Sunday, October 25, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

Mother-In-Law Units: -- Benefit Or Blight? -- Washington's Growth Management Act Renews Debate Over Accessory Housing

-- This is one of an occasional series of stories on affordable housing planned before July 1993, when the state's Growth Management Act requires cities and countries to have plans for fulfilling housing needs for the next 20 years. ----------------------------------- We can all look out the window and get some notion of the density in our neighborhood. We may see open space, rows of apartment- house balconies or detached single-family houses with cars parked along the street. The question is, how do we relate what we see to what housing experts and government bureaucrats are saying is the need to create more affordable housing units by increasing densities? One way is to know how the density of what you see compares with the density a mile away, or a county away. Today's story by Rich Buck, and the density maps of Seattle and King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, based on census tracts, are meant to give you a context. Find the area where you live. Find the areas you pass through in your travels. Then keep those densities in mind as the discussion heats up and public hearings are scheduled. ---------------------------------------

Just about every neighborhood in Seattle has some housing secrets carefully shielded from the building inspectors and sometimes from the neighbors: separate housing units inside single-family homes.

Call them accessory housing or mother-in-law apartments. Call them a blight on neighborhoods. Or call them a source of inexpensive housing for relatives, students and renters. But don't call them legal. City planning officials believe there may be thousands of such units inside Seattle's approximately 125,000 single-family houses.

Because most of these apartments are illegal under the Seattle zoning code, they are never inspected and never counted.

Just renting a room in your home doesn't mean you have a mother-in-law apartment.

The typical accessory housing unit is a separate area inside a single-family home with its own outside entrance and separate kitchen facilities, said Gary Lawrence, director of the Seattle Planning Department.

The combination of cooking facilities and a separate outside entrance is what pushes a unit into the illegal category.

"You are taking a single-family shell and making it a duplex," said Lawrence.

Not all accessory housing units in Seattle are illegal. Some were "grandfathered" when the zoning code was changed in the late 1960s to prohibit new ones.

"We know that there are illegal accessory units in the city, and nobody knows exactly how many there are," said Steve Pearce, a senior planning and development specialist for the city. He said he has heard estimates of 5,000 to 6,000 such units, but doubts their reliability.

Over the years, City Council members have occasionally floated proposals to legalize and regulate such units. Time after time, the proposals have been shot down by neighborhood opposition.

But legalizing mother-in-law units, as they are known by many people, is up for discussion again because the state's Growth Management Act requires cities and counties to make plans to meet their projected housing needs for the next 20 years.

And the discussion won't be limited to Seattle. Just last week, King County Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan wrote a letter to every city and town in the county telling them they must hold public hearings on the subject of accessory housing units as part of this area's response to the Growth Management Act.

Legalizing and promoting accessory housing units appeals to some officials as a relatively quick and inexpensive way to provide affordable housing.

"This is one tool among many that we hope to employ to promote housing affordability," said Pearce.

"In just 24 hours, we could add to the stock of affordable housing by allowing mother-in-law apartments in every zone," says Sullivan, chair of the county Growth Management Council's Affordable Housing Task Force.

"But there is a lot of political resistance to that," she said in what might be an understatement.

-- Proponents say accessory housing units help provide inexpensive living quarters for singles, students, young people, older people, newcomers and a variety of others.

They say the units prevent many people from living entirely alone and help homeowners put unneeded space to work either as a rental unit or as a place for relatives to live close at hand, but with the independence of separate quarters.

"This is a great way to substantially expand the housing stock, and it benefits a whole lot of groups of people," said Patrick Hare, a land-use planner in Maryland and author of a book on the subject.

But in Seattle, past discussions of legalizing accessory housing "have created a lot of anxiety in single-family neighborhoods," said Lawrence.

-- Opponents say the units can degrade the appearance and character of single-family neighborhoods, create traffic and parking congestion and strain other facilities such as water and sewer systems.

Beth Means, who has been outspoken in the past in opposition to accessory units as a leader of the Seattle Community Council Federation, said some parts of Seattle once were zoned for duplexes "and a lot of neighborhoods ran down. It took only about 10 years for them to start looking very seedy.

"We had large areas that were duplex-zoned until the mid-1970s," she said. "When they were rezoned for single family, they were rebuilt and you could see them come back." She said the lower Wallingford area is a case in point.

