The dilemma: How do we encourage higher density, more sustainable neighborhoods on already compact city blocks without building multi-family housing units that would drastically change their character?
The solution (already adapted by progressive cities such as Seattle and Portland, Oregon): backyard cottages, also known as “mother-in-law” cottages or “detached accessory dwelling units” (ADUs), behind existing single-family homes.
Backyard cottages are cropping up across the nation as cities update zoning rules to allow for them, Time magazine reports. People are building them to house aging family members and grown children who aren’t quite ready to leave the nest, renting them out or moving into them and renting out their main structure, Time reports. Seattle architect Ross Chapin told Time about an ex-husband who moved to a backyard cottage. (This begs a question I ponder often—could separate living quarters save marriages?)
Since Seattle expanded a pilot program that allows backyard cottages of up to 800 square feet on residential lots of at least 4,000 square feet, roughly 50 have been built, Zach Patton reports on Governing.com. Two-thirds of the city is zoned for single-family homes, and Seattle has struggled to keep up as the population has grown from 563,374 residents in 2000 to 608,660 last year. “That’s partly why the city saw backyard cottages as an attractive new alternative, a way to add affordable housing options without a wholesale redesign of the city’s signature neighborhoods,” Patton states.
Cities from California to Massachusetts are looking at ADUs to help accommodating growing populations without creating more sprawl. Elderly parents who can’t afford nursing care or would rather age in place with their families are driving this trend, says John McIlwain, a senior housing fellow at the Urban Land Institute. “That’s hard for a community to rally against,” he says. “And once you cross that threshold, it’s hard to exclude other uses for backyard cottages. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of this style of housing in the next several years.”
Portland, Oregon and Santa Cruz, California, encourage ADUs, and Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, have considered relaxing prohibitions against them. Denver allows stand-alone ADUs in certain neighborhoods. In 2003, California passed legislation forcing localities to allow ADUs, but the law hasn’t had much traction because it left specifics up to individual localities.
“Portlanders are always looking for ways to live more affordably and sustainably,” Portland, Oregon, Mayor Sam Adams stated in regard to the city’s rule change that allows for accessory apartments to be 75 percent as large as the main house and built on a maximum of 800 square feet. “One way to do that is to make sure our development codes encourage people to choose these types of improvements.”
This sweet little backyard cottage is located in Hood River, Oregon. Photo by Bruce Fingerhood/via Flickr