Fashionable accessories

Everyone talks about allowing more mother-in-law apartments in housing-crunched Seattle. Why can't anyone make it work?

ACCESSORY DWELLING UNITS are the emerging stars of Seattle's affordable-housing debate. Better known as "mother-in-law apartments," these single units added to existing homes have been touted as a low-impact, low-cost way to create new housing, with rents subsidizing mortgage payments for first-time homeowners or seniors on fixed incomes. Mother-in-laws are even popular with Seattle homeowners, who built an estimated 20,000 of them during the 37 years (until 1994) they were illegal under city zoning codes.

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However, despite an 18-month amnesty period, accessory-unit owners never stormed the permit counters to legalize their units. Since December 1994, only 792 homeowners have applied for permits for their illegally constructed units. In that same period, just 286 new accessory dwelling units have entered the permit process.

The city is considering pilot programs to relax some accessory-unit requirements in the Central Area and University District, but changes in citywide standards for them could be years away. City Council president Sue Donaldson, who shepherded the original accessory-unit ordinance through the legislative process, says most future regulatory changes will probably be neighborhood-specific and enacted through the various neighborhood planning processes.

Peter Steinbrueck, whose Housing, Human Services, and Civil Rights Committee recently held a public discussion on accessory units, doesn't want to see the issue relegated to the neighborhood planning process. "There are still citywide issues that I think we need to look at in the broader context," he notes.

Seattle's regulations are designed to ensure that an accessory unit remains an accessory use to the main home. They limit a unit's size to 1,000 square feet, forbid them in accessory structures, and require that the homeowner live in either the unit or the main house. In 1997, the rules were amended to relax off-street parking requirements and minimum ceiling heights. Donaldson notes that going much beyond the current standards would simply allow duplexes in single-family areas, which would surpass the original law's intent. Both Donaldson and Steinbrueck say the city should consider reinstating the duplex zone it once had, rather than further relaxing citywide accessory-unit regulations. However, any effort to upzone single-family areas even slightly would be extremely controversial (and the city's Lowrise Duplex/Triplex zone is probably a close enough approximation of a duplex zone for most developers). And the city would still have to comply with the 1993 state law requiring that accessory units be allowed as a possible use in single-family zones. At least from a political standpoint, accessory dwelling units are here to stay.

THE COST OF ADDING AN APARTMENT depends on many factors. For starters: Will it be carved out of existing space (i.e., a daylight basement turned into an apartment) or built as an addition to an existing structure? Older homes with antiquated plumbing or electrical systems might need complete upgrades to receive units. A 1996 University of Washington master's thesis by Bert Cooper found construction costs for accessory units ranged from $7,000 to $30,000, with most built for less than $20,000.

Accessory units are also a Seattle tradition. Richard Frith, a Queen Anne resident who has an accessory unit in his home, says that almost 90 years ago his neighborhood was far more dense than it is today. A 1910 census report he reviewed revealed dozens of extra units, roomers, and boarding houses. Even council members can relate to this tradition: Steinbrueck grew up in a home with an illegal accessory unit; council member Richard McIver remembers families doubling up during the World War II housing crunch.

Critics of the accessory-unit regulations say Seattle would benefit from preserving its single-family zones for families. "The most important thing from my perspective is to keep having children living in the city," says Wallingford activist Gregory Hill. "If you chop every house in half, you're going to have fewer children." Two living units also generally means twice as many cars, adds Jeannie Hale, president of the Laurelhurst Community Club, which opposed last year's regulatory changes to allow parking waivers for accessory units.

Even mother-in-law apartment supporters don't back all the city's efforts to encourage the units. Catherine Castillo Cota, executive director of the Tenants Union, objects to the exemption from the city's Just Cause Eviction Ordinance for accessory units. The exemption, although approved specifically to encourage homeowners to construct accessory units, creates a new class of unprotected renters and should be repealed, she says.

SO WHY HAVEN'T MOTHER-IN-LAW apartmentowners thronged to the permit counter? John Schlick, a West Seattleite active in neighborhood planning, suggests that the owner-occupancy requirement is seen as a threat to a home's resale value, because it scares off potential buyers who might want to use the main house and accessory unit as rentals. (However, owner-occupants typically pay more for houses, while would-be landlords hunt for bargains.) Schlick says most of the accessory units on his street remain unregistered because owners "are scared to death of losing any investment they have." He suggested the owner-occupancy requirement could be lifted after accessory units had been successfully operated for a certain number of years.

One Seattle resident who has helped several friends build illegal accessory units over the years claims the regulations are excessive. Units with low ceilings can't be rented to basketball players, he says, but might be just fine for a person of average height, and owners of older homes also fear city inspectors could force them to perform costly repairs to come up to code. Keeping mother-in-law units illegal also had its benefits, he adds: Knowing that a complaint to the city could put them out of business, landlords kept on good terms with both their tenants and their neighbors and usually rented at below-market rates. Accessory units were low-profile and well-maintained because they had to be.

But city officials are unlikely to compromise further on regulations they feel relate to tenant health and safety. "There are some things we can't compromise on," says Steinbrueck, citing a city requirement that accessory bedrooms have a window large enough for escape in case of fire.

It's also unlikely that city enforcement will rein in the illegal mother-in-laws. The city still investigates accessory units on a complaint basis, and received only 181 complaints of illegal housing units (not all of them accessory) last year. At that rate, it would take more than a century to get all the illegal units registered.

But council members are still eager to find ways to increase the number of new mother-in-laws. Diane Sugimura of the city's Department of Construction and Land Use is studying possible incentive programs, ranging from technical assistance to a program that would arrange or even provide financing for construction. Steinbrueck concedes that the council has a long way to go before the accessory-unit program can be considered a success: "In terms of producing new units, it's been pretty dismal."

Related Links and information:

Seattle City Council homepage

The Department of Construction Management at the UW


Seattle,s Department of Construction and Land Use


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