locally & politically engaged programmer. writer. parent.
“I don’t have any housing policy background other than being interested in it. I look up things. It’s been off and on, but the Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (DADU) got me more interested. Most people don’t care in a vague sense about why housing isn’t working. That’s one of the things I try to remind myself: I’m politically engaged which means I know a lot about it, but I think a lot of people look around and are just like, ‘stuff happens.’ I think that’s one reason why we didn’t get complaints when we built our DADU, because there’s a lot happening in our neighborhood already.
The original building—an old, converted garage built in the ‘60s— was falling down when we bought the property, but the original idea was that either my mom or Adam’s mom would live back there at one point. That was always assumed. Part of the plan was, ‘hey, we’ll build the backyard cottage first so it can at least be livable, and then we’ll remodel the main house.’ We obviously haven’t gotten to that last part. When we started looking around, this house came up 10 years ago because you can’t really buy in Seattle unless you buy a single, detached, bigger house. I didn’t realize until much later that you can’t buy an apartment. Like, our place has a backyard but honestly I’d like something smaller. In Seattle, you can only buy something like this. But one of the things I like is that buying means you’ve set in a mortgage payment; your rent can’t go up. It’s really nice when you’re someone who’s been renting your whole life. The whole ‘hey, I get to live here and never move again’ and feeling that sense of security is pretty big.
Building (D)ADUs have to do with taking care of your family. It seems like an obvious thing if you can do it. The really nice thing is, my mom [Jeannine] ended up coming to live here a year and four months ago. Intellectually, I’ve known for a long time it’s somewhat abnormal for people to not live with extended families, if you look at history. Once you do, you realize, ‘oh, wait. That means you actually get to see your mom and talk to her more often.’ You stop doing the ‘oh, I haven’t called mom in a few weeks’ thing—which is a weird thing to think. It actually matters when you can see people every day. So that’s been really nice. One of the other things is that my sister and her husband are in Portland, so visiting is a bigger incentive now because if she comes up, the whole family is all in one spot.
Child care is certainly a part of the added benefit with my mom living in the DADU. The kid loves to run back and see grandma pretty much every day. The grey area for me is that I don’t want to impose all of the time, but it’s also really nice. We went from basically no family support to all of the family support because even Adam’s parents moved to Seattle—more south, though. It’s one of those ‘oh, duh’ realizations, but it’s great. We had friends who would babysit and whatever, but they have their lives.
I don’t think of our spot as particularly dense even though there’s a lightrail station going in nearby—though it’s denser. We live in a Low-Rise2 (LR2) zone, which means things can be built somewhat higher because it’s within a quarter mile of frequent transit—which also means we didn’t have a parking requirement. If we were two blocks up and over, we would’ve been in a single family zone, and had that requirement. If we desperately needed to put parking in, we can still do that--but we don’t need to right now.
So what do you do to fix that? Density. But how do we encourage more density? So much of Seattle is like this. And if you want to own something, these larger houses with yards are your only choice. How do we give more choices to people?
When I picture density, I picture a wide variety of things. That variety means living in a place, walking a block, and getting to something—which, really, is what you want, but that doesn’t exist here.
We rented to friends for six to eight months, and we did not rent at market-rate. We rented relatively low. Our friend just needed a place to stay while they looked for another place they could afford. That’s one of the overlooked things for what it means to build a (D)ADU. Most people aren’t building these to rent out for all the market can bare. Turns out, people don’t only think about that. Adam and I actually didn’t feel comfortable renting it at market-rate. A lot of people who are so fortunate to be able to build one feel similarly uncomfortable. Most reactions are, ‘wow, that’s way too much. I would never pay that. It didn’t actually cost us that much.’
community-oriented stay-at-home dad.
The thing about Seattle is you’ll have these single family neighborhoods where it’s just houses and then over there you’ll have the retail district. Like, no, I want it mixed! If this DADU would’ve taken a long time to have family in it, I thought about converting it to a cafe or gallery—something in the neighborhood people would come to and hang out at. Our DADU also happens to block highway noise for our neighbor, so he was quite pleased. All of our neighbors were pretty great about it. We got one complaint about the silver exterior before it got put on because they thought it’d be too bright. We’ve had no complaints since then and it doesn’t look as bright as you think it will.
The backyard cottage took a year and a half to build: Six months of design, then about a year because there were tons of delays. That’s a faster process than if we tried to build one now.—it finished three years ago. Our architect was really great but the process of actually getting it built was a pain. In part, that’s because of building in Seattle where everybody’s busy. I kind of felt like this project wasn’t important enough to the builder; they had other priorities and kept losing workers.
The permitting was a pain in the ass. There were two things in particular: the roof deck rejection, which was totally silly—and if I had realized the project plans next door, I would’ve asked for variance and probably gotten it. Our neighbors have four stories with a roof deck, so the privacy issue, which I think is behind banning (D)ADU roof decks, is out the window. Seattle’s all very single-story, single family zoning [75%]. People worry, for some reason, about looking into others’ yards.
The worst and longest part of the building process, though, was getting the electric. There was a run, or electric line, that went to the old garage. So when we built, I figured we’d spec-out and have the wire run in the same spot. Turns out, when we had the project almost complete, Seattle City Light said, ‘no, no, no, it’s the same lot; we only run one line to each lot. You have to dig a trench and we’ll put another meter over there.’ I basically had to beg to keep it this way until we remodel our house. It was just back-and-forth for over a month.
Then there’s the sewer fee. We got a bill months later, after we were done, saying, ‘oh, hey, by the way, since you connected a “new” sewer’—it’s new in the sense of pipes, but the original building already had pipes in the exact spot—’here’s a big fee.’ King County Wastewater Treatment Division is short on funds, so they’re trying to get as much money as they can.
If I could change anything for permits in Seattle that go along with (D)ADUs, it would be the sewage fee. We didn’t even know about it until the project was complete, which is a problem. It’s such a large fee. When people do know about it, it’s like ‘well, do I want to pay an additional 12 grand?’ It was 10 percent of our original project cost estimate. If you see it upfront, it’s shocking. We didn’t see it ‘til the end, so you’re left with ‘well, what are you gonna do.’ As a person who wants more (D)ADUs built in the city, I think that’s a really large fee to slap on to a project that’s not necessarily going to be a money-maker for homeowners. A lot of people are building them for family like we did, and they’re not going to be making that back in rent.
There was a whole other fuss with the side sewer permit, where apparently there’s a special permit that contractors have to have a special license to do, and there’s only two in the city that do it. It took a long time and they did it wrong the first go, then tried to soak us for more money but we told them no. They buried the pipe before they got the final inspection on the sewer line and then poured concrete over it, for the patio.
There is no overall housing view in Seattle. There’s people like us who say ‘build more housing! As much housing as we can.’ There’s other people who are like, ‘no, no! We can’t change the character of our neighborhoods!’ And parking isn’t tight in our neighborhood, which we hear other places complain about. It’s all divided. People think if you add units, you add cars. Our unit didn’t add any car.
HOME IS A house with a backyard cottage in an urban village.
We are #SeattleNeighbors. Seattle needs more homes, of all shapes and sizes, for all our neighbors.