Recently-divorced Single mother. Architect. Small Business Owner.
“I own a single-family house in Greenwood, but am renting it right now while living in an apartment because it’s close to my son’s high school. I’m using the house for rental income, and plan to put a backyard cottage [known as a Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (DADU)] in the back at some point, if I can afford it. Now that I’m a single parent, my bills have become more burdensome. I’ve wanted to build a DADU and ADU since 2011, though, after Seattle allowed them.
My friend, who is also a client, initially spurred me to do what I do now. She decided they wanted a DADU instead of adding on to her main house so that when her parents retire, they could live in the cottage. That didn’t exactly happen: They ended up going into the DADU and renting the house to a single mom.
I’ve always been kind of interested in affordable housing so I went back-and-forth from custom houses to affordable houses. I still do both, but I think having gone through this divorce really got me fired up about providing more housing for people who aren’t a two-income household with a huge house.
Then DADUs got me especially fired up because of the people who came to me. My first client had enough means for an ADU. My second client, though, was a single parent all her life and worked really hard to take care of kids while being smart enough to figure out how to do this, so she hired me to design it. After that, she worked with her contractor friend and put a lot of work in herself. It got me thinking and riled up about trying to help people who can’t afford to do this and are getting pushed out of Seattle. Some of them are my friends. I think that was just the beginning of my personal experience which pushed me to help other people. The people contacting me were parents, or Asian, or Black—especially in the South End.
Clients who are single parents and mostly single moms leave a lasting impact on me, and so do my clients of color.
I just had a client who signed up to work with me and she’s a single mom of color and can afford build an DADU because her brother wants to help financially. They plan to move their mom in because she’s aging.
A different Wedgewood couple also wanted to move their parents into a DADU for retirement.
A Columbia City client has a mom in memory care and wants to build a backyard cottage, rent it out, and then build another ADU in the basement for her mom to move into, if possible—that’s probably going to be years. Stories like this are why it’s really good to be legalize building both a DADU and an ADU on one property.
My West Seattle client moved into a DADU we built and then rents her main house to a three-generation family (a couple, a small child, and a parent). The grandmother helps take care of the child while the parents are at work. So basically I’m into helping people who need it. To do that, I’m trying my best to figure out how we can lower the construction cost because the design and the permit fees aren’t as big of a hurdle.
Overall, these units create good density and affordable homes in the city where people can live and work in their neighborhood. They don’t have to commute. Plus, it makes all the different income levels integrated. (D)ADUs are good for everybody, good for equity, and good for the environment, since you’re building smaller units. A lot of people will move into cities, so we’ve got to keep building density in a good way. Density can be created in a bad way largely because of cars, which I think should be eliminated—at the very least, in the center of the density.
As for designing (D)ADUs, I usually run up against side yard requirements. Right now, DADUs have to be five feet away from the side yard and only a certain percentage of the rear yard can be covered by a building. If policymakers could just relax most the rules so whoever is designing it can massage it around, that would be really helpful. We usually work with such a small space, we need as much flexibility for locating buildings as possible. Height, too: If we could create a little more space by adding vertically, we could make that upstairs more livable and then wouldn’t have to add that extra side space which can bother the neighbors. It’s just kind of everything: the height, the setbacks, the lot coverage. These restrict where you can put a DADU, if at all. Plus, if you’re adding to a garage and the garage is two to three feet away from a property line, building on top of it shouldn’t require moving it five feet over—which is the requirement right now. You should be able to just build straight up. And that will also save on cost.
Then there’s the parking requirement. If there’s wasn’t one, it would make things a lot easier , like for my West Seattle client. She has a through-lot, a street out front and in the back. We tried to get the parking close to one of the minor streets but the city wouldn’t allow it because they consider it two front yards. So we had to put the parking 20 feet into her property. It doesn’t make sense at all, because you’re putting a parking spot in her yard when she could’ve been covering that with a garden. For the Wedgewood project, we placed the parking for the city but the client just doesn’t use it. She ended up putting a chicken coup on the required parking spot. So I think the parking requirement should be eliminated. If there’s a special circumstance, like an elderly or someone with disabilities who needs it, then they can apply for that. The reality is, a lot of people don’t use it.
But overall, the construction of making (D)ADUs costs the most. The amount that contractors charge to build anything in Seattle, and the cost of construction materials, is very high. A lot of the people who have built DADUs also wonder why the sewage fee isn’t readily known. The city doesn’t tell you that you need to pay it until toward the end of construction when they say, ‘yeah, you have to pay $11,000 for sewer hookup fee.’ It shocks people, and is one of the complains I hear often.
I do think, in general, most neighbors are okay with backyard cottages, mother-in-laws, and basement apartments. The average person doesn’t notice any difference between (D)ADUs and other homes anyway. I notice just because I’m an architect. Most neighbors, from my experience, are fine with these getting built. The one neighbor I’ve seen complain was in Wedgewood. He felt the DADU was too close to the side yard because a window looked into his backyard. He gave that client a lot of problems. I also know some people in rural Washington want (D)ADUs, but often, there, if your neighbor complains, you can’t build one—which seems ridiculous. If city regulations were more flexible with where to locate a backyard cottage and increase the lot coverage (how much you can put in the back lot), these situations could be avoided.
When I hear ‘density,’ it just means being able to walk around. You can walk to the store, to a restaurant, your friend’s house. It’s clean, there’s no traffic and no traffic deaths. There’s trees. I think of towns in Europe everybody loves because you can walk around and visit your neighbors, walk to the store, go to the movies. That’s what I think of for ‘good density.’ Again, there is bad density, like parts of Los Angeles where it’s just concrete and there’s still cars and no trees.
A huge amount of people, in all income levels, are realizing and understanding we need to build more. The way a building looks or that you can’t park in front of your house is really not a big deal compared to the fact that it’s just not affordable. Many people are realizing how unaffordable housing and rent is and how it’s going to effect their kids when they grow up—like they won’t be able to come back, live here, or purchase a house. People like me talk about this all the time, but it took a while for even me to really understand. So when people don’t get it, I think they just haven’t had all that time to think about it yet. I really do think a minority of people are holding on to the past.