Means said the problem with accessory housing is that it is "virtually the same thing" as duplex housing. She said accessory-housing regulations can't be enforced "unless you want the family police going around door to door and asking people if they are the family that belongs there. I just don't know how you do that."

Pat Strosahl, a leader in Vision Seattle, a neighborhood-based political group, believes accessory housing will work only in certain areas "and those places ought to be identified by neighborhood planning" instead of citywide planning.

He said most people support the notion of affordable housing. "But the solution is to give a little bit of power and trust to neighborhoods" to determine the best ways - and places - for more housing units.

Means agreed, saying: "I think they ought to look at this neighborhood by neighborhood, particularly in Seattle where it is so different from one neighborhood to another.

"There is a certain amount of unfairness going on here," Means said. "Blue-collar people and working people have had their land zoned and rezoned again and again, and the Broadmoors of the world have had their areas left alone."

Having learned from past debates over accessory-housing units, city officials are not rushing to promote the idea. "Essentially, the neighborhoods will be asked to consider what is appropriate for them to meet citywide housing goals," said Pearce.

In many Seattle neighborhoods, it is common knowledge that illegal accessory units are in place. But officials say the opponents don't often demand that they be closed down.

"Even among the most outspoken opponents, very few people want to put somebody (living in an accessory unit) on the street," said Hare, who will speak in December at an affordable-housing conference being organized by the King County Housing Partnership, a nonprofit agency focused on creating housing for households making 60 percent to 90 percent of the county's median income. (That conference is not open to the public, but Partnership officials are considering scheduling a public session at which Hare would present his ideas.)

Some homeowners tolerate accessory units in their neighborhoods but don't want them legalized because that would remove their ability to "just call the building inspector and have them shut down" if tenants disrupt a neighborhood, said Hare.

Hare, who has an accessory unit in his own home in downtown Washington, D.C., said owners of homes with accessory apartments "get a lot of side benefits" besides rental income. "We can leave our home and there is somebody here - and where we live, that makes a difference."

Hare said studies he has done on accessory housing units in dozens of cities across the country show that "at any given time, about half of all accessory units are occupied by relatives" of the homeowner, "often at little or no rent."

Though laws prohibiting such housing are "very common," so are violations, Hare said. "It is the moral equivalent of jaywalking."

In December, Hare will advocate wider use of accessory units.

"Here you've got this source that creates affordable housing, requires no tax dollars and is integrated into the neighborhood. That is a grand slam home run by any standards in the housing game," he said. "But almost nobody in the housing field will come out and endorse these. They are the invisible duckling of affordable housing."

Hare said accessory housing is legal in many places, including cities in Colorado, Connecticut and in Montgomery County, Md. All cities in California are required to allow accessory housing, which is also legal in the unincorporated areas of King County.

Pearce said accessory units are allowed in several Washington cities, including Spokane, Pullman, Redmond, Edmonds, Bothell, Bremerton and Des Moines.

"I know of no place where it has been tried and dropped because of bad experience," said Hare. He said many cities have ordinances that successfully deal with the issues of parking, traffic and appearance.

Pearce agrees, saying some laws require additional off-street parking and some require that a home have no more than one outside entrance visible from the street.

Based on experience elsewhere, Pearce estimated that no more than about 250 homes a year in Seattle would be converted to accessory housing if the legal barriers were removed.

"That is a very low rate, and there is a potential for it to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods where there is demand, such as near the university," Pearce said. He said some cities have restricted the number of accessory units on any one block.

Sullivan and Pearce both say the average household size in Seattle has fallen dramatically, meaning more housing units are needed for a basically stable population that contains more singles, more divorced people and more seniors living alone.

Sullivan and others working on affordable housing believe there is a link between accessory apartments in Seattle neighborhoods and undeveloped land in rural King County.

Unless more housing is built on land already used for housing, new units will have to go on undeveloped land, which is relatively scarce in King County - and relatively remote from jobs.

Relatively remote housing results in long commutes, traffic congestion and the loss of rural land.

Sullivan believes some of the biggest tradeoffs involved in affordable housing may come to a head soon in discussions of accessory housing.

Ironically, some people who abhor the development of rural land into housing tracts "are not going to support mother-in-law apartments inside the city of Seattle because they are in their neighborhoods," Sullivan said.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


Get home delivery today!