Washington State considers backyard cottage rules in bid to ease housing crisis

A bill that passed the state Senate would require cities and counties to allow for the construction of accessory dwellings.
The Space Needle and the Seattle skyline are shown against a cloudy sky, Thursday, April 30, 2020, as seen from Kerry Park. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

OLYMPIA – More backyard cottages could soon pop up across Washington.

So-called accessory dwelling units, often referred to as in-law suites, provide independent living on the same lot as another housing unit, such as a single-family home. They can be attached to another building or detached.

A bill that passed the state Senate 42-6 on Monday would require cities and counties to allow for such construction within most urban areas and prohibits certain regulations on the units. The proposal is one of many making its way through the Legislature this year to address the state’s housing crisis, a topic that legislative leaders on both sides have made a priority.

“We are in a housing crisis, and one of the best ways to get out of that is to build enough homes,” Sen. Sharon Shewmake (D) said on the floor.

Supporters of the bill say it could expand rental options, while opponents say it would take away local control.

There is “so much red tape” around building these units in cities, Shewmake said.

Under the proposal, cities and counties must allow at least one detached and one attached unit on a lot over 4,500 square feet. If the lot is zoned to allow at least two dwelling units, at least one extra unit must be allowed, for a total of three dwelling units.

Cities and counties would be barred from requiring the owner of the lot to live in one of the units on site, unless the extra unit is offered for a short-term rental. Jurisdictions also would be barred from imposing off-street parking requirements for backyard cottages that are within a quarter-mile of a transit stop.

The bill allows some regulations of the units, such as building code and environmental permitting requirements.

A number of cities, including Spokane, already have loosened regulations on building these units. In July, the Spokane City Council removed some restrictions around the backyard units, such as a requirement for a property owner to occupy at least one of the dwellings on the site. The council also increased the maximum size of a detached backyard cottage, removed the minimum lot size requirement and eased parking restrictions.

Five Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Bob Hasegawa, of Seattle, voted against the state bill.

Sen. Ann Rivers (R) said the bill eliminates local jurisdictions’ ability to make decisions for their communities.

“Cities are getting there,” she said. “They don’t need to have more and more of their ability to determine the direction that their city will take be taken away from them.”

Sen. Shelly Short (R) voted in favor of the proposal but said she wanted the bill to expand to areas outside of the state-defined urban growth area, so that people living in more rural areas could build in-law units.

“I would hope that we would get similar opportunities to those folks,” she said.

The bill received some pushback from the Washington State Association of Counties and the Association of Washington Cities.

Paul Jewell, of the Washington State Association of Counties, criticized the bill for its “prescriptive nature.”

“Local elected officials have been provided the authority to make land-use decisions for their counties,” Jewell said, adding the decisions should stay local instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.

The proposal hasn’t been considered by the state House of Representatives, which currently has a different proposal on in-law units awaiting a vote.

Another bill that passed the state Senate on Monday would give King County the ability to provide a property tax exemption for an accessory dwelling unit for low-income families.

The proposal, which passed 43-5, would allow a county with a population of 1.5 million or more to exempt an extra unit from property tax, if the unit is maintained as a rental property for households whose income is at or below 60% of the median household income for the county. The dwelling unit would not qualify for an exemption if it is occupied by an immediate family member of the taxpayer, unless the family member is 60 or older.

State legislators also are considering a plan to legalize denser zoning laws statewide. It would require cities between 25,000 and 75,000 people to allow at least two units on all lots and up to four units on all lots that are within one half-mile of a transit stop. For cities with more than 75,000 people, it would allow at least four units on all lots and at least six units on lots within one half-mile of a transit stop.

That bill is currently awaiting a vote in the state House of Representatives.

The Legislature is expected to debate how to fund housing priorities in its final budgets. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has requested a $4 billion referendum to allow the state to increase its debt limit to build more affordable housing.

This story first appeared in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. It is republished under Creative Commons license.