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City Efforts to Increase Accessory Dwelling Unit Production in Seattle Stalled by Appeal

Jones Lang LaSalle Incorporated, HFF, JLL, JP Morgan, Sidley Austin, Morgan Stanley & Co, Dechert, Holliday Fenoglio Fowler

By Meghan Hall

In the midst of Seattle’s explosive growth, city officials have taken to weighing all options in order to provide additional housing options—especially for those entering the tight middle market. In 2016, the Seattle City Council presented a proposal that would encourage homeowners to build backyard cottages and basement units to provide more housing options for Seattle residents looking for housing alternatives. Known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs), the additional units that the city hopes add to its housing inventory, includes several tactics, including decreasing barriers to the production of such residences by amending Land Use Codes in the city’s single-family neighborhoods. The City released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) at the beginning of October 2018, but just two weeks later an appeal was filed challenging the adequacy of the study.

“In Seattle, in this last economic cycle, a lot of apartment-style development has occurred, and there has been some infill, but there has not been nearly as much land designated for what we call the ‘missing middle,’ for the first time home-buyer, first move-up homebuyer,” explained Erich Armbruster, president of Ashworth Homes. “There’s not been enough development to satiate demand.”

ADUs and DADUs have been allowed as part of a main single-family home or in the backyards of such homes since 1994 and 2010, respectively. Out of Seattle’s 135,000 lots in single-family zones, approximately 2 percent have an ADU, while 579 DADUs have been constructed or permitted since 2010.

The proposed land use changes would aim to implement Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Use Policies 7.5 and 7.12, which encourage the creation of measures that can increase housing choices for low-income individuals. The current proposal would allow for two ADUs on one lot, removal of off-street parking requirements, as well as modifications to current development standards for the units regarding size, height and location. The city also plans to remove a requirement that says owners must live on the property in order to build an ADU or DADU. Plans are also in place to decrease the current minimum lot size for a DADU from 4,000 square feet to 3,200 square feet while simultaneously increasing the maximum gross floor area of DADUs from 800 square feet to 1,000 square feet.

The city hopes that by removing these barriers, it will increase ADU and DADU production in single family homes to both better support lower- and middle- income homeowners and low-income renters.

“There were a lot of ways where the code tried to be well-intentioned but dissuaded people from building cottages,” said Marco Lowe, government affairs director for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties (MBAKS). “That was the initial code, but you have to start somewhere. [ADUs] are a more efficient use of a city parcel than a single house and nothing else.”

The City estimates that if just five percent of eligible lots in the city build ADUs or DADUs, it would create about 4,000 additional housing units. However, Armbruster said that while this might seem like a large number, the creation of ADUs and DADUs across the city would occur at a slower pace.

“It’s not as if the floodgates will open, and there will be a ton of these built in the next year,” said Armbruster. “It will be an evolutionary process.”

Before it becomes easier for homeowners to build DADUs and ADUs though, the City’s FEIS will need to overcome an appeal submitted by the Queen Anne Community Council. The timing for the implementation and changes to the land use code are dependent upon whether a City of Seattle Hearing Examiner asks for additional study regarding the proposed changes.

Armbruster is not surprised by the appeal. “When you’re dealing with single family neighborhoods, especially single-family neighborhoods in Seattle, people have a lot of opinions,” he said. “We’re talking about changes in the places that people live, and that can be very difficult.”

“The proposed legislation contains provisions that will eliminate single family zoning in Queen Anne and within every neighborhood throughout the City,” the appeal states. “It ignores, disrespects and eliminates the city-wide Neighborhood Plans. This unprecedented and wholesale land use change will negatively impact over 135,000 single family properties and over 350,000 residents that choose to live in single-family homes in Seattle’s neighborhoods.”

Armbruster emphasized, however, that such units within the City of Seattle were not a new concept and so far, and there has not been a large influx of ADUs or DADUs since their implementation.

“The City needs to grapple with the influx of people,” said Armbruster. “DADUs are not a new concept to Seattle; they were piloted long ago. People are building ADUs and DADUs now, but this ordinance would just make those product types slightly more flexible.”