the right timescale, this is where the free market works. In neighborhoods with ample street parking, it isn’t really a problem. In neighborhoods with less street parking, off-street parking becomes more valuable, and hence more likely to be built. Once a neighborhood starts to become a nightmare to park in (cap hill), we are 1) out of ADU territory and into apartment territory, and 2) transit and walking start to take over. We needn’t meddle so much*.

      *the losers here are the residents who built before off street parking was valuable, and then have trouble finding parking when the neighborhood densifies. But having to walk a block or two to park is arguably a loss of significantly less value than is gained by the amenities that a denser neighborhood supports, as evidenced by real estate prices.

      1. The losers here are pre-automobile developments that don’t have off-street parking, or the earliest garages that don’t fit modern cars. But that’s a very small part of the city. Almost all of the single-family areas where ADUs are possible have at least one-car garages, and many have two-car garages.

      2. Loss of plentiful street parking isn’t even a huge deal for all pre-automobile houses. My house was built 100 years ago and has no off-street parking space. However it does have access to an alley in the back. If street parking became unreliable, it would not be that difficult or expensive to move the fence in a bit and pave a parking spot right next to the alley. Heck, I could even put in two spaces and rent one to a neighbor who doesn’t have such an easy time putting parking on their property.

        I think people underestimate the amount of space that could be converted to off-street parking use if conditions warranted. As long as we require all new developments to have their very own parking space, there’s no incentive for individuals to implement pretty simple solutions like parking off the alley, using their existing driveway, or something similar to make more room on the street for people with fewer options.

  7. Ouch. If that is what a “backyard cottage” is supposed to look like then I can understand why so few have been built…..

    But generally I support the concept, although I’d make them garage-less to reduce the bulk and cost while allowing them to better fit into the neighborhood.

    1. Where’s the cottage in that picture? The thing with several windows looks like a full-sized house.

      1. Um, could I say that’s not typical for the ADAs we’re talking about for Seattle? I envisioned more small one-room jobbies.

  8. “Which is why, in the long term, we can’t preserve affordable housing by retaining single-family zoning.”

    I don’t think the term “affordable housing” belongs in an article on ADUs, other than stating that ADUs have absolutely nothing to do with affordable housing.

    1. I’m not sure I follow. There are few market-based solutions that are more likely to produce lower rents, because they are less likely to come with lots of amenities and high-end finishes, AND they make living in the main house more affordable as well–each ADU/DADU contributes to affordability twice, by keeping the rent money in the hands of city residents, rather than investors. My own experience living in a backyard cottage in Wallingford was like this–it was pretty cheap, compared to apartments in the neighborhood, and my rent checks helped the elderly, fixed income residents the main home to be able to afford their rising property taxes.

      1. I’m going to make a guess that all ADUs built in this climate will be marketed towards the higher end crowd, since there’s a market for them. Look at practically every condo/apartment building going in, especially in north Seattle; they all seem to be some form of luxury building, geared towards the high end crowd. That’s not to say there is no middle or low end housing being built right now, but it’s definitely not enough to make an impact. If you had the choice of spending $50,000 to build a unit that will sell for $300,000 or spending $80,000 to build a unit that will sell for $500,000, which would you do?

        And if rents/housing go down (not going to happen without another huge market crash), people probably won’t build ADUs, because they won’t sell or rent.

        The only type of affordable housing we are going to see in this market is either forced by code, subsidized or government owned. And suggesting any of those seems to be considered blasphemy on this blog, since it reduces the profits of Dear Developer.

      2. We have to build enough housing to saturate the luxury market, then the majority of construction will be lower-end.

      3. I’m sure that’s true, for some of them. But: a. they won’t have the shared amenities of luxury buildings, so that’ll keep some of the costs down and b. some of them will probably be built not by ruthless, profit-maximizing developers but be nervous, risk-averse homeowners leery of taking on debt (or trying to keep debt down) on this project, who’ll shoot for a lower cost, lower reward scenario.

