Housing Policy

Seattle Doesn't Want You To Have A Big House

Proposed legislation aims to crack down on "McMansions."


In good news for people suffering from Seattle's high housing costs, the city is considering a plan to expand the number of backyard cottages, basement apartments, and "accessory dwelling units" allowed in some residential neighborhoods. Yet at the same time, Seattle City Council members are considering a ban on building big homes.

A proposal from Seattle Councilman Mike O'Brien would limit the construction of larger houses, deemed "McMansions," by constraining the floor area ratio allowed when building new homes. 

O'Brien first started this push in 2016, as a means to try and combat homelessness in Seattle. His proposal would increase the maximum size limit for backyard and basement units to 1000 square feet, as well as increase the maximum number of occupants allowed from 8 to 12. It also would eliminate existing requirements that the owner reside in the building and that there be at least one street parking space available per unit.

Such changes would allow people to live more densely in desirable neighborhoods and create more rental housing options. But in conjunction with these changes, O'Brien also wants to limit local residents' options when it comes to larger and single-family homes.

"You see people who tear down a house and build a larger house that may be out of scale and that doesn't add any housing," O'Brien told the Seattle Times. "They're replacing a less-expensive housing unit with a more-expensive housing unit."

He wants to stop it.

Yet houses that would be restricted with the new proposal are the most popular types of houses being built in Seattle—a fact that is not just acknowledged by O'Brien but given as a reason to restrict them.

"When people are building new houses, they're building these huge structures, a lot larger than the typical structure," O'Brien told the Times. "That reinforces the urgency around this policy."

A Seattle Times inquiry showed that 47 percent of all houses built in the last decade would not have been allowed to be built had this housing plan been in effect in 2010.

Still, "McMansions" aren't the real issue with Seattle housing, says radio host Jason Rantz, who objects to O'Brien's proposal.

It's "being done under the guise of affordable housing," but allowing some more backyard cottages and limiting the size of new houses will "have a minuscule impact on the amount of housing available to anyone."

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  1. Still, “McMansions” aren’t the real issue with Seattle housing, says radio host Jason Rantz, who objects to O’Brien’s proposal.

    Of course they’re not. The real issue is FYTW.

  2. “They’re replacing a less-expensive housing unit with a more-expensive housing unit.”

    Those assholes! How dare they?

    1. These assholes don’t realize that often McMansions house extended families, actually increasing the residential density of the neighborhood.

      1. Got any data to back that up?

  3. Allowing backyard cottages and such will be allowed because they dramatically increase the assessment value and therefore the property taxes. Building a bigger house on a similar footprint of a smaller house does not increase the taxes nearly as much.

    1. I’m not sure if that’s true. You might be right, I’m just not immediately convinced.

      1. Even if it doesn’t now – you can bet that it will in the near future.

      2. Take 2 adjoining properties with the same sized lot. The two lots will assess to almost the same value (if done properly). If you have a basic 2 story 3 BR wood framed house on one and a fancy 3 story 4 BR masonry house on the other with the same footprint (but more floor sq ft), the property taxes won’t be all that different. The sale price may be quite different, but the assessed value won’t be much different for some reason. Slap a 2 BR rental house in the backyard of the 2 story wood house and the property tax will increase dramatically. I don’t know why it works this way but that’s the way it is. Maybe it’s handled differently in different locations, but that’s the way it seems around here. If you see a property with additional separate structures with utilities, the property tax seems disproportionately higher.

        Now, if one of the houses had a rentable basement apartment, that also jacks up the tax for some reason. Again, it’s most likely different in different places.

        1. You’re probably right. The only thing I do know is that property taxes are only marginally associated with “value”. The “value” of the property is a fig leaf for how the taxes are assessed to make things as “fair” as possible.

    2. Actually, quite the contrary is true according to the convential wisdom of “planning” in most of the USA.

      Outbuildings are mostly seen as “slum” development while municipalities are pushing for increased “minimum floor area” standards all across the country.

      Gone is the small house that a young couple starting out with plans to expand as the family grows. Such a thing defies the fixed laws of modern planning that determines a certain outcome that guarantees neighbors of the “right kind” of development and the “right kind” of “people” who will assure them of preservation of their property values.

      1. Also gone with that sort of willy-nilly building that reflects individual needs is the need for municipalities to maximise the tax base.

        1. I got that last comment completely wrong.

          What I meant to say is that the “sort of willy-nilly building that reflects individual needs” has vanished with “the need for municipalities to maximise the tax base”.

          Increasingly much of the area of cities and other municipalities have been set aside for snob zoning permitting only the kind of housing that only well established families can afford. Beginners need not apply.

  4. It’s a problem in so much as the city appraises the house and land of these McMansions and decides the value is WAAAAAAYYY more than would be reasonable in the market. This has the added “benefit” of raising everyone else’s value too, increasing property tax revenue.

    And then you end up with houses built in the 50’s with no central air and one bathroom being valued at $300,000.

