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Mayor Durkan fast tracks backyard cottages to address Seattle affordability crisis

After years of studies and discussion, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is streamlining the process to build backyard cottages. The mayor’s office hopes it will incentivize homeowners to build the units while creating more affordable housing in the city.

“Seattle faces an affordability and housing crisis, and we are taking urgent action to increase the supply of rental housing options as quickly as possible,” Durkan said. “Too many people are being pushed out of this city or can’t find a place to live. We need to use every tool in our toolbox to boost the supply of housing.”

RELATED: Seattle looking to change codes to allow for more ADUs

A backyard cottage is essentially what it sounds like — a living space akin to a mother-in-law unit built in a backyard. They have been promoted as one method to address Seattle’s severe lack of affordable housing.

seattle backyard cottages, adus

(Courtesy of Backyard Cottage Blog)

But progress toward building the backyard cottages has been stalled at Seattle City Hall for years. Durkan aims to end that botleneck. She has ordered the Department of Construction and Design to “fast track” pre-approved designs for detached accessory dwelling units (ADAU) aka backyard cottages.

“Fast-tracked designs for backyard cottages will allow us to get more housing online faster,” Durkan said. “We will continue to work on all fronts – from adding more shelter beds to innovative permanent housing options – to build a more affordable future for Seattle.”

Seattle will pay architects to develop a handful of standard cottage designs that homeowners can choose from. These designs will be permitted more quickly and cheaper. Durkan’s office says this will cut down permitting time by half. The office doesn’t say exactly how much cheaper the process will be, but does note that current costs can range between $10,000 and $30,000 just to design the structure. And up to $300,000 to build it.

Ongoing drama: Backyard cottages in Seattle

The discussion over Seattle’s backyard cottages has been ongoing for years. It has mostly taken place at Seattle City Hall, involving the city’s zoning codes and other regulations. For example, Seattle homeowners have been barred from renting ADUs (accessory dwelling units) to people unless they provide off-street parking. That and other issues are what KIRO Radio’s Don O’Niell ran into when he attempted to provide affordable housing in his own backyard. The whole ordeal was such a costly headache, he gave up.

RELATED: Seattle homeowner navigates costly hassle to build in his own backyard

The Seattle City Council started looking at options for building the units in 2016 — following years of pilot programs testing the idea. Progress was stalled in 2017, when one Seattleite called the issue a “war” between neighbors. Some residents want the ability to rent to people in their own backyard. Others want to slow growth and density in their single-family neighborhoods.

This month, the council finally began considering even more options to bring backyard cottages to Seattle. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement will evaluate code changes. This will further remove barriers to building the units. Councilmember Mike O’Brien has been involved in the process much of this time.

“For the last few years, we have been working toward increasing opportunities to create more backyard cottages and in-law apartments across the city,” O’Brien said. “I am excited to be taking another step in that direction with the release and public comment period for the draft Accessory Dwelling Units EIS, which looks at removing code barriers.

“In the next year, I will continue to work towards increasing housing choice in single family neighborhoods, and ensuring the benefits of backyard cottages and in-law apartments can be shared across our diverse Seattle communities,” he said.

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