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Ron and Don

Seattle permits another obstacle to affordable housing, homelessness

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)

It was surprising to see the results of a recent MyNorthwest Twitter poll that asked Seattle residents if they would consider housing a homeless person in their backyard. The majority said they wouldn’t do it. But I wonder how much of this has to do with locals who just don’t want to deal with the City of Seattle. Because right not, it is not affordable for private citizens to build affordable housing.

Related: Would you house a homeless family in your Seattle backyard?

The basic idea here comes from Portland, where Multnomah County will foot the bill to put a tiny house in a homeowner’s backyard. In return, the owner will allow a homeless family to live there for five years. After that, they can do whatever they want with the small dwelling, even rent it out.

Most of the people who responded to MyNorthwest’s poll said they would not do this in their backyard. And I understand that perspective — I have just lived it. I’m remodeling my house and I have been dealing with the city’s processes.

Seattle has also looked to backyards to create affordable housing as more and more people cannot afford to live in the city. And I’ve considered all of this. I said, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to build a place for somebody else to live. I’ve going to be part of the solution.” But here’s the deal — if the mayor and the city council want Seattle to be more affordable and people like me to step up, you can’t put me through this.

Permitting Seattle backyard solutions

I’m already paying for a permit for my house, and the city wants a separate permit for the tiny house. It’s very expensive, but it’s the same property. In fact, it’s the same project. But they want separate permits and that means separate checks.

To dig in my basement I had to hire a geologist. That cost me about $4,500. For the tiny house that I would just need a little foundation for — about 100 feet away from my basement — the geologist has to come back out and do the same thing all over again. Same fee. He’s already been in my basement; we already have the results.

The geologist was also in my neighbor’s house. I told him what he would find for the tiny house dig — good soil 5 feet down, and great soil 7 feet down. No big surprise here, that’s exactly what he found.

So I’m down $4,500 — times two. And I haven’t even built anything yet. On top of that, now I have to get a permit for the tiny house or cottage. That’s somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000. And on top of that, you have to push plumbing all the way out to the street, because the plumbing in Seattle is horrible. It’s why the city is replacing so many pipes around town. The city won’t let you do a 4-inch pipe, which you normally have in Seattle. I have to get a 6-inch pipe and get pump to pump all the way out to the street. That’s $12,000.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on where my backyard project is at this point. You’ve got your plumbing that is $12,000. You’ve got a permit which goes up to $5,000. You’ve hired your geologist at $4,500. On top of that you have to design it, and then you have to build it and get all your utilities. According to the city’s fee estimator, the permit fee for the project will run more than $1,000.

And now we get into Seattle’s backyard regulations. If you want to build this structure for someone to live in, you have to tear a big part of your yard out because you have to provide an off-street parking spot for the backyard dwelling.

At the same time, I’m watching developers build hundreds of units in the Eastlake neighborhood. One project is across the street from KIRO Radio. It will be 44 units. They’re not providing any parking for that. But you are asking me — who would provide free housing for a homeless person or affordable housing for someone – to tear apart my yard and put in a concrete slab so someone can park (which also means I have to tear out a retaining wall for another $15,000).

Look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? It’s going to cost me more to do this project than it’s worth.” At the same time, I have a heart. I have the ability to and I want to provide affordable housing. If I got some breaks from the city, I’d even provide free housing for a few years for someone. And on some level the city knows this. Seattle has already looked into backyard solutions. The city knows there are at least 75,000 properties with backyards that can handle this.

If the city wants people to do this, it has to clear the way. You should be able to piggyback a permit. If you have a geologist who has come out in the past year, that should be good enough. There’s plenty of parking around me, but that parking doesn’t count. It is very, very hard, Mr. Mayor and city council, to permit anything in your city right now. People will do it. But you have to make it affordable. And it’s not.

Ron and Don on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM

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