    1. And then you end up with houses built in the 50’s with no central air and one bathroom being valued at $300,000.

      In other words, Southern California

      1. no, they’re valued at 600K there.

    2. More like $600k. Not kidding, I live in Redmond and that’s the going rate. This touches on another problem with the proposal. Nearly half the homes built since 2010 would run afoul of the proposed rule, which means people want them and are willing to pay for them. The rule ties allowed home size to lot size (at a ratio of 1:2, from other ariticles I’ve read.) Under the new rule minimum lot size for a 2500sf home would be 5000sf, and minimum lot size for a 3000sf home would be 6000sf.
      Of the ~600k that a 1000sf home on an eight acre lot costs, take a wild guess at the value breakdown between the land and the property. If you guessed that the structure is worth about $100k and the land is worth $500k, you guessed correctly. So what this new rule says is that the person who wants a 3000sf home can no longer purchase a 3000sf home on a 4000sf lot, they now need a 6000sf lot. This genius plan INCREASES the amount of land (that’s the expensive part that you can’t actually make more of) required to build the kinds of homes people actually buy. Only in Seattle does increasing the amount of expensive land you require to buy the home you want in an attempt to REDUCE housing costs make sense. In a city not run by morons, they’d be REDUCING the size of the lot required to build a large home so that it was possible to short plat and build MORE HOMES.

      1. Eighth acre lot, not eight acre lot.

      2. These are not tax appraiser imposed values you speak of. These are actual prices at which properties are bought and sold.

      1. Thank God I live in Texas, man.

  5. Proposed legislation aims to crack down on “McMansions.”

    With secret sauce?

    1. The secret sauce is social engineering.

  6. […] Reason looks at pending City Council legislation to loosen ADU rules and limit the building of McMansions. […]

  7. How do these clowns keep getting elected?

    1. Something like 70-80% of Seattle residents are hardcore committed to being the dumbest motherfuckers on Earth. The 20-30% who aren’t batshit insane are closeted and keep their heretical wrongthink to themselves. Lived in Seattle for 7 years, got out in 2016, good riddance.

      1. I’ve got a comment that’s “awaiting moderation” because of multiple supporting links that tries to explain the interesting dynamics of Seattle politics: short version w/o supporting links:

        They keep voting for them, until real, measurable consequences hit: like crime, attacks, violence, burglaries and robberies, then Seattle voters turn against them as is being witnessed by the current council election cycle.

    2. Because Seattle is a circus?

  8. “They’re replacing a less-expensive housing unit with a more-expensive housing unit.”

    They’re taking something of average value and creating jobs to make it something off higher value.

    1. Only the government is allowed to create jobs

      1. You are on to something with that comment. Businesses are piggy banks to be raided. All are supposed to look to government for sustenance. The dependency agenda.

        1. See also “Federal Jobs Guarantee”

  9. Seattle doesn’t have an affordable housing problem, it has an affordable heroin problem.

    1. And an unaffordable public transit problem.
      They could just buy everyone a Prius instead.

  10. You could have saved a few ones and zeros by stopping the headline at “Seattle doesn’t want you”.

  11. “You see people who tear down a house and build a larger house that may be out of scale and that doesn’t add any housing,” O’Brien told the Seattle Times. “They’re replacing a less-expensive housing unit with a more-expensive housing unit.”

    1. But it doesn’t remove any either.

    2. Why does this moron assume that people never rent out rooms? If I build a larger house, that allows more space to be allocated to common areas while a new bedroom or two can be rented out. This maximized the utility of the house – I have extra space to rent out and when I don’t want to rent anymore, I have all that extra space to myself, rather than have a now empty apartment sitting in the backyard doing nothing.

    3. Let’s face it – no one who has the money to tear down their house and build a larger one was ever going to rent out any part of it. They’re certainly not going to spend the money on a ‘guest house’ that they then rent out. They don’t need the money.

    1. O’Brien (not seeking re-election because he’s now officially less popular than Donald Trump due to his defense of the council’s non-response to homelessness) is also against people tearing down an old, big house and building four new tall townhouses because of the “character of the neighborhood”.

  12. Great, I’m on assistance, not a drug addict, or an alcoholic. I pay nearly 3/4th’s of my income on rent alone. How am I supposed to live on that? Any of you lovely people with a room to rent willing to part with some space. I’ve tried Craigslist, and other roommate apps. The availability of real housing is a problem in, not only Seattle, but every other city, town, burg, village, and Hamlet. The root of the problem is greed, and overpaid workers. All fighting for the same square inch of real estate. You know who wins this war, and I will most definitely be one of the casualties. At my age, I am running out of live friends to seek shelter. Not looking for a hand out, just a fair shake. Who is willing to rent a room to a 59 year old, who is quiet, considerate, keep to myself. I’m not a thief, or look in your business when you’re not looking, I cook my own meals. Thanks for reading. Peace out.

    1. Don’t have any myself, but come down to Houston. You can get a half-decent apartment in an okay neighborhood for $500 a month.

  13. The backyard cottages are great for renting out to immigrant families.

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