Image: John Coulter

LAST WINTER WHEN the city of Seattle began offering owners of unauthorized backyard cottages a chance to permit their structures without penalty, one homeowner—let’s call her Erin White—couldn’t wait to come clean. “I was like, ‘This will be nice. I can finally legalize it,’ ” she says.

See, she didn’t necessarily want the 400-square-foot, one-bedroom unit behind her North Seattle house; it just came with the property when she bought it in 2006. And she only rented it out last May because she’d just lost a contract job and needed the cash to help cover her mortgage payment. So here was her chance to go legit, and she was prepared to spend as much as $10,000 to bring the cottage up to code. Instead, an architect told her she might as well tear it down and start over—not because it was structurally unsound or had shoddy wiring, but because it couldn’t be brought up to the city’s energy-efficiency standards.

Backyard cottages—or, in zoning geekspeak, “detached accessory dwelling units”—were outlawed in Seattle in the 1960s, but that never stopped handy homeowners from spiffing up old garages to house tenants. Andrea Petzel, a land use planner for the city’s Department of Planning and Development, wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how many illegal buildings are hiding behind local neighborhood fences, but she would say there are “a lot.” (Without the budget for a CSI: DADU team, Planning and Development has to rely on complaints from neighbors to ferret out offenders; the department’s code compliance division received fewer than 10 last year.) So when the city council legalized new cottage construction in December to address urban density concerns, it also included an amnesty period for all those renegade rental-unit owners: Apply for a permit by June 30 and all will be forgiven, but continue to skirt the law and risk a $5,000 fine. “People need to realize that you have to come in and get permits, and it’s not just because the city wants your money,” Petzel says. “It’s because there are life-safety issues for anyone who will be living there.”

Yet anyone who hopes to permit an off-the-books abode has to meet all current building standards, as if the structure were new. And that includes non-life-safety standards such as energy codes. “What’s funny,” White says, “is that I wouldn’t have to go through any of this to rent out my house.” But to those, like White, who question why they should have to jump through hoops to go legit, council member Sally Clark says, Tough luck: “Legalizing it doesn’t mean it’s going to be free.”

But living illegally can be free, and that’s what White has resigned herself to doing. (She’ll hardly be alone. The city legalized attached mother-in-law units in 1994, and planning department inspectors still come across unauthorized add-ons all the time.) White’s only consolation is that she doesn’t have to worry about her neighbors ratting her out—they were rooting for her to find a tenant. “I’m really not trying to be sneaky, but financially, I just have to,” she says. “I’m scraping by.”

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