The Problem

In the city of Seattle, the building code states that only one home can be built on a single-family property lot. One lot, one home. Makes sense.

However, a few local developers have found a way to leverage a nasty little loophole: Find one of the single-family lots in the city that includes not only a house but also an historic tax parcel (an old sub-lot), then petition the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to let the developer build a new home on that old tax parcel.

If approved, the developer is also allowed to split the two parcels into two separate lots (a maneuver officially called a short plat) and sell each individually.

In a nutshell: It’s a slick way to build a new home in the backyard or side yard of an existing home (and turn one single-family lot into two lots).

Another common tactic is to knock down the existing house and use the loophole to build two new houses on the property (one in place of the current house, and another on the historic tax parcel).

A gold mine for developers
These old parcels come with inherited benefits, which make them a gold mine for developers. For example, when the layout or location of the parcel makes it impossible to build upon (it’s oddly shaped or located too close to the existing house, for example), the DPD lets the developer reshape or relocate it. It’s essentially a free-pass.

Also, if the parcel is too small to build upon (according to current building codes), it can be treated as a “substandard lot,” which allows the builder to not only build on it, but construct a taller-than-normal home with shorter setbacks (just five feet between the house and any neighbors). Some of these parcels are not much bigger than a two-car garage but, thanks to the substandard lot benefit, the developer can, in many cases, build a three-story home that towers over all the surrounding homes – and pushes right up against them.

To qualify for all this, the old tax parcel has to be deemed an “established building lot.” That’s a requirement. However, here in Seattle, for a $1,000 fee, the DPD will actually coach the developer on the best way to qualify the parcel for one of these “lot adjustments” (see a sample letter).  That means the agency tasked with ruling on these matters is also acting as a consultant to the developer. Private consultant and public watchdog all-in-one. It’s a one-stop shop.

No neighborhood notification required
Once one of these old tax parcels receives the okay from the city for a new house to be built, there’s no requirement to notify the surrounding neighbors. Other lot/zoning adjustments must be announced to the surrounding community before any building can begin, but not these. The neighbors living around the property (the people whose privacy, sunlight and views will be directly impacted by these backyard/side yard behemoths) have no clue what’s coming until the bulldozers and construction crews show up.

In short, it’s become a very profitable loophole for the few developers savvy enough to use it. And, it’s become a nightmare for the Seattle neighborhoods unable to avoid or stop it.

The original homeowner gets shafted
Typically, the homeowner selling the property to the developer also isn’t aware that one of these historic tax parcels exists in their backyard or side yard. (The parcels aren’t shown on current land surveys.) So the homeowner winds up selling their property for far less money than it’s really worth, then feels like a fool  and a bad neighbor when a new, three-story house shoots up in the backyard or side yard a few months later.

Sometimes, the home isn’t even for sale. In these cases, the developers use something called home stalking to find the owner and convince him/her to sell.

An increased fire danger for the surrounding homes
By allowing a few well-connected developers to wedge full-size houses into the backyards and side yards of single-family homes, the city is putting all the surrounding structures (your house) at risk of increased fire danger.  The “green” and “engineered” construction materials used for many of these projects are created with glues and chemicals, which makes them far more flammable than traditional wood. Plus, most backyard / side yard houses are only required to have a five-foot setback from the property line – which puts these fire hazards within easy striking distance to the surrounding homes. It’s a very dangerous combination. And fire departments across the country are sounding the alarm.

How they came to be
Some argue that many of these historic tax parcels – which date back to the very founding of the city – were never even meant to be built upon at all. They’re simply chunks of land left-over from long-forgotten land swaps and nebulous neighborhood divisions. Remember, most of these tax parcels were created during a time when building codes were lax, when turn-of-the-century Seattleites were swapping land with neighbors, and when the city’s founders were mashing together large tracts of land to make new neighborhoods. There wasn’t much organization or oversight back then, and these tax parcel oddities are the result.

Then, everything changed in 1957. That’s the year the city decided enough was enough and made a rule stating that only one house could be built on a standard, 5,000-square-foot lot. However, the city exempted any tax parcels that already existed at that time (so that property owners wouldn’t lose their right to build on the land). That was 55 years ago.

Today, the vast majority of those original property owners (the people the exemption was designed to protect) are dead or long gone. Now, it’s mostly just a few savvy developers buying and building on the lots.

The current situation
On September 10, 2012, the Seattle City Council (lead by councilman Richard Conlin) unanimously passed a one-year moratorium on the construction of any more tall, skinny backyard/side yard houses (projects that already have building permits will be allowed to continue, as well as projects constructed on tax parcels larger than 2,500 square feet, in most cases).

In September, 2013, the city council extended the moratorium to March, 2014, because the city needed more time to work out the details regarding new building codes. In March, the council decided it needed even more time and extended the moratorium until September, 2014.

Ever since the emergency moratorium was implemented, the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee (a committee of the Seattle City Council) has been studying the issue and crafting a permanent amendment to the building code that would make these backyard/side yard houses more “appropriate” for their surroundings. The members of that committee need to hear from people like you. Mike O’Brien is the chair of the committee, Tim Burgess is the vice-chair, Nick Licata is a member, and Sally J. Clark, while listed as an alternative, is a very influencial member.

As they consider the options, the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee will rely heavily on the Seattle Department of Planning and Development for technical insights and recommendations. The DPD released its final recommendations in February, 2014. It has established this website to keep people informed about the issue (but rarely updates the site).

Meanwhile, developers Dan Duffus and Mark Knoll have hired well-known Seattle lobbyist Roger Valdez to pressure city leaders into watering down any single-family small-lot development regulations. The name of their lobbying group: Smart Growth Seattle. (See the Publicola article announcing this lobbying effort, and the group’s website.)

See a detailed summary of all that’s occurred up to this point.

A frightening future
Until now, there have only been a few developers savvy enough to find these hidden backyard/side yard lots. But, according to a recent article in the Seattle Weekly, the Bothell real-estate research firm New Home Trends “is about to unveil a software tool that will let developers search for buildable properties. One of its features will identify historical lots that qualify for building permits through Seattle’s zoning loophole.”

Learn more

To see photos of side yard/backyard house projects, click here.

See all the news coverage this issue has generated.

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development has established this website to keep people informed about the issue.

See the effect these projects have had on neighborhoods like West Seattle, Laurelhurst, Fremont, Wallingford and Montlake, to name just a few.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to avoid and help stop this practice. But act fast, because you never know when and where the next backyard/side yard home is going to pop up. It could be right next to your home.