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GUEST BLOGGER: Accessory Dwelling Units by Nick Welch

Editor’s note: We are beginning a new monthly blog series, written by OPCD staff to highlight projects that we are excited about. This month, Nick Welch focuses on the benefits of Accessory Dwelling Units.

This month, the City reached a milestone in our work to increase housing options in Seattle’s single-family zones. On May 10 we issued a draft environmental analysis of our proposal to remove regulatory barriers and make it easier for property owners to create accessory dwelling units (ADUs), small secondary units in their house or rear yard. This work began in 2014 when the City Council asked our department to expand ADU development, and the recent draft environmental study responds to direction from the City’s Hearing Examiner to complete a thorough review of the proposal’s likely effects.

Though commonplace in Seattle decades ago, relatively few ADUs have been created in recent years. Less than two percent of single-family lots have an in-law apartment or backyard cottage. Several factors contribute to this low rate of production, including high construction cost and barriers in the Land Use Code. To help boost ADU production, we’re proposing to modify rules that often discourage or prevent people from creating new housing choices on their property. Our housing crisis requires a wide range of solutions, and we see ADUs as part of a strategy to create housing choices in all Seattle neighborhoods.

ADUs support families in several ways. For tenants, ADUs offer new rental housing options on family-friendly quiet streets, near parks and schools, and in parts of our city where housing is out of reach for most households. (We’ve found that very few single-family rentals are affordable to low-income households.) ADUs let homeowners generate stabilizing income, accommodate extended family, house a caregiver, downsize. It’s a flexible resource that helps households adapt to their changing needs.

ADUs also offer gentle infill development in neighborhoods across the city. Whether added in a basement, included in new construction, or tucked away in a backyard, ADUs help our neighborhoods adapt, grow, and welcome new residents while maintaining the existing pattern and scale of development.

In the last three years, we’ve heard from numerous homeowners eager to create an ADU but thwarted by regulations. Some owners have a lot just under 4,000 square feet, or property too narrow to create a family-size cottage. Certain lots could squeeze in the required off-street parking space, but only at the expense of a garden or vegetation that help absorb stormwater. Last month, I heard from retired parents who rent their house to their daughter and her friends and hope to create another rental unit on the lot, but they can’t since they don’t live on the property. We should support, not stymie, homeowners who want to do their small part to address our housing shortage.

Still, removing code barriers is no panacea. First, other challenges curtail ADU production, like the complexity homeowners face in securing financing, navigating the permitting process, and managing a construction project. To assist, the Mayor recently announced that we will work with designers, stakeholders, and the public to develop pre-approved standard ADU plans that could save homeowners time and money.

Second, given their cost, ADUs are likely to remain feasible only for homeowners with substantial financial resources and equity in their home. Given the racial disparities in income, wealth, and homeownership in Seattle and nationally, we need proactive strategies if we want the benefits of ADUs to be shared equitably. To that end, we’re exploring ways to support low-income homeowners interested in creating an ADU and to generate rent-restricted ADUs affordable to low-income individuals and families.

Third, ADUs are just one part of our housing strategy. The scale and urgency of our housing challenge (and our climate goals) demand bold, transformative strategies, and by their definition ADUs are an incremental solution that intersperses new housing in residential neighborhoods. But we also can’t neglect an opportunity to create new rental housing choices and options for homeowners.

Nick Welch is a Senior Planner at the Office of Planning and Community Development.