Backyard Cottages: Affordable Housing Solution?

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It's a story that touches upon the nation's economic woes, the challenge of preventing sprawl, and the quirky ingenuity of the Pacific Northwest. But is the trend of renting one's backyard cottage really big enough to have any effect beyond the symbolic? Well, yes and no.

The focus of a recent USA Today article is mostly on Seattle, where the city has seen an increase in the number of backyard cottages in single-family neighborhoods since the city changed zoning rules in 2006. It quotes one property-owner, who built a single-bedroom, 437-square-foot cottage on the site of his former garage, as saying. "I want to preserve rural areas around Seattle, and I don't want the suburbs continuing to march on without any limits.

"One way to do that," says the homeowner, 47-year-old architect John Stoeck, "is to add more density to these inner-city neighborhoods."
In Seattle, as well as in growing number of American cities, municipal governments have set urban growth boundaries in place because sprawl ultimately becomes an economic drag, because of costs associated with added transit, traffic and pollution. This relative scarcity of land for development forces people to get more creative about making use of spaces that might otherwise remain underutilized.

In a struggling economy, where cheaper housing options are more welcome, making such efficient use of space also seems more relevant. The construction costs for Stoeck's backyard cottage in Seattle were about $50,000. When completed this summer, he plans to rent it for around $900 a month. If successfully rented at that rate, it would only take about five years to pay off the construction cost and start earning pure profit. What's more, $900 is a pretty good deal for a stand-alone home in Seattle; backyard cottages can make a dent in the city's need for affordable housing.

Backyard cottages are not a new concept. They're part of the more broadly termed "accessory dwelling unit" that includes numerous kinds of extra spaces on a single-family home's property: the apartment over the garage, in the basement, the attic, or in the garage itself.

In past decades of economic struggle or greater social conservativism, such as in the 1930s and '40s, many American families rented out an extra space as a way to earn extra income (especially with more women staying home). It helped with the mortgage payment or with other expenses. It was a common part of the cultural landscape. (Think of The Fonz on TV's "Happy Days," living above the Cunningham family's garage.)

Generations before that, there were carriage houses, where carriages were kept and servants were quartered. Later these were converted for extended family use. But after World War II, society moved toward the suburban ideal, with a home for everyone the new American dream.

But since the 1950s, particularly amid the development of more bland, suburban developments (think cul de sacs, tract homes and McMansions) communities have adopted stricter residential zoning regulations. In some homeowners' eyes, backyard cottages and other accessory dwellings are a threat to their privacy and security.

Meanwhile, the romantic idea that everyone could afford home ownership, and that it was worth it to sprawl out to the horizon or bend the mortgage rules to make it happen, extended all the way through to the George W. Bush administration.

But now that tough -- or some would say realistic -- times have returned, the concept of making smart use of space seems just that: intelligent and efficient. Accessory units, whether over a garage, in a basement, or a stand-alone structure, tend to be small and utilize existing space whenever possible. That's a key principle of being green and sustainable.

Not everyone thinks it's time to let backyard cottages be built willy-nilly across otherwise pristinely quiet neighborhoods. The USA Today story quotes Seattle architect and developer Marty Liebowitz as arguing that cottages could threaten neighbors' freedom to "barbecue, entertain guests and walk around naked if they're kinky." Local arborist Michael Oxman also expresses concern that building too many cottages would "decimate the urban forest of Seattle" by replacing trees with cottages and parking spaces.

It's as if Liebowitz and Oxman are saying, "That Fonzie was a troublemaker -- and there's a whole army of them invading!" But they needn't worry about an accessory dwelling unit invasion anytime soon. Notice that the total number of backyard cottages built since the Seattle zoning change in 2006, according to Keen's story -- about 50 -- is about the same as one medium-sized condominium project. In other words, accessory dwelling units, by their very definition, are always going to be the add-on, a number too small to substantially change society or derail Liebowitz's vision of nude domesticity.

But if there isn't a seismic shift happening in housing, there at least might be a subtle ground shift at work.

Disappearing are the days when neighborhoods are made to share a vanilla sameness. Successful neighborhoods need not only a mix of uses -- the corner market that keeps you from driving to the big-box, the nearby school that negates the need for busing -- but also scales and ranges of residence sizes. It's a way to prevent the ghettoization of people who look just like you, drive the same car, and choose the same carbon-copy house plan.

This isn't just New Urbanism -- the revival of compact, walkable places -- but is part of the natural real estate spectrum that every city has traditionally had in its own backyard.
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