Permitting requirements haven’t stopped ADUs in Olympia, they’ve just made them illegal

By Brandon Block

By Brandon Block

The Olympia

On Sunday, The Olympian explored the potential for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) to chip away at the need for affordable housing in Thurston County, and the zoning and regulatory policies that discourage people from building more of them.

Or, at least, prevent them from building more of them legally.

Sunday’s piece offered up Kelsey Hulse as an example of an ADU tenant, a professional who could comfortably rent a remodeled garage for $850 per month.

But long before Hulse moved into that garage, Jesse Partridge found himself in a similar situation, paying far too much of his income to rent and in need of a cheaper alternative.

Only he didn’t have $850 per month.

These days, Partridge works as a music teacher at a private school, a rewarding, but not particularly lucrative career. Back then, however, he was gigging, working as a cook at New Traditions Cafe, teaching some fiddle lessons, and altogether pulling in roughly $11,000 per year.

One day while driving around the South Capitol neighborhood, he saw a sign advertising a backyard cottage renting for $500 per month with a number to call, and he said he immediately “smashed the buttons on my phone.” Partridge’s most vivid impression was of the sink, which was about the size of a piece of 8.5×11-inch printer paper, and the refrigerator that was more of a “dorm fridge” without a real freezer.

“If you walked into my space while I was living there, it was pretty much floor to ceiling with instruments,” Partridge recalls. “It forces you to live pretty simply.”

Partridge ended up living simply in the 240-square-foot ADU for seven years, and credits the affordable rent with allowing him to save up enough money for the down payment on his current home, a still modest 600-square-foot house on Frederick Street in Olympia.

Partridge remembers his landlord as honest and fair, and someone who kept the place in decent repair. It had French doors and a skylight. That it wasn’t up to code didn’t even cross Partridge’s mind.

“It wasn’t something that occurred to me at the time, like maybe I wasn’t supposed to be living here or maybe my landlord isn’t supposed to be renting it out — it wasn’t something that I worried about or thought about much,” Partridge said.

Asked if he felt safe living there, Partridge replied: “I don’t know what would be unsafe about the place that I lived. There was nothing about it that made me feel unsafe.”

Illegal ADUs in Olympia

Data provided by the Planning Department show that there are approximately 100 permitted ADUs in Olympia built since the city legalized them in 1995.

But housing advocates and builders know there are many more ADUs out there, providing crucially needed affordable housing, but that are illegal.

In the unincorporated parts of Thurston County, there is no data on the number of ADUs, because they’re currently not legal at all. (The county’s Planning Department has voted to legalize them, and an ordinance is now before the County Commission.) But that hasn’t stopped people from building all kinds of ad-hoc structures anyway.

Builder John Erwin, who has built about a dozen ADUs in the past decade in Olympia and Lacey, estimates there likely are hundreds more unpermitted ADUs in Olympia. He sees unpermitted construction projects all the time.

Erwin’s ADU projects, which are typically on the larger end (700-800 square feet), and often remodels of existing garages or barns, cost on average of between $125,000-$150,000. New construction can cost even more: DADU, a Tacoma-based manufacturer of ADUs, has models priced from $125,000-$200,000.

Those high costs lead some people to take shortcuts.

“People take a garage and convert it on the cheap. Whether or not they’re getting a contractor for it, they’re not getting a permit. When they don’t follow the rules, you can get it done for thousands of dollars less,” Erwin said.

The owner of the ADU Partridge lived in, who The Olympian agreed not to name, said that he purchased the main house in the early 2000s, and it already had the unpermitted cottage that had been converted from a garage. Permitting didn’t seem important at the time and even less so as time went on.

“When I looked at the requirements maybe 5 or 6 years ago when I was at City Hall, it just seemed like something that wasn’t worth the effort. I’d already been renting it for a while, and it seemed like even trying to permit it would be hard.”

Had he gone to the permit office, he would have encountered a laundry list of requirements, beginning with providing an off-street parking space for the ADU. Given that the cottage faces an alley and is built in what was the driveway, there’s no room.

“If that’s a requirement, that’s impossible,” he said. “There’s just no way.”

Enforcement of illegal ADUs

Olympia’s Code Enforcement office did not provide information about how many complaints have been filed against ADUs in Olympia.

But rather than doing random inspections, the process is complaint-based, according to code enforcement officer John “J.W.” Mahone.

If an unpermitted ADU does get reported, it has to be brought up to current code standards or be condemned, Mahone said. Anytime a code violation is found, a code enforcement officer will issue a notice that gives the property owner 14 days to fix the violation, according to the city’s website. If it’s not corrected within 14 days, the city may issue a civil infraction and fine the property owner and/or tenant.

While officers take a case-by-case approach, there’s really no flexibility, he said, and even non-safety related rules such as parking requirements are enforced stringently.

“In my job we don’t get to make the rules, we just enforce those rules,” Mahone said. “If you don’t meet all the requisites for an ADU, then you may not be able to have the ADU, because those rules are put in place for a reason.”

But some units are so old, and codes change so much, it can get complicated. It can be hard to track down the permitting or know what the codes were at the time it was built. Units that were permitted in the past are known as “existing nonconforming,” meaning that even if they don’t meet current codes, if they were approved before, they’re OK now.

It gets further complicated when an owner goes to sell: Real estate agents have a responsibility to disclose permitting issues to prospective buyers, but not all buyers are savvy enough to check.

Mahone says he can’t remember any ADUs being condemned in the time he’s been in Olympia. The most common outcome is the owner bringing the unit into compliance.

The cost of compliance

Bringing units like the ADU Partridge lived in up to code can also mean making them unaffordable. According to Partridge’s former landlord, the cottage now rents for $700 per month, roughly 40% more than he paid 10 years ago â��” a more modest increase than Thurston County’s average rents over that same time period.

If Partridge’s landlord was forced to bring the ADU up to code, that price would go up.

The point is not lost on Partridge that the only place he could afford in a neighborhood like South Capitol was an illegal cottage. And he could only afford the cottage precisely because it was illegal.

“I felt a little bit like an imposter living in that neighborhood in a tiny little cottage the way I did,” Partridge said.

Possible changes

In the past few months, city officials have brought numerous proposals forward to make it easier to build ADUs, including exempting them from a fire sprinkler requirement, removing the parking space requirement, and removing the requirement that the property owner live on site.

For Partridge, it sometimes feels like a complicated web of rules exists for no reason, functioning only to make it harder to create cheap housing and easier to preserve affluent areas for only the affluent.

“I really believe that those rules are part of a legacy in our whole country of having really classist and racist residential zoning regulations,” Partridge said.

“I think it would be a great thing if we started finding a way to move past that.”