More housing options while eliminating classist owner-occupancy requirements? Yes, please!

mike eliason
4 min readJun 23, 2018

The Seattle Council is presently undergoing a lengthy process to reduce regressive impediments to building more mother in law units (ADUs) and backyard cottages (DADUs). I won’t go into the back story (it’s been covered exhaustively), but it basically comes down to the usual — wealthy homeowners using dubious legal processes to delay needed housing (aka predatory delay). Erica Barnett has had the best reporting on this, including a phenomenal recap of the environmental impact study, as well as summarizing the latest public hearing (overwhelmingly pro-housing).

If you are interested in writing the council to support abundant housing options in more of the city — MOAR [More Options for Accessory Residences] just published a phenomenal op ed in the South Seattle Emerald on how you can support this effort. I personally will be asking the city to go for the most progressive option — the one that removes the burdensome, classist (and potentially illegal) owner-occupancy requirement.

In the City of Seattle, if an owner is to build an ADU or DADU —they are required to fill out a covenant stating they will live on the lot more than 6 months out of the year — and if not, they will make the ADU uninhabitable. They are required to do this, because when the city passed the original backyard cottage ordinance, they included a requirement for owner-occupancy to appease anti-housing organizations. The legislation literally states, amidst a housing emergency, that the owner will destroy the additional housing unit. This is absurd. It also becomes an issue when the home comes up for sale, or if property is held in trust.

Owner-occupancy requirements are classist and should not be a part of a progressive city’s ADU or DADU legislation. They reduce housing supply, they reduce options for both renters and buyers, they significantly reduce options for owners wanting to age in place. But more maliciously, owner-occupancy requirements are predicated on the idea that renters are inferior neighbors to owners — and for that reason alone they should be eliminated.

Owner-occupancy requirements do not provide security of tenure for renters — as owners could sell or leave at any time, leaving little recourse for tenants. I also recently learned that owner-occupied units are not required to comply with the recently passed fair chance housing ordinance.

The requirement restricts access to housing for those who aren’t wealthy, as working and middle class households continue to be priced out regionally due to wide spread bans on collective forms of housing. Caleb Heeringa said it best when he stated that backyard cottages are the new bungalows for the middle class.

The strongest rebuttal to the owner-occupancy requirement is that over a fifth of single family homes in the city are *already* owned by ‘absentee landlords’. All over the city, there are homes where the owner doesn’t live on site. We already allow homes to be rented without owners living nearby— and somehow, the sky has not fallen! Most of these homes are no more lacking in maintenance or producing excessive quantities of trash as owner-occupied ones, despite the fearmongering from the anti-tenant Wallingford Community Council.

However, the most oft-repeated reason stated for keeping owner occupancy is that it gives elderly owners the ability to age in place. This is true — but only to a limited degree, and it also requires owners to take on considerable liability, work out the arrangement of financing and constructing an ADU or DADU, and become a landlord. If the city really wanted to give elderly owners flexibility — we would legalize many more options —condo-ization and lot splits, more units on a lot, larger units, etc. An owner could sell the back portion of their lot to someone that wanted to build a backyard cottage for cash. If Seattle allowed condo-ization, and dropped the owner-occupancy requirements — owners would have nearly 30 options for their property, with varying degrees of risk. Today, they have four: continue owning, build and rent ADU, build and rent DADU, or sell. I was not shocked to learn the state of Oregon even found that owner-occupancy requirement could be an impediment to building more ADUs (largely, as my professional experiences validate this).

eliminating owner occupancy increases options dramatically

Yes, it turns out removing onerous and classist restrictions would actually increase the possibilities for existing owners — many of whom would prefer flexibility, *and* increases possibilities for those that will never be able to afford a million dollar home. As the housing crisis deepens, we will need to find creative and innovative ways to add more affordable forms of housing in more of the city — DADUs, triplexes, cottages, baugruppen, cooperatives, etc. We need to re-legalize collective housing everywhere housing is legal. But the status quo, where multifamily housing is banned from nearly 90% of the city, is neither progressive nor just, and will only continue to magnify our systemic housing problems.

There are only a few days left to comment in support of MOAR housing — comments are due June 25th. Please set a few minutes this weekend to write the council and ask them to pass progressive legislation for housing abundance.



mike eliason

dad | designer | writer | Noted shill for housing. interests: Baugruppen, architecture, passivhaus, mass timber, staedtebau, not for profit housing