A Win for NIMBYs and YIMBYs

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A backyard cottage in Ballard

I can still hear my John Muir Elementary School teacher admonishing us hyperactive second graders that “haste makes waste.” Recent decisions suggest the city of Seattle could learn from that.

Earlier this month a city hearing examiner found that the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development had not done its homework on proposed legislation to allow more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in single-family neighborhoods. Generally, these are a good thing for many of reasons: they provide more housing, they can help current homeowners stay in place.

Mother-in-laws have been allowed since 1993 and cottages, on a limited basis, since 2006. Relatively few cottages—technically known as Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, or DADUs—have been built, so the city council’s Mike O’Brien proposed to ease restrictions on them by not requiring parking places be provided, allowing them on smaller lots, allowing them to be bigger and taller, and removing the requirement that the property owner live on site for at least six months of the year. Some 82,000 lots throughout the city would be eligible for such units.

The Queen Community Council objected to the city’s approval of the plan arguing that its impact hadn’t been fully studied and its impacts had been dismissed as “non-significant,” although the arguments for it were that its impact would, in fact, be significant. The Office of Planning hoped that it would unleash a flood of needed housing in single-family neighborhoods. Skeptics said that might be true, but as written, it might also unleash a new level of gentrification because commercial developers could buy properties and drive up their values. In other words, instead of it being a grassroots way to create more affordable housing, it could create more unaffordable housing and displacement, especially in South Seattle.

The hearing Examiner found that the city did not comply with the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) by failing to do a thorough, unbiased study of the possible impacts of the ordinance, and has ordered Seattle do a full Environmental Impact Statement. It admonished the Office of Planning for becoming cheerleaders and rushing approval instead of doing its homework. 

There is a temptation for many agencies to take shortcuts. In January of this year, the same hearing examiner, Sue A. Tanner, also found the city had done an incomplete environmental review of a controversial mountain bike trail in the Cheasty Green Belt and was therefore out of compliance with SEPA. She reversed the Parks Department’s approval of the project.

Personally, I hope the EIS of DADUs finds that some version of ordinance will work—I favor keeping the residency requirement, but also think more and larger units are a good,even necessary, idea. I also think the examiner is right to require a better, fuller analysis.

Backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments are not the answer to housing needs, but they are part of it. They won’t replace the need for more multi-family housing on a larger scale, but they can be a useful piece of the urban puzzle. I also think that data should not be the enemy of either NIMBYs or YIMBYs. Better and fuller environmental review is a good thing.

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