FOR RENT: Cozy Cottage, Serene Backyard Setting, Landlord Close-by

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The City of Seattle recently amended a restricting and outdated zoning regulation.  This change encourages homeowners to reject—to an extent—the separation of housing types and the segregation of people of different income levels. 

The zoning change allows homeowners in single-family residential neighborhoods to construct small, free-standing cottages on their properties for rental purposes.  USA Today reports that one Seattle homeowner plans to rent his newly constructed 437-square-foot one-bedroom cottage for up to $900 per month, about the average for a one-bedroom apartment in the area.

So far, owners and renters of Seattle’s 50 new backyard cottages couldn’t be happier.  Once past the initial construction investment, homeowners get a supplemental income for their mortgages.  Living the “single-family home life” appeals to many renters, who would otherwise be confined to apartment living.  The city benefits from increased neighborhood density, which has the potential to reduce sprawl, ease traffic congestion, reduce pollution, and make efficient use of city services.  Best of all for many homeowners, they have strong control over who moves into their neighborhood and shares their property—cottage renters are often relatives, friends, or acquaintances. 

The city lifted the single-family zoning restriction, unleashing homeowners’ inclination to cash in on their largest investment by building cottages on their properties.  Some other cities have enacted similar zoning changes, including Denver, Colo., Faribault, Minn., and Santa Cruz, Calif.  But zoning is a mechanism for enforcing local planning practices, not a planning process unto itself.  If a city supports retrofitting single-family neighborhoods in order to supplement homeowners’ income, provide new affordable housing options, and increase density, it must follow through with appropriate comprehensive planning strategies. 

Cities will need to re-familiarize themselves with practices that are downplayed in the more common developer-constructed, agency-leased rental housing world.  What are the construction standards for new cottages?  Are design guidelines in place?  How are construction and design standards enforced?  Do transit systems in auto-oriented neighborhoods need to be redesigned to accommodate cottage renters who may not own cars?  How are additional parking needs addressed?  What regulations exist to equitably provide this new housing option to prospective renters?  Answers to these questions will be determining factors for whether the “cottage movement” will enhance the livability of existing communities or perpetuate the economic, social, and standard-of-living divide between those who rent and those who own.