More flexibility for Tacoma homeowners means more hope for affordable housing

Homeowners in Tacoma have a variety of reasons for wanting to build additional living quarters. Most of those reasons are good for families, allow owners to exercise their property rights and don’t seriously disrupt neighborhood quality of life.

Unfortunately, the city makes it nearly impossible to expand residential space unless it’s attached to your home. The result: Countless free-standing structures have been built under the radar that don’t comply with city code.

Slowly but surely, the Tacoma City Council is making it legal for owners to build a separate living unit behind the main house on their property — a years-long effort now in the home stretch.

Credit the public for showing patience and local officials for taking time to get it right. They’re adding precautions to deter those who would exploit the friendlier new rules, such as short-term vacation-rental companies.

Some people call these structures mother-in-law apartments; others call them granny flats. If you’re really trying to impress friends and neighbors, you might use the term “carriage house.”

Local government planners, who speak their own language, refer to them as “detached accessory dwelling units” — or the catchy acronym DADU, for short.

By whatever name, they stir up strong feelings in Tacoma. Among the thorny issues neighbors have brought forward: concerns about parking, the height and square footage of new outbuildings, and tighter spaces between homes, streets and sidewalks.

While sensitive to these concerns, the council is determined to take the handcuffs off homeowners and launch a wave of infill development in single-family neighborhoods. DADU fits the goal of creating a walkable, higher-density community where people of all incomes can afford to live and work.

It doesn’t completely deconstruct the postwar American dream home with 2.3 children, a giant private lot and a white picket fence. But it certainly demands a rethinking.

Two years ago the city experimented with a small pilot project; it partnered with three homeowners who wanted to build detached dwelling units in the North End, South End and Central Tacoma.

Now the city is ready to go bigger and spread the benefits broadly.

Building a second residential structure is a great way to foster family cohesion in a semi-independent setting — say, a retirement cottage for aging parents, or a transitional living unit for a developmentally disabled child.

It allows owners to generate additional income — say, by renting to college students or other Tacomans of modest means.

And it mixes alternative living units into the local housing supply during a well-documented affordability crisis, in which evictions and homelessness have become too common. The city’s new housing action strategy aims to touch 10,500 households over 10 years by producing, preserving and remodeling homes. 

To say DADU is a work in progress would be an understatement. Last week, as the council took the first of two votes scheduled this month on the ordinance, members were still making tweaks to it.

Three sensible amendments were adopted Tuesday, all unanimously.

Perhaps the most important change was introduced by District 4 council member Catherine Ushka. It requires a property owner to live in either the main house or the accessory dwelling.

The purpose is to prevent an oversaturation of short-term rentals operated by absentee owners, often affiliated with travel-booking websites like Airbnb and VRBO. Seattle is among the U.S. cities that have cracked down on such practices.

We like this amendment a lot — not because we have anything against people visiting Tacoma, but because the city shouldn’t be in the business of helping them compete with residents for limited housing stock. That would only jack up rents to more astronomical levels.

In response to fears of oversized buildings and cramped lots, the council also approved an amendment capping the size of an accessory unit at 1,000 square feet.

One final change will require city staff to report back with DADU updates at regular intervals, starting one year after the ordinance is adopted. The council will be given data including how many dwellings have been built, where they’re being built and how much they rent for.

That’s a smart accountability provision. Only by collecting and reviewing such information will city leaders know whether the new flexibility for homeowners goes too far or not far enough.

The fact that Tacoma went so long without DADU accommodations doesn’t reflect well on a city that fancies itself a progressive leader.

“We are actually behind the curve for cities our size in permitting additional accessory dwelling units,” said District 5 council member Chris Beale. He should know; he’s a senior city planner in Puyallup.

These changes alone won’t solve Tacoma’s housing-affordability crisis, as Beale and others have noted. But it will be gratifying to see single-family homeowners step up and be part of the solution.