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Small Lot, Big House

Liz Jones

A loophole in Seattle's zoning code is up for scrutiny today. It allows builders to squeeze a full–size home onto an undersized lot. The Seattle City Council is expected to vote on an emergency measure to suspend that practice, as KUOW's Liz Jones reports.


Most single–family homes in Seattle are built on a lot that's at least 5,000 square feet. That way you get room for a yard, some trees, a little buffer from your neighbor.

But some developers are using a loophole in city code to big build houses on tiny lots, like lots as small as a thousand square feet.

Seattle City Council member Richard Conlin says these houses often stick out as misfits in the neighborhood.

Conlin: "The house might be much larger and more significant than you might expect. There might be two houses where you expected there to be one."

In some cases, these tall, skinny houses tower over older homes next door.

In the 1950s, Seattle passed a law requiring a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet for a single–family home. The city made an exception for smaller lots already on the books. That was to give those property owners a chance to still build a home.

But not the type developers are putting there now, Conlin says.

Conlin: "These kind of lots simply were never intended to be developable and buildable lots. And it's evading and gaming the law, using them that way."

Dan Duffus is a developer who specializes in small lots. And several contractors who build on those lots get financing through his company, Blueprint Capital.

He says the houses would be a lot more expensive on a larger lot. And he sees huge demand for this alternative.

Duffus: "Most of them sell before they're even done. And every time one goes on the market, there's multiple offers."

To Duffus, this points to a larger issue he thinks the city needs to tackle in regard to urban density.

Duffus: "The city needs to figure out how to get more lots not how to restrict more lots. I mean, we're using this – what people consider an arcane loophole – that's the only way we can find lots in the city because the city hasn't dealt with the problem of how we're going to create more housing and more density in the city instead of cutting down all the trees out in Issaquah."

Conlin's proposal would immediately halt these projects on undersized lots. It would be a temporary measure while the city works out new regulations.

And Conlin's concerned a lot more big houses on small lots could pop up soon.

Right now, if developers want to find these small lots, they have to dig through boxes of old records.

But Conlin says, a local company is developing software that could soon make it much easier and faster.

I'm Liz Jones, KUOW News.

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