Seattle, Washington is just one of the major metropolitan areas experiencing a housing crisis. The low inventory and lack of housing options has driven up costs for both home owners and renters, pricing many residents out of the market. “Tight rental markets make it difficult for low- and moderate-income renters to find housing they can afford,” wrote the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University in a 2015 study. “As a result, the number of cost-burdened renters set another record last year. Addressing the challenge of affordability in a time of rising overall demand will require greater efforts from both the public and private sectors to expand the range of rental housing options.”
Lack of housing options and diversity has been referred to as the Missing Middle. Many current zoning regulations focus exclusively on the ends of the spectrum that range from single family houses all the way up to larger, high-rise apartment buildings. This view of the extremes completely ignores the variety of other housing options such as duplexes, townhouses, or courtyard communities that are needed to grow a vibrant and robust community.
“Well-designed ‘Missing Middle’ buildings unify the walkable streetscape as they greatly diversify the choices available for households of different ages, sizes, and incomes. Smaller households tend to eat out more, helping our neighborhood attract wonderful restaurants. Diverse households keep diverse hours meaning we have more people out walking our streets at more varied hours—keeping them safer,” said Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, on MissingMiddleHousing.com.
Seattle’s Housing Solution
Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien has proposed legislation that aims to diversify housing options in the city. The proposed legislation would remove zoning regulations on building backyard cottages or mother-in-law units. Construction of these units, referred to as Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, is expected to create more affordable living options for people in single-family neighborhoods. Not only are these DADUs generally smaller and less expensive, making them more affordable for lower income earners, but the construction of new units would boost current inventories, further alleviating some of the pricing problems. The increased population density also helps to support local businesses and boosts the city’s tax revenue in both direct and indirect ways.
There are some possible negatives with the construction of backyard cottages, such as reduced yards and green space. Councilmember O’Brien’s proposal seeks to combat this concern by easing some height restrictions, which would allow residents to build up instead of out. The proposed legislation would only increase the maximum height by 1-2 feet, but this simple change makes it easier to build 2-bedroom DADUs without sacrificing lot space. Green space can be further encroached upon due to the on-site parking requirements present in both Seattle and many other municipalities. By waiving the requirement, and leaving it up to the discretion of the property owner whether or not to add additional parking, O’Brien thinks that this would allow more construction without eliminating open spaces.
Transparency Boosts Diversity
The legislation proposed by Councilmember O’Brien was only possible through extensive public feedback. Residents, architects, and community leaders were brought together in a series of community meetings to help craft the legislation. Owners of current backyard cottages in the Seattle area were polled about their experiences and suggestions. Peer cities with similar DADU programs, such as Portland, Oregon; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Los Angeles, California, were also examined to discover best practices. This process of community engagement and education was successful at communicating what the current zoning regulations were, what they should be, and how the changes will impact resident’s lives. When planning the future of neighborhoods and cities, it is important that everyone in the community have the ability to ask questions, voice their concerns, and share their wisdom.
Increased transparency in the creation of zoning regulations allow residents to help shape the growth of their municipality; creating happy, healthy, and diverse communities.