Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell

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Jul 24 2009

Backyard Cottages: A Place for your Mother-in-Law?

Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs), mother-in-law units, or, (as we are calling them in Seattle) backyard cottages, are being discussed in our city’s Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee. In 2006, the City Council passed legislation which permitted backyard cottages in Southeast Seattle. To date, 17 have been built in Southeast Seattle; many built over detached garages. I was not on the council when the 2006 legislation passed but I would not have supported legislation that only allows these dwellings in one section of town.

My staff and I toured examples of the backyard cottages in Southeast Seattle. We were actually impressed by their design, efficiency and practicality. While I have expressed some concerns about the design impacts of backyard cottages on neighborhoods, the homes I toured, in my opinion, were smartly built and sensitive to the needs of the neighborhood. For example, when the cottage is built next to the alley, in space that was underutilized, it cannot be seen from the street, and is within the size and scope of the existing structures in the alley.

The current legislation proposes backyard cottages be permitted city-wide, with a limit of 50 built per year. The owner must live on the premises at least six months out of the year. In addition, the lot area is required to be 4,000 square feet with minimum width and depth requirements. The combined lot coverage for the primary house and the backyard cottage should not surpass the 35 percent limit for single-family zones and cannot be more than 800 square feet with a height limit of 15 to 23 feet, which will depend on the width of the lot.

I believe the benefits of permitting a limited number of backyard cottages, including an increase in affordable housing choices and financial gain for the owner, justify my support. Opponents believe that backyard cottages will spell the end of single family neighborhoods, provoke too much density and increase parking problems. I do not dismiss these concerns. As this legislation unfolds, I will make sure this legislation addresses those issues. Additional restrictions other than limiting production to 50 per year should be considered. An example would be identifying a number permitted within a certain radius and ensuring their construction in all parts of the city as opposed to simply one geographic area.

I am very interested in this issue and I look forward to ensuing discussions. As always, I will ask direct questions in hopes to drive candid and open policy discussions and make sure we implement a policy intended to improve our great city, not erode its character and livability.

Link to the technical guide developed by the Seattle Planning Commission and DPD.

Examples of backyard cottages:

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