DADUs: Costs, not design standards, are limiting a good thing

As we saw before, the City’s cottage program isn’t having a huge impact on the City. There simply hasn’t been a flood of requests to build backyard cottages. When the Mayor and City Council first considered expanding Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) there was a lot of worry that there would be too many, that they’d be too big and tall, and that they’d overwhelm neighborhoods with parking problems. None of that has happened. In fact, the entire program fits inside the constraints imposed by Council on all those things–and even within the constraint the Council didn’t impose, a 50 unit limit citywide. 

Here are the numbers:

What’s important here? Only three parking waivers were issued. Only 55 total DADUs are built, permitted, or in permitting. The attached or internal Attached Dwelling Unit (ADU) is still way more popular than the DADU.

What about the constraints?

The average unit, 540 square feet, is way under the 800 square foot limit imposed by Council. The lot size averaged about 6000 square feet, so cottages had plenty of room for parking on the lot, so few waivers were required. Other worries like height didn’t manifest either. The limit was 17 feet on average, well under the 23 foot limit set by council. And the total number of units, 55, is only 5 more than the 50 that the Council considered.

So the Council made an envelope that some (including me) thought might be limiting. In fact, the good news is that the limits didn’t seem to matter all that much. People who wanted to do a DADU were able to, and well within the limits imposed by Council. The folks on the Council’s panel today said that parking didn’t matter because the lot sizes were large enough. There was concern that it puts cars on the lot which might be limiting the size. But waivers didn’t seem onerous to get when they were needed.

So why aren’t there more DADUs flooding the permit desk at the City? 

The answer may be costs, as high as $300 per square foot for construction according to one of the panelists. For a smaller DADU, that’s about $150,000. The return on that kind of investment might not be bad depending on the rent potential or savings to the family. But it’s much more money than many people want to spend. Even at half that, $150 per square foot, lots of folks just won’t jump in.

Can we subsidize these, please? The Council is asking the wrong questions. This is not about building standards (note to Planning Commission: consider financing tools!) or use. It isn’t about height or parking really. Subsidies are about making it more affordable. Clearly people aren’t building huge DADUs. Here are some ideas:

  • Low interest loans–Perhaps the Community Power Works project could use some of its federal dollars to back lower interest loans. What about new market tax credits? The rationale is energy efficiency and new jobs in construction.
  • Loosen building standards–take a look at materials requirements. What about pre-fab cottages that could be self-build kits?
  • Tax credits–The city could offer tax breaks (sales tax, I think) for homeowners that jump into a cottage project.
That’s all I can think of sitting here in the Council chambers. But I think the Planning Commission could work with the Washington State Housing Finance Commission for example to figure out how to lower costs. The point is that these are a good idea, but right now they are too expensive. We ought to figure out how to make them viable for additional housing, housing elderly or disabled family members, or an avenue to generate additional outcomes. 
Thanks to Councilmember Clark, the Committee, and the Department of Planning and Development for evaluating the program. Now it’s time to figure out how to lower costs so we get more. 
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2 Responses to DADUs: Costs, not design standards, are limiting a good thing

  1. Sotosoroto says:

    This is, of course, just the ADUs that the city knows about… A few months ago, a friend of a friend bought a foreclosed house and discovered the detached garage was actually decked out like a DADU. One problem: not permitted.

    I helped the owners fight through all the city requirements to figure out what needed to be done to get the old garage upgraded to residential standards. In the end, the owners decided to just rip out all the fixtures and walls and convert it back to a garage. To properly renovate the existing structure would have entailed almost tearing the whole thing down and rebuilding, anyway. The major problem was seismic connections and bracing, plus some exiting and fireproofing changes.

  2. Nulu says:

    Your bias towards DADUs is obvious in the examples and statistics that you cite.
    You average heights, square footage, lot size etc. to the benefit of your argument.
    How about the smallest lot size, the greatest square footage, and the number of maximum heights permitted?
    Further bias is displayed in, “The answer may be costs, as high as $300 per square foot for construction according to one of the panelists.” – No average figure here.
    Someone spending $300 per square foot is not building inexpensive housing, and as you write it “may be” that large round figure. How does that $300 compare to average residential building costs in Seattle?
    You further your argument and lessen your credibility by extending this highest of costs to your other points – Low Interest Loans (how low can they go from where they are now), Loosen building standards (Great! We need less efficient, less safe and shorten lived living spaces), Tax Breaks (Another bad idea that will add taxes to those who don’t take advantage).

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