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Seattle considers cottage industry to ease housing, rent concerns

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)

Rent in Seattle has become a common woe to locals striving to live in the city. Now the Seattle officials are considering a cottage industry that could remedy the issue.

“Backyard cottages are one of these conversations I’ve found in neighborhoods throughout the city,” said Seattle Council member Mike O’Brien. “When you talk about them, people seem quite receptive. It may be that we’ve matured as a city. It may be, relative to other types of development in our city, this seems less intrusive today.”

The idea for homeowners to build small cottages in their backyards to, in turn, rent to tenants is not new to Seattle. The city has carried out pilot programs in southeast Seattle over the past decade to gauge interest and see if any problems arose. The cottage experiment detailed how large a new structure could be; how close to a property line; and the size of a property which had to be at least 4,000 square feet with a certain amount of backyard space. The option has been considered by homeowners in the past for a variety of reasons.

O’Brien notes that it can be a source of income to help with the costs of owning property in the city.

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The city completed a survey of properties in Seattle and found that about 75,000 single-family lots would qualify to build such backyard cottages. There is no current proposal in front of the city council to create codes and zoning regulations for the backyard cottage ideas. But officials like O’Brien have been holding public meetings to engage communities.

There have been concerns, such as limited parking and the affect of a new structure on neighboring properties. And then some homeowners don’t like the idea of living next to renters.

“I haven’t heard a lot about people saying things like, ‘there shouldn’t be any more people in my neighborhood,” O’Brien said. “This gets into something that I’m, frankly, a little uncomfortable with or I’m disappointed with. Half the city rents and people who rent in our city are just as good of citizens as people who own. But sometimes there is that perception that folks are concerned about more renters coming into their neighborhood. I think that is something we can overcome.”

There has been interest from Seattle homeowners in the past, but O’Brien notes that he often hears “the city gets in the way.”

“I also hear from a lot of folks who don’t own housing but are renting in the city that say, ‘I would love to get out of my apartment into a backyard cottage,'” he said.

“What we’ve seen is this housing option in Seattle hasn’t taken off like it has in other jurisdictions, specifically Vancouver, BC, which has approximately 10,000 of these backyard cottages,” he said. “Whereas in the City of Seattle we’ve only seen a couple hundred in the last decade &#8212 in an environment where we are trying to find all sorts of new housing options for people to help alleviate the housing crisis we’re facing.”

Barriers for homeowners largely include city regulations. For example, if a person wants to build a backyard cottage to rent, they have to provide off-street parking &#8212 a difficult feat for many lots.

“So someone without any off-street parking who wanted to build a backyard cottage would have to provide two off-street parking spaces,” O’Brien said.

There is also a requirement that the homeowner reside in either the cottage or the house. That can be difficult for people who move out of town.

It’s those kinds of concerns and barriers that O’Brien and other city officials want to discuss, with the aim of hopefully producing some local legislation to make backyard cottages more prevalent in Seattle. O’Brien attended one public meeting Jan. 19, and plans to have another one in a couple weeks before crafting a compromise that will, hopefully, put more cottages in Seattle’s backyard.

Jillian Raftery contributed to this article

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