        Obviously I doubt any new construction will be particularly affordable for >60% AMI, or even >80% of AMI, but the way things are going we badly need more options for people in the 80-100% AMI range (or maybe even 100-120), a category we need market solutions for because, as HALA makes clear, the city isn’t interested in subsidizing. So something that increases options for people in that category is very much an important part of the affordable housing picture.

      4. *sigh* Basic principle. If there is a severe housing shortage, the rich people will take all the best housing. Once you start building ENOUGH housing, you start getting some affordable housing. For a city with a jobs boom like Seattle, enough housing is *a lot* of housing.

        The only way to keep track of whether you have enough is to look at the vacancy rate. Typically 5% of rentals (of each type — 3br, 2br, 1br) should be vacant at any given time.

    2. Actually, my friend that lives in Magnolia has a very affordable DADU, especially compare to much of the rest of Magnolia. The problem is that it was built in the 1930s or so. It doesn’t meet current Seattle DADU standards because the offset to the alley is 0 feet, and parking is on the street.

      Practically speaking, there is absolutely no issue with either of those. Nobody cares about offset from an alley. It isn’t supposed to be a scenic through street that doubles as a backyard freeway. Even with a nearby 4-plex not having any off-street parking, there is more than sufficient scarcity of nearby residents that parking on the street just isn’t an issue in Magnolia.

    3. Rightly or wrongly, the proponents of ADUs seem to think they are part of the broader affordable housing solution.

      1. Right. Unless the owners are really bad at pricing, they won’t be particularly affordable relative to other market rate options. Underpricing is probably more likely for a one-off ADU owner than for a large sophisticated property manager, but still not enough to make ADUs really affordable housing.

        Many ADUs won’t be on the rental market at all, however, because they will be used by family members, or for airbnb short-term rentals.

      2. If you have parents who need a place, or a grown-up child who wants to live on the lot but not in the house, perhaps with a spouse, then you’ll likely build an ADU and share the construction costs. The residents might pay a discount rent toward the main house’s mortgage, or to supplement a retiree’s income in the main house. When the family ADU residents move away or die, the owner might want to rent it out.

        There’s also the tiny house movement. A tiny house is like an ADU only smaller (typically 80-200 square feet, although some are smaller and larger). Current ones are on wheels because the zoning requires them to be “temporary” and “not a full-time residence”, but these and other restrictions could be lifted someday. There are people who would like to park a tiny house in somebody’s yard and pay them rent and get utilities. A few of them already have a house to bring, but of course most of them won’t build a house until they have a place to put it. It would be nice to see the ADU laws be tiny-house friendly too.

    4. Exactly, it’s a both/and solution, not either/or. Only midrises or only ADUs is not enough, both for the raw numbers and to give people a variety of styles and price points. Midrises alone could be enough if we were allowed to upzone a significant part of the single-family area, but if the starting point is keeping the single-family areas then we need ADUs and duplexes and row houses.

  9. Directly across Greenwood Avenue to the east, there’s what’s called a “cottage community”. Single-story+loft single-family houses, arranged around a large central lawn. Every house also has its own garden.

    There’s a single meeting- or party- room. And a single garage with a space for every unit, in one corner of the property.

    There’s also one of these same developments in Langley. Wouldn’t this arrangement work for what we’re trying to do in Seattle? And what would objections be, from any side?

    Mark Dublin

    1. You need a big piece of land to start with, or spend quite a lot of money and time collecting adjacent lots to make one of those happen.

      On the other hand its a lot more expedient to buy a medium sized lot and fill it with town homes. Each townhome usually has its own little yard and a single garage. Other than the shared private lawn (we have parks for that), how is this much different?

      1. The difference is shared walls. Townhomes come with a significant risk: the next person that moves in next door might be a heavy-walking doofus who listens to the same bass-heavy track 20 hours a day.

