On September 30, a city hearing examiner will hear closing arguments in an appeal by the Queen Anne Community Council and its representative, former council president Martin (Marty) Kaplan, of legislation sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien to make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments. The council has appealed a finding that the change will have no significant environmental impact under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), and is seeking to force the city to put the legislation through a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a process that would introduce significant cost and set the legislation back months.
The proposal, which was announced as part of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) last year, would remove parking mandates for secondary units, loosen owner-occupancy requirements, and allow single-family homeowners to build both a cottage and a basement apartment on their property.
Kaplan argues that the changes will lead to rampant speculation by developers, who will buy up existing houses, tear them down, and replace them with a new house (shaped, in every rendering Kaplan brought during the initial hearing earlier this month, like a windowless, monolithic box) plus a tall backyard structure that will destroy neighbors’ privacy and take away their light and air. This developer rampage, to hear Kaplan tell it, will quickly turn Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods into canyons of “triplexes” whose occupants overwhelm Seattle’s parking, road, sewer, bus, and electrical infrastructure and quickly render the city “unlivable.”
One of the speakers at Monday night’s Queen Anne Community Council meeting, where Kaplan gave an update on the appeal, predicted the cottage legislation would “unleash a waterfall of development that will make our neighborhoods unrecognizable. What gives them the right to rewrite the contracts of all single-family owners in our city? This is a part of our contract that we bought. Who are they to say that doesn’t exist anymore? What city has ever done that?”
At the hearing on his appeal, where discussion is supposed to be limited to environmental impacts, Kaplan has been relatively measured—kept in check by hearing examiner Sue Tanner, who has reeled him back in when he’s started in on tangents about “neighborhood character” and “the largest rezone in the city, ever.” In front of his supporters on Monday night, though, Kaplan was less constrained. I decided to fact check some of the claims Kaplan in front of this completely friendly audience.
The claim: “People have said they’re not really triplexes, but that’s not my word—the word ‘triplexes’ was used in the HALA agenda when they were discussing this legislation … and the mayor quickly pulled that back … and he said, ‘I’m not touching the single-family properties, you’re right.’ But in the document they called it a rezone, essentially allowing triplexes on single-family property.”
Fact check: Kaplan is right that the original HALA report called for “allow[ing] more variety of housing scaled to fit within traditional single-family areas to increase the economic and demographic diversity of those who are able to live in these family oriented neighborhoods.” And he’s correct that Mayor Ed Murray backed down on housing diversity after a misleading column by the Seattle Times’ homeowner advocate Danny Westneat prompted an anti-renter backlash. However, the “triplexes” HALA refers to are just that: Triplexes, three-unit buildings housing three unrelated households, not backyard cottages or in-house mother-in-law apartments. “Triplexes” is a rallying cry for anti-density homeowners, I believe, because it evokes images of low-income renters living in rundown, ramshackle buildings.
The claim: “O’Brien’s idea is that this is going to be affordable housing. You can build a bunch of these things and it’s going to help out. And it will change the character of single-family neighborhoods and that’s okay as far as he’s concerned. …
“The average cost of these backyard cottages is between $300,000 and $350,000. If you do the numbers, which I did, these ‘affordable housing units’—if you want to rent an 800-square-foot housing unit, you’d be paying about $2,500 to $2,800 a month to live in a backyard cottage [of that size], and that’s their own testimony, so there’s no affordability component to this at all. That’s the Madison Avenue approach to convincing everyone that these will bring the cost of housing down. … I think that any reasonable person would look at it and realize that $2,800, $3,000 a month is not the goal that they’re shooting for for affordable housing. Affordable housing in this city is $500 a month. These are not affordable.”
Fact check: Although OPCD acknowledges that their initial estimate of the “average cost” to build a DADU, $55,000, was artificially low (that average included renovations by homeowners who simply needed to get an existing DADU up to code, for example), they say Kaplan’s $300,000-$350,000 estimate is absurdly high for a 1,000-square-foot unit. (The legislation increases the maximum size from 800 to 1,000 square feet). This is backed up by reports from other cities that have less stringent regulations on backyard cottages; for example, a 2014 report by the state of Oregon found that the average cost of building an accessory dwelling unit was $78,760, or $221,240 less than the low end of Kaplan’s “average” estimate. In 2011, Governing magazine estimated that an “elaborate” backyard cottage could a Seattle homeowner up to $140,000, still less than half Kaplan’s claim.
