Tiny backyard cottages, micro-apartments, the revival of boarding houses and in-law dwellings—Cascadia is on the bleeding edge of these emerging trends, which reintroduce housing forms of a century ago.
Today, Sightline is releasing a short book on the gigantic opportunities cities have to make urban living quarters greener, cheaper, and more abundant by eliminating a few municipal rules.
Hidden in city regulations are a set of simple but powerful barriers to affordable housing for all. These rules criminalize history’s answers to affordable dwellings: the boarding or rooming house, the roommate, the in-law apartment and the backyard cottage. In effect, cities have banned what used to be the bottom end of the private housing market.
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Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Community details how to revive inexpensive housing in walkable neighborhoods—at no cost to the public—by striking a few lines of municipal law.
The three keys are re-legalizing rooming and boarding houses, uncapping the number of roommates who may share a dwelling, and welcoming accessory dwellings such as granny flats and garden cottages.
Opening up this housing would:
- create new income opportunities for property owners
- alleviate the outward pressure of sprawl into farmland and forests
- increase residential concentration organically, without big changes to architectural character
- yield compact communities that support walking, transit, neighborhood businesses and low-carbon living
Most important, these tactics would generate thousands and thousands of units of inexpensive housing in metropolitan areas, unlocking homes for the many people who need them.
Unlocking Home is a Sightline e-book. We’re so eager to see it advance change, including in your community, we’re practically giving it away. We’re only charging $3.95 for it. In fact, for the next month, we will give it to you free, if you’ll help us spread the word. Details are here.
In Everett, our 110 year-old house has such a cottage in the back. It is a beautiful little house, originally built in 1945 to house a returning soldier and his young family behind his parents’ home. When we remodeled the big house in 2006, we were told that the little house could not be a habitable home because we didn’t have enough land (double city lot) to provide TWO car parking spaces for each dwelling unit. (There is also an upstairs apartment in the big house.) We had to remove all the appliances from the kitchen of the little house to render it uninhabitable. I won’t way publicly how we dealt with this silly rule.
Thanks, Dean. Your story is sadly typical. Thanks for sharing it. I hope you find the book helpful — and that you’ll let your town’s planning commission and city council know about it!
myna lee johnstone
sadly typical indeed!
every place i know has this problem re:parking space bylaws.
everywhere, we have designed our living spaces to serve the automobile while the auto industry continues with a free ride and even bailouts
what do we get? a noise ridden stinky toxic environment
I have suggested to Vancouver (BC) that one solution to their downtown housing problem is to convert those layers of parking blgs to affordable housing units and ofcourse allow only service vehicles and taxiis down there
World Ecocity Summits aim for carfree cities
I paid with a tweet, and it came back with “Not Found: the requested URL /pay/twitter/www.sightline.org/wp-content/plugins/download-monitor/download.php was not found on this server.”
How can I access the “pay with a tweet” download of this book?
(Apologies if this is not the proper place. I didn’t see a better way.)
No worries, Jan. Apologies, there was a temporary error with Pay-with-a-Tweet. All should be back in order now! (I also emailed you the file if that’s easier.) Thanks for reading and tweeting!
same issue after I posted this on facebook…
Hi, Alice. Sorry about that. I tested all of the channels before, and they seemed to work, so it’s disappointing to hear it’s not working now. You might check to see whether you have a pop-up blocker on and if it blocked the download from starting. In the meantime, check your email for a copy. Thanks for reading!
Questions (though maybe this is all in the book?)
Is there an ALEC of ADUs, with sample legislation to fix the obstructive regulations in place today – to cut parking requirements (or somehow tailor them to on-street parking demand, or pair with RelayRides, or?), to set smaller minimum room and dwelling unit sizes, etc? Is there a way to accurately estimate how much less such a dwelling unit would rent for? Are there modular-but-quality “ADU in a box” packages available for low cost purchase and ‘installation’? How could the process be streamlined, perhaps in part by using Mosaic.com or another crowdfunding platform, so that a homeowner pretty much just needs to give permission, for it to happen, and wouldn’t have to pull together the money and wherewithal for plans, permits & construction themselves?
Is there a way to simulate the consequences of different ways of adding needed housing capacity (via sprawl, TOD, ADUs, etc), to get everyone, densityphobes included, thinking about consequences?
Also, the denser your city, the more you need to address needs of the homeless. Part of that will be helped by the lower rents, but far from all; what’s the Sightline.org equivalent that tackles this problem?
Seattle, which already allows all of the solutions Alan posits, has nearly 130,000 parcels that are capable of supporting ADUs.
Seattle should follow Portland’s lead in making the permitting process as easy and inexpensive as possible to encourage them.
A friendly amendment to Bill’s comment: As I argue in the book, Vancouver, BC, is a better model than Portland for ADU regulation.
You ask a lot of good questions. Some of them are answered in the book. I do not know the answers to your questions about simulation tools and the Sightline.org of homelessness.
Boarding houses, yes. But as the term is customarily used, rather than the “SRO” micro-housing/aPODment apartment complexes that have adopted the moniker to avoid land use regulations.
As you point out, “filtering” will eventually morph these into housing stock for very low-income people and elders. But some of the projects have 64 units, and a new one proposed for the Central Area will have 175 units. Mono-cultures of the poor are not what we should be creating. And elders will not want to navigate the many flights of stairs (as some of these are 5 or more story walk-ups).
As things stand in Seattle, micro-housing is virtually unregulated. Unlike what we see in other cities experimenting with micro dwelling types, where unit size, amenities, etc are calibrated.