      2. Charles B, where in Seattle are they building townhomes with their “own little yard”? Nearly all the ones I see have a separate row of townhomes where backyards should go. The others are built on shallow lots that leave no room for yards, little or otherwise.

        I raise this point because one way to make MF housing attractive to families with children is to have a little yard space out back, enough for a swingset, a BBQ, and a picnic table. Or maybe a garden patch. Seattle ain’t Manhattan. Few families want to raise our children without at least a bit of outdoor space on the property.

      3. @RDPence
        Mine has a small yard, but to be fair I only use it to store bikes in a little shed. Many of the townhomes built last decade do have a tiny little yard.

        New ones do seem to be yardless, having rooftop decks and stone driveways instead. Perhaps new buyers don’t actually want yards?

      4. Thanks, Charles. My quest is specifically for family-friendly townhomes, thus the few hundred feet of backyard. I’m quite sure the childless folks can be happy without such, but I’m trying to expand ways of allowing middle-income families w/kids to stay in the city. I’d like to see the RSL zone expanded to include FF townhomes.

      5. “The difference is shared walls. Townhomes come with a significant risk: the next person that moves in next door might be a heavy-walking doofus who listens to the same bass-heavy track 20 hours a day.”

        This is why rowhouses and townhouses should have “wall soundproofing” regulations.

        That’s a really easy regulation which adds a miniscule amount to the cost of construction. Rather than banning townhouses, require them to have soundproofed walls.

      6. Regarding yards, I’m trying to recall: I believe the last study I read said that about 20% of homebuyers wanted yards, and the other 80% couldn’t care less about yards.

        So there you go. We have a vast oversupply of yards in the US.

      7. Nathanael, I’m curious what the survey results would be for Seattle families with children. I suspect they would have a much greater preference for at least some yard space. I don’t think we’re ready to go full Manhattan when it comes to where we raise our children.

      8. Most families with kids never use their yards, and I do mean *never*. It’s amazing how wasted yards are.

        If the kids want to go out they go to the park.

    2. I wouldn’t mind a shared yard where I could have my own vegetable garden and others could have another garden or lawn or whatever.

      1. Sure, but its likely that would cost a lot more to build than a townhome where you have your own smaller yard.

  10. For clarification, the community garage sits in one corner of the development, the closest to Greenwood. in Seattle, I don’t see any need for a garage at all.


  11. Seems to me that rezoning a lot of the SFH zoning for townhomes would be a lot more effective than this. Its a lot easier to cut one property into 2-4 townhome lots than it is to assemble a bunch of small lots to build apartments anyway.

  12. Please note that the article says ADU – accessory dwelling units. It doesn’t specifically say they have to be detached dwelling units.

    To me ADUs also include things like duplex conversions and a number of other concepts that don’t necessarily mean backyard cottage.

    With the large number of baby boom generation getting along in years, and needing to move into the same house as their parents, it seems like ADUs that are not detached are going to be in very high demand.

    I can tell you that if I walk through parts of southeast Portland, in some places I can count as many as 10% of the houses to have had duplex conversions done to them. A 10% increase in housing units while at the same time preserving the basic nature of the neighborhood and preserving the craftsman (or earlier) houses that so many people want to save shouldn’t be sneezed at.

    1. Duplex (and triplex, and quadruplex) conversions which retain the essential character of the original house — they are pretty awesome if you believe in historic preservation.

  13. Surprised that ADUs are even allowed on something zoned for single family. Fire risks? plumbing, the noise and activity of extra people living out back coming and going?

    Cant say I’d be pleased either if my adjacent neighbors slapped up some after thought building at minimal cost to fit extra people into. If I was in the market for buying a house the last thing I want on my property is an additional building wasting space and needing to be maintained, nor any next door, if anything its going to lower property values.

