Seattle's quiet war over zoning regulation rages on

Seattle has a cottage industry, literally, with businesses that build tiny homes and backyard cottages such as this one. But city regulations often get in the way. (Courtesy of Backyard Cottage Blog)

SEATTLE — Over the past year, two sides of Seattle have quietly been at odds as the city attempts to, partially, solve an affordable housing crisis with backyard cottages.

“There’s this war that’s developed in the City of Seattle now, and it’s between the downtown and the urbanists that see the world one way,” said Marty Kaplan with the Queen Anne Community Council. “And they condemn everybody that lives around in the neighborhoods.”

“The push back on any kind of growth and density — it all is because single-family neighborhoods want to stay the way they are because they are mostly rich, white people,” Kaplan said sarcastically about how homeowners are viewed. “Mayor Murray disbanded the district councils because he said they were too white and didn’t represent the neighborhoods.”

At the heart of the most recent battle is accessory dwelling units – referred to as ADUs. They are backyard cottages built on a single-family property. Similar city regulations affect mother-in-law apartments. But they are difficult to build under Seattle’s current zoning regulations – as KIRO Radio’s Don O’Neill recently discovered when he tried to build a backyard cottage in Queen Anne.

The city attempted to modify regulations in 2016 to make it easier to build ADUs. It aimed to modify parking regulations – the homeowner would not have to provide off-street parking, which is currently required for backyard renters. The city also proposed that the homeowner live on site for a year to prevent property speculation in neighborhoods by developers.

But Don’s own Queen Anne council sued over the proposal. That has put the issue off until at least the summer of 2018. Meanwhile, an impact study on ADUs will be conducted. The lawsuit alleges that if the cottages are built and rented out, neighborhood streets would become clogged with renters’ cars, neighborhood density would triple, and the character of the neighborhoods would change.

“It simply was reaction to the fact that the city moved ahead with creating legislation to rezone 50 percent of the City of Seattle; 50 percent of the land area; 300,000 pieces of property without talking to anybody,” Kaplan said. “Without coming to neighborhoods.”

Others in Seattle see it differently, however. The ADUs are considered one remedy to the lack of affordable housing, but a remedy that will be very slow to act.

ADUs: Seattle vs Vancouver

One need look no further than Vancouver B.C. for how such an ADU program could work. While about 1 percent of Seattle’s single-family lots have an ADU, Vancouver has 35 percent.

According to Dan Bertolot, with the Seattle think-tank Sightline Institute, there are three things that Vancouver has done to get so many backyard cottages.

“The first one is parking; they don’t require an off-street parking space for every ADU,” Bertolet said. “Second, Vancouver does not require the owner of the property to live on site … in Seattle about 20 percent of all the single-family houses in the city are rentals. So that basically takes all those houses off the table for building an ADU, because the owner doesn’t live in them.”

“The third thing is, Vancouver allows both an in-law apartment and a backyard cottage on a single lot,” he said. “Seattle only allows one or the other.”

In Vancouver, despite having more ADUs, parking didn’t rise to any levels of concern.

“The thing about the parking, when it comes to ADUs, it’s such an incremental change,” Bertolet said. “We’re talking about one or two extra units on a block.”

Neighborhood character

Still, Kaplan, with the Queen Anne Community Council, is wary of any such changes.

“There would be a feeding frenzy for anybody with a truck and a nail bag to go buy homes and convert them into three rental units and displace the population,” Kaplan said.

Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien spearheaded the 2016 effort to change regulations. He said there are about 70,000 single-family lots in Seattle that would be eligible for backyard cottages and in-law apartments. But he refutes the notion that homeowners would all rush to build anything if they were suddenly were able to.

“A couple dozen of these in a good year might get built in today’s market,” he said. “…The idea that we are going to have thousands of these every year being built and it’s going to drastically change the character of the neighborhood overnight, I don’t think that the kind of fundamental shift in the neighborhoods is going to happen right away because of this.”

Kaplan does admit that he is ultimately in favor the ADUs, but he objects to how the city has gone about changing the regulations – leaving the neighborhoods out of the process.

Just ask former mayor, and current candidate for mayor, Mike McGinn. He is in favor of ADUs, but he notes a lesson he learned while mayor.

“One of my critiques of the administration, and I credit them for starting to work on their housing affordability and livability agenda, but it was a totally top-down process. And they came to the public and said, ‘Hey, we have the solution,’” McGinn said. “And you can’t have a top-down process in this town. That is one of the things I learned as mayor.”

KIRO Radio’s Andrew Lanier and MyNorthwest’s Dyer Oxley contributed to this article.

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