These, as they are now being built, more closely approximate SROs (single room occupancy) housing – a type we need for sure – but one no longer allowed under Seattle’s zoning code. But first we need to acknowledge that’s what these are, and re-admit them to the zoning code where they once were.
And, of course, real boarding houses are welcome, including in single family zones where they are already currently allowed.
But this charade of calling apartment buildings chock full of micro dwelling units “boarding houses” in order to skirt land use codes should come to an end after putting nearly 3,000 of these units into Seattle’s housing stock.
We can do better for our current and future residents, and our neighborhoods.
Thanks for writing, Bill. You and I do not agree about aPodments. You write,
“As things stand in Seattle, micro-housing is virtually unregulated. Unlike what we see in other cities experimenting with micro dwelling types, where unit size, amenities, etc are calibrated.”
Seattle is the national leader in reviving the rooming house model in modern form. Most other cities are permitting scant numbers of much larger units. I argue at length in the book that what you refer to as “calibrated” is simply classist, exclusionary land-use law.
Alan, calling 140 sq ft or less of living space (as one third of the micros on Capitol Hill are) a solution to housing affordability itself is classist.
I challenge you or any of your staff or any of the pundits that shill for this to abandon possessions, and live in these containers for any extended period.
This is not housing stock, this is purely temporary quarters. This is SRO. They are leased for short periods, month to month.
To pretend or promote otherwise is disingenuous.
@Bill — Would you rather they live in their cars? For many, that is the alternative, and without cheap housing, that is where they will live.
Furthermore, why should you, or anyone else for that matter, decide how much space I need in *my* place. Are you planning on picking out the furniture, too?
Thanks for your reply. As I said, you and I do not agree about aPodments.
Your arguments are illustrative of much that I discuss in my book about the politics of urban housing — for example, the blend of self-interest and well-meaning empathy for the disadvantaged that has propelled decades of efforts to ban housing that does not meet middle-class norms of decency. To say that small housing units — units that are far above the living standard of most of the world’s people now and throughout history — are “not housing stock” . . . To say that units that are renting out fast, with extremely low vacancy rates, and with tenancies that are lasting about the same duration as studio apartments — typically around a year — are “not housing stock” . . .
I need a print option where you will mail out copies of this without my name attached. I would purchase one for each of my city council members and have you mail it to them.
I am one of those 8 or 10 bedroom victorian homes you speak of. Restrictions here are 4 people and we’ve been hit in the past.
Hi, c. I have emailed you with details for obtaining the book. Thanks for sharing it with your city council members, and do feel welcome to share feedback on it here on the blog.
Thank you for your work in this area. In my own personal efforts, I’m finding a lot of barriers to affordability (and sustainability) in the building phase. My goal is to build an earthbag home with the help of friends in a city in the Northwest. This home would use composting toilets (no blackwater), and all water “waste” I would generate would fall under the legal definition of “graywater” and be used for subsurface irrigation of food plants.
The problem is that, despite my water independence, most (if not all) jurisdictions require either a sewer connection or septic system. These systems, which are completely unnecessary for a green-minded person, add thousands of dollars in setup and maintenance costs over their lifespans.
In summary, I wanted to draw your attention to “mandatory sewer/septic” as a regulatory paradigm that inhibits sustainable development. I haven’t yet had time to read through all of your work, so I apologize if you’ve covered that already.
I finally had a chance to read this book last week. As I read thru, I was thinking about how I could help make these changes in my community. But then I started thinking that my effort would be much more impactful if it was coordinated with others in my community.
In particular, I think it’d be great if Sightline would help organize local teams that would help implement Sightline’s research into our communities. (I’ll call them “Local Action Groups” or “LAGs”). Perhaps this could be done cooperatively with existing sustainability-oriented groups across the region, such as SCALLOPS (goscallops.org).
+ identify local policies that impede sustainable communities
+ share findings with Sightline
+ propose local policy improvements
+ share the importance of Sightline’s research with others in their neighborhoods (such as at community events and groups)
+ connect with leaders and other interested people in their communities
+ serve as a clearinghouse for regional sustainability policy efforts (coordinating local efforts and reducing unnecessary effort duplication)
+ connect LAGs with nearby Sightline supporters
…what do you think? Is this within Sightline’s mission? Or should Sightline possibly partner with other organizations to help implement these fixes across our communities?
countess tamm of samoa/america
I would like month to month roomers payment on 1st and they prepare own food and do they room cleaning. What would this kind of renting be categorized as?
Quality articles or reviews is the main to be a focus for the viewers to pay
a visit the site, that’s what this web site is providing.
I’ll be meeting with a couple city officials next week (a council member and a the director of planning), and would love to give them a copy of Unlocking Home. However, it seems that it isn’t available in print, and giving an e-book seems so much more…forgettable. So I’m looking for ideas on how I can deliver this in a memorable manner. Any suggestions?
Hi Rodney! I’m the editor of this book as well as a community organizer, and I liked your suggestion from 2014 that your voice would be more powerful if joined with others in your community. So true.
Here in Eugene/Springfield, Oregon, we’ve formed a group called Springfield/Eugene Micro-Dwellers to bring together folks who want to explore options for living in under 400sf, which will naturally lead to helping lobby for changes to make more of those options available and legal. We also have an organization called YIMBYES (Yes In My Back Yard Eugene Springfield), whose focus is on influencing the policy debate.
I’d be happy to chat with you (or others) about how you might do the same, or put you in touch with like-minded organizations in your area. Email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.