    The solution is to sell your sh1tty inner city house thats 150 years old, thats inefficient to heat, expensive to maintain, and doesnt meet any kind of modern building codes, and buy something larger and better suited to your family’s needs somewhere else.

    1. This comment is wrong about everything but

      1) What you are looking for in a house is different than what other people desire. I, for example, would have loved it if my house came with a dadu, I could easily rent it out for > 60% of my mortgage cost.

      2) This is Seattle, it doesn’t get cold here. Seriously, you will never recoup the costs of installation / new windows in this climate.

    2. You don’t own your neighbor’s property. If you want to restrict what they can build, buy the property.

      Do you worry about fire risk from trees?

      “The solution is to sell your sh1tty inner city house thats 150 years old, thats inefficient to heat, expensive to maintain, and doesnt meet any kind of modern building codes, and buy something larger and better suited to your family’s needs somewhere else.”

      That’s the opposite problem. If you can afford it, do it. ADUs are for people who can’t afford to buy a full lot, much less a larger and better one somewhere else. And when you sell your lot, please sell it to somebody who will build townhouses.

    3. “Fire risks?”
      ” plumbing,”
      Same as any house.
      ” the noise and activity of extra people living out back coming and going?”
      This is not something which can be addressed by “zoning”. Same thing can happen with any neighbor. Unless you have one of those 40-acre lots, you’ll have to deal with that sometimes. Nuisance laws are more appropriate.

      We lived down the road from a university President for a while. The parties he threw filled up blocks and blocks with cars, including double-parked and illegally parked cars, and created raucous noise all night which was audible for blocks.

      Obviously, the university President lived in a single-family detached home on a large lot. Didn’t help.

  14. If you’re going to tear down houses, why not start with the low hanging fruit — the large (and low density) estates and mansions. Some of these occupy prime urban real estate, or ocean front views.

    A hefty exponential property tax would cause a big sell off and reversion to smaller homes and apartments.

    1. The price will reflect the zoning. The more units that can built, the higher the price for the land. Do you see any cheap townhouses being built? I don’t. I write for a certain local blog and so look at the MLS everyday.

  15. Here’s a nice breakdown on cost/reward for an ADU in San Francisco.

    “Based on New Avenue’s extensive experience and data we estimated that a 600 square foot, 2 bedroom ADU costs around $250,000 to design and construct.”

    “Furthermore when you take a long-term perspective look at where you would be at the end of the 30 years after paying off the mortgage you now have over half-a-million in ADU Equity, and close to $700,000 in cumulative rental income over that period of time.”

  16. Why not just allow the ADU to be sold after it is built by the original home owner? This could allow a more economically diverse population to own a home in these excellent neighborhoods while also providing a quick exit to the homeowner.

    1. Because nobody wants a small house owner in their back yard. There are excellent neighborhoods all over greater Seattle, homeowner want-to-be’s just need to find a house they can afford. It can be done, it happens all the time, all over this city. All this nonsense about homeowners in SF zoned areas needing to share/sell/split their house/plot/yard to others for the good of more density is just nonsense. Nobody wants neighborhoods to become cramped, high density, wall-to wall parked cars, full of renters who could careless. Seattle has these neighborhoods which have high turnover of residents who come to their senses and move out.

      1. Nobody is forcing anyone to do anything. All that is being asked for here is a zoning change to allow those that want to construct or remodel such a place to do as they wish. Some people will want to do this, and others will not.

      2. Wow, what a wall-to-wall cavalcade of bad stereotypes.

        News flash: most renters are long-termers who stay in the same house or apartment as long as they possibly can. They often stay longer than the “house-flippers” who own a lot of the “owner-occupied” housing.

        I can’t even find time to debunk the rest of your bad stereotypes.

      3. OK, I’ll debunk one more for you: you know one reason there are so many long-term renters? Because *most people can’t afford to buy houses, they’re too expensive*. It’s cheaper to rent than to have a mortgage, quite often.

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