Kaplan’s rent estimates, too, seem concocted out of worst-case scenarios and thin air. Typical rents for DADUs, according to the city, are “affordable” (meaning they cost no more than a third of a renter’s income) for people making between 80 percent and 120 percent of the area median income, meaning about $1,500 to $2,000 a month, or a little less than the Seattle-area average of $2,031. A quick Craigslist search for backyard cottages yielded three results in Seattle, ranging from $1,500 to $1,600 for both one- and two-bedroom cottages, and a search for mother-in-law apartments brought up eight results ranging from $925 for a one-bedroom basement apartment to $2,175 for a three-bedroom unit that occupies the bottom half of a house.
Kaplan, like many homeowners, has apparently lost touch with the rental market in Seattle, too: Although $500, which he cites as an “affordable” rent, is close to what the city considers “affordable” for a very low-income person in a studio apartment, non-subsidized apartments at that level effectively do not exist.
The claim: “In order to protect neighborhoods, we want to make sure that there’s not an incentive … for people to speculate, to come into a neighborhood and say, ‘I’m going to tear that house down and build two of them, and I’m going to rent them out, and over time I’ll do that ten times and I’ll make more money from it because now I own part of the neighborhood.'” And: If the legislation is adopted, “a speculator can buy the house next door to you and set up an LLC—because they all will be LLCs—and then have his nephew live there for eight months and then, good, he’s gone.”
Fact check: The legislation requires the owner of a backyard cottage to live on the property one year, starting with final approval of the building permit, “as the owner’s permanent residence.” That requirement is designed (necessarily or not) to discourage speculation. But the fact is, builders aren’t exactly scrambling to build extremely low-density developments (three units, at most, per property) in single-family areas; instead, they’re building low-rise apartments and townhouses in areas zoned for low-rise housing, because that’s what’s profitable. Since Seattle’s zoning code changed to allow backyard cottages in 2009, only 220 have been built citywide, and there’s no evidence that allowing a basement apartment would open the doors to a developer frenzy.
The claim: “If you have a big enough site, you can just fill it up with a 1,000-square-foot backyard cottage, a 1,000-square-foot mother-in-law apartment, and a house of unlimited size.”
Fact check: This is simply not the case. In single-family zones, “big” sites–those over 5,000 square feet–are limited to 35 percent lot coverage, which means that two-thirds of the lot must be open space. So on, say, a 7,200-square-foot lot, which is one of the largest lot-size designations in Seattle, the maximum amount of building on a lot would be 2,520 square feet, or a 1,000-square-foot cottage and a house with about a 1,500-square-foot footprint. Theoretically, a creative homeowner could shoehorn a 1,000-square-foot apartment into the basement of that main structure, but given that the house itself couldn’t be taller than 35 feet, the remaining living space would be very much “limited” by existing city regulations.
The claim (referring to the fact that new cottages might be built where residents currently park their cars): “The parking, a lot of times in single-family, is kind of open space. If you’ve got a garage and a driveway that goes up to it, that’s open space and it allows your neighbor light and air.”
Fact check: The city of Seattle defines “breathing room open space” as consisting of “parks, greenspaces, trails, and boulevards”; it does not include parking spaces or driveways in that definition.
The claim: “There could be a real impact on density, to the point where it takes away the tree canopy. City hall should be really concerned about that, because there’s what’s called the Urban Forestry Commission in Seattle that comes up with goals and plans for growing our tree canopy. … That has been thrown under the bus. There is not one mention of preserving a tree.”
Fact check: Kaplan is right: The proposed legislation is silent on the question of the city’s tree canopy. However, as I’ve written previously, “Save the trees!” is just a sneaky slogan that makes single-family advocates sound like they’re in favor of sound environmental policy while supporting policies (like preserving two-thirds of Seattle’s residential land for single-family use) that promote sprawl. And it’s sprawl, not a lack of trees on privately owned land, that is destroying actual forests and farmland, even as it “saves” the odd backyard conifer.
The claim: “What we’re talking about here is [rezoninig] half the area of the city of Seattle with no public input, no right for you to comment, and only a proclamation from city hall that says ‘There’s no environmental impacts, let’s just lie this sucker through.'”
Fact check: The city council adopted a resolution back in 2014 committing to explore changing land-use rules to allow more backyard cottages. In 2015, the city released a report that includes detailed descriptions of the potential code changes that the city was considering, including allowing both an ADU and a DADU on a single lot, eliminating the owner-occupancy requirement, and removing the parking mandate. In January and February of 2016, O’Brien and the Office of Planning and Community Development held two public meetings to discuss the legislation, and took public input that is summarized in this report.
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