City planners have realized that it is necessary to absorb more people and dwellings into existing communities in order to avoid the unacceptable environmental, social, and economic costs which go with urban sprawl. But people also want to preserve the things they love about their neighborhoods, particularly the way they feel, look, and function. The city of Seattle recently passed an ordinance that addresses this question by permitting backyard cottage plans: accessory homes which increase neighborhoods’ capacities without changing them too much as well as adding affordability. Following a highly successful pilot program, Seattle’s new ordinance permits backyard cottages in largely single family neighborhoods throughout the city.
Seattle’s guide explains the benefits of this program. Because of their small size, backyard cottages create affordable and attractive rental opportunities for city residents without changing the quality of life for other neighborhood residents. Cottages provide financial flexibility for homeowners, by allowing them to collect rent for part of their property or to accommodate multi-generation families at low cost. Backyard cottages offer housing which is quiet and compatible with the other homes in single family neighborhoods. Besides increasing the supply of affordable housing, backyard cottages help to address other social issues, such as those related to housing the growing population of elderly people.
Seattle’s ordinance imposes some conditions on allowable size. The cottage houseplans cannot exceed 800 square feet, and the minimum lot size is 4000 square feet. If the property already contains some type of accessory unit, then the homeowner can’t also construct a new cottage. Off street parking must be available to go along with the new construction, and at least one property owner must occupy the main house or the cottage. Seattle’s ordinance has caused some controversy. Critics have expressed concerns about the loss of privacy and the loss of trees which must be cut to make room for new construction.
They also fear that backyard cottages will clutter up neighborhoods, create parking shortages, clash with existing homes, and attract irresponsible renters. However, after the first units were constructed in the pilot program, which consisted of 28 cottages, more than half of the neighbors surveyed didn’t even know that they were there. The neighbors of backyard cottages who knew about them said that they don’t cause any problems at all, and they are a great idea. Boosters of the new program, which was initiated in 2009, say that they want to preserve rural areas surrounding the city, rather than allow suburbs to continue to march on without limit. One way to accomplish this is to add density to inner city neighborhoods, with either backyard cottages or other low-level apartments with separate entrances which are incorporated into a single family house plan. Other cities which have either passed ordinances, or are considering ordinances, for encouraging backyard cottage construction, include Denver, Faribault MN, and Santa Cruz.
Seattle’s success with backyard cottage plans provides one answer to increasing the number of houseplans in single family neighborhoods without decreasing the quality of living. This type of affordable house plan can help to address the housing needs of a growing and aging population.
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