In September a couple in Beacon Hill became the first to welcome a formerly homeless man to live in their backyard. Bobby Desjarlais, a 75-year-old gentleman who had lacked permanent shelter for a decade, moved into the sleek, 125-square-foot home that the BLOCK Project, a program of Facing Homelessness, had installed in the backyard.
Six months later Desjarlais is still safely ensconced in his home, making the BLOCK Project one of the most successful examples of a new wave of affordable housing joint ventures that aim to get homeless individuals and families off the streets and into neighborhoods.
Accessory dwelling units (ADU) like the BLOCK Project home are hot right now. Denver, Portland and Los Angeles County are moving forward with public-private partnerships of varying designs to incentivize homeowners to use space on their lots to alleviate the human suffering caused by the twin affordable housing and homelessness crises. The BLOCK Project in Seattle, however, is the furthest along when it comes to siting formerly homeless people in their new digs.
The project is moving slowly but steadily, said Sara Vander Zanden, executive director of Facing Homelessness. Other than the Beacon Hill home, the organization has been able to site one other BLOCK Project unit in Greenwood that is currently under construction.
But a potential change in city zoning could make it easier to permit ADUs, and Vander Zanden is all for it.
“We’re excited that by showing people how easy the [ADU] solution is that more people will come forward, and this legislation change would majorly impact that,” Vander Zanden said.
Right now, people living in single family homes may have one ADU or detached accessory dwelling unit (DADU) on a lot no smaller than 4,000 square feet. The owner must live on the premises for at least six months out of the year and ensure that there is at least one street parking space.
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City officials studied two proposals that would relax some of those provisions in a draft environmental impact statement released for public comment on May 10. The study showed that by reducing the minimum lot size to 3,200 and increasing the number of permissible units on the property to varying degrees, the city could expect to see between 3,100 and 3,300 new ADUs between 2018 and 2027.
While the study suggests that the increase in units won’t have a huge impact on housing affordability in the region overall, it would be a welcome boost to housing supply at a time when the city’s population — housed and unhoused — is expanding rapidly.
Opening up new lots to a growing number of ADUs — and axing the parking requirement in some cases — would open doors for the BLOCK Project by growing the pool of available properties, Vander Zanden said.
The city has been slow to jump on the ADU bandwagon.
The Washington State Legislature opened the door to ADU development in 1993 as a way of bringing down the rising cost of housing. The city looked at it in 1998 but didn’t launch a pilot until 2005. Between 2006 and 2009, that pilot only produced 17 units and was confined to Southeast Seattle.
Under Mayor Nickels, the program was expanded to cover the city, and between 2010 and 2014 the city permitted 200 units.
Portland, in contrast, averaged 278 per year between 2010 and 2016. The Rose City is widely considered to have the most ADU-friendly codes in the country. The city waived fees for the units, shaving between $10,000 and $20,000 off the cost of an ADU. That waiver has been extended until July.
The draft environmental impact statement is meant to evaluate the effects that a given change or project could have on the surrounding environment, and city officials found that incorporating ADUs into the existing fabric of the study area — roughly 60 percent of the entire city — wouldn’t cause significant damage.
It’s unlikely that conclusion will go unchallenged.
The reason they produced the document in the first place was in response to a ruling by the Hearing Examiner after the Queen Anne Community Council (QUACC) sued to demand a full environmental workup of the change. The city had tried to move forward with a less demanding “determination of nonsignificance” rather than spend two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on the study.
But QUACC members held that the proposed changes — which they laid squarely on the shoulders of former Mayor Ed Murray and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien — amounted to a “unilateral dismissal of our collective city-wide voice” and an effective rezoning of neighborhoods from single family to “triplex.”
Marty Kaplan, a QUACC member who pushed for the environmental review, said that he and his neighbors are not anti-growth, but rather question how the addition of thousands of new units wouldn’t require mitigation to protect the environment.
“It’s mindboggling to think that people at City Hall believe you can triple the density in single-family neighborhoods without consequence,” Kaplan said.
QUACC expected to meet on May 22 to discuss the study.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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