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Seattle City Council Member O’Brien Proposes Changes To Encourage More Backyard Cottages

Ashley Gross
Architect Sheri Newbold (left) and homeowner Janice Reebs in the backyard cottage she's having built

Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien is proposing code changes to encourage more homeowners in Seattle to build backyard cottages, saying he'd like to see as many as 10,000 mother-in-law units and cottages get built over the next decade.

O’Brien said backyard cottages are one answer to Seattle’s housing crunch. They’ve been allowed in many parts of the city since 2010, but only a couple hundred have been built.

One change O'Brien is proposing concerns the current rule around owner-occupancy. The requirement would be loosened so that a year after building a backyard cottage, the homeowner would no longer have to live on the property. O’Brien said the aim is to give homeowners flexibility and, at the same time, address some people’s apprehensions.  

"Folks expressed concerns about someone putting up a spec backyard cottage that doesn’t know the neighborhood, may try to do everything legally within their rights but not consider the neighbors," he said.

O'Brien said his goal is to expand housing options for Seattle residents, though there is a concern that homeowners would just rent out the cottages on a nightly basis through web sites such as Airbnb.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Council Member Mike O'Brien

“This bill does not address that directly, but there’s other legislation that my colleagues on the council are working on that we expect to be before the council also this summer that will address Airbnb and what is allowed and for how long," O'Brien said.

His proposal also would remove the requirement that a homeowner add off-street parking for a backyard cottage or mother-in-law apartment. He said creating a parking space adds to the cost and that makes it less financially feasible for a lot of homeowners, and he said many people who want to live in these small units also prefer to use transit rather than own a car.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.