Chapter 23.43 Residential Small Lot: The way we were . . .

Here’s a quote from a 2005 Seattle Times article that will make you misty eyed for the bygone days of exploding real estate values:

“The house earned more in two years than my wife and I combined,” says Glenn, who (perhaps symbolically) is moving from a salmon statistician’s job to one in a bank’s mortgage division. “It’s not quite as frenzied up here. Seattle is a little undervalued.”

Memories, like the corners of my mind……..

Back in those wondrous days when everyone had a job the big worry was that housing was becoming too expensive. City leaders started wringing their hands and repeating “what are we going to do about affordable housing?” Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Now before I lose you to a reverie of booming real estate and runaway development set to theme of The Way We Were, come back with me, for a moment, to the land use code and Chapter 23.43, the chapter defining Residential Small Lots.

Everything I’m going to discuss about RSL comes from memory and some educated opinion. The fact is that I’ll be damned if I can find any RSL on the land use map. So here is my recollection of the story of RSL and a hint as to why I think it is actually part of the answer to a rebuild of the land use code.

Ten years ago like today policy makers were baffled by the drive till you qualify phenomenon. That’s where first time home buyers have a vision of single family bliss and start driving around looking for a home in Seattle’s single family neighborhoods. As sticker shock sets in, they start going further and further away from Seattle, finally settling on a house in Maple Valley, for example.

The solution, interestingly, was density. Imagine that. What if we could put more detached  single family homes-or smaller versions of them-on lots that typically are occupied by only one house we’d create more supply. More supply when there is increasing demand might actually stabilize or lower prices. Here’s how a report from the Housing Partnership put it:

Part of the challenge of meeting the housing needs of our growing and thriving region is to offer housing types that address the values that drive demand for detached, single family housing, but with smaller spaces and smaller price tags.

Enter the cottage!

Here’s the Cottage Housing Development (CHD) section of the chapter:

Density and Minimum Lot Area.

1. In cottage housing developments (CHDs), the permitted density shall be one (1) dwelling unit per one thousand six hundred (1,600) square feet of lot area.

2. Cottage housing developments shall contain a minimum of four (4) cottages arranged on at least two (2) sides of a common open space, with a maximum of twelve (12) cottages per development.

3. The minimum lot area for a cottage housing development shall be six thousand four hundred (6,400) square feet.

4. On a lot to be used for a cottage housing development, existing detached single-family residential structures, which may be nonconforming with respect to the standards of this section, shall be permitted to remain, but the extent of the nonconformity may not be increased.

I am not going to game these numbers out but that’s a fair bit of neighborhood density. One of the cottage projects that was built, Ravenna Cottages, clustered 9 homes on what were two single family lots.

That includes above ground, onsite parking, which is completely ridiculous. Imagine if the parking garages could be converted to housing. That’s some serious intense use on what otherwise would have been just two houses.

But the cottage housing effort was a total failure. If memory serves me there were two reasons.

First, there were many costs associated with the projects that were connected with code compliance for things like drainage. My understanding is that all the runoff at the site had to be captured and treated on site, which required the construction of a cistern. That’s expensive, and things like that kept costs high. The lesson learned should have been to cut cottages lose from a lot of requirements that would apply to L3 or L4 housing and single family housing and be more pragmatic. Low Impact Development (LID) might have been a good option.

Second, the neighborhood opposition was intense. Nobody wanted these in their neighborhood. You can guess why. It represented change and for most people change is scary. It also was a potential infringement of the unwritten (because it is God given I think) right that ensures all single family homeowners a parking spot in front of their house. Not enough of these got built early enough in the cycle. So prices did what all housing prices do when supply doesn’t increase but demand does: go up. In the case of Ravenna Cottages, the price went up $100,000 in one year.

Can it be that it was so simple then,
Or has time rewritten every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again,
Tell me, would we?
Could we?

I think we could. Bringing back the cottage program would be a great way to start putting more people into single family neighborhoods, or at least at the edges of those neighborhoods. We’ve come along way in the last ten years, and we now have a better grasp of how to creatively handle storm water more affordably and perhaps we can actually create some real incentives for these kinds of homes. We can also eliminate parking requirements that add lots of costs. The challenge is really more political than anything. And recent changes to townhouse requirements have started to crack the pitched roof curtain that surrounds single family neighborhoods.

I think that this chapter is a keeper, and one that needs to be carefully revisited and updated. Cottage housing, as well as detached accessory dwelling units, townhouses, and building out of the Ls (2,3, and 4) could absorb a tremendous amount of growth. I’m of the opinion that this ought to be an aggressive strategy even though it reverses the 20 year old principle of putting most growth in urban villages. Neighborhoods then have a choice: put the growth in the urban villages or be prepared to take more growth next door. I’d like both, but right now we’re still seeing many projects in areas that already are zoned for 65 or 85 feet being nickeled and dimed to death. We can’t continue to tell people who live here now that things are going to get better by pricing new people out of the housing market by limiting the supply of a variety of new housing types. Bring the cottages back.

This entry was posted in 2.Local change, 3. A keeper. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Chapter 23.43 Residential Small Lot: The way we were . . .

  1. Pingback: South Park then and now | Seattle's Land Use Code

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