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Kirkland, Washington: Cottage Housing Ordinance

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Kirkland, Washington:
Cottage Housing Ordinance


Kirkland, Washington is an affluent lakefront suburb located outside of Seattle. The city is the 9th largest in King County and 19th largest in the state. From 2000 to 2009, the city’s population grew by more than 8 percent (from 45,054 to 49,010) and is expected to nearly double by June 2011, when a proposed annexation will add approximately 33,000 residents. Proud of its small-town feel, the city attracts new residents with local employers like Google and INRIX, award-winning healthy community initiatives, and a strong appreciation for quality of life. Although Kirkland residents are satisfied with the active lifestyle that the city has to offer, a community profile of Kirkland reveals that the city’s average household size has decreased steadily since the 1980s. The trend shows fewer children per household and an increase in single-person households. The average household size is currently 2.09, compared with 2.31 in 1980. Changing demographics coupled with a slowing real estate market and state-mandated urban growth boundaries have forced Washington municipalities to come up with creative ways of offering residents more housing options, and Kirkland’s Cottage Housing Ordinance proves that creativity and practicality go hand in hand.

Kirkland Ordinance

In 2002, the city of Kirkland began an evaluation of cottage housing under its Innovative Housing Demonstration Project Ordinance. One of the two projects featured in the demonstration program was Danielson Grove, an award-winning development known for its architecture, design, and green building standards. The cottage housing project included 16 homes ranging in size from 1 to 3 bedrooms; each situated on a private lot with access to common outdoor areas. The development was well-received by focus groups, citizens, and the development community. In 2007, the city’s planning commission confirmed that constructing these developments allowed citizens to see the quality of the development and also visualize the potential for future development. In short, the development served as the best possible model for garnering community support. As a result of the public’s approval, the planning commission adopted an interim ordinance that became the basis of the final ordinance passed into law in November 2007. The interim ordinance outlined the following goals of the regulation change:

  • To increase the housing supply and housing style choices in ways that are compatible with existing single-family communities;

  • To promote housing affordability by encouraging smaller homes;

  • To amend codes with language that encourages innovative housing projects; and

  • To regulate innovative housing projects through a permanent ordinance.

Because creating new opportunities for housing affordability is one of the main goals of the zoning changes, the ordinance mandates that a certain number of units within a project must be economically accessible to households earning anywhere from 82 to 100 percent of the county’s median income. The city requires that cottage housing developments of up to 19 units must set aside 1 affordable unit, and developments with 20 to 24 total units (the maximum allowed under the code) must set aside 2 affordable units.

Cottage Housing Design

Cottage developments are generally designed as one- or one-and-a-half story detached housing units, with second stories usually built into the pitch of the roof. The city of Kirkland encourages a mix of unit sizes within a single development; a larger cottage may have up to 1,500 square feet of total floor area. Cottage houses are often thought of as “cozy”, but design features such as open floor plans and large windows make the unit appear larger. Kirkland requires that cottages have at least 400 square feet of open space reserved per unit. The open space is often provided in a series of large common areas, of which the units are usually clustered around. Depending on the lot size, a development might have anywhere from 4 to a maximum of 24 units. There is no minimum lot size requirement per unit, but the density cannot exceed twice the maximum number of units allowed by the underlying zone. Typically, a cottage housing lot may average 3,000 square feet per home compared with the national median lot size of 15,681 square feet.

These modestly-sized homes allow developers to build units on vacant lots within existing single-family neighborhoods. The ordinance identifies a number of existing zones that would be eligible for in-fill cottage housing development. Because the units are smaller and targeted to small households, parking requirements are also reduced, allowing parking spaces to be provided in clusters and concealed from street view, which helps reduce housing costs and allows the creation of more open space and common gardens. Two parking spaces are required only if the unit exceeds 1,000 square feet.

Although Kirkland does not have specific architectural guidelines, the homes are built onsite with distinguishable design features typical of cottages, such as a steep-pitch gable roof. Materials commonly used can include stone, brick, and wood. Exterior architectural details may include a cedar-shake roof, board-and-batten siding, and stone masonry work in the foundation and chimney. The ordinance emphasizes that developers maintain compatibility with surrounding developments by applying architectural elements and materials that are also found in the existing neighborhood, so as not to detract from the community’s overall look and feel.

Leading the Way to Innovation

Despite the slowing housing market, smaller single-family housing is beginning to gain momentum. “In today’s economy, there is more demand for innovative housing and more housing choice,” explains Linda Pruitt, president of The Cottage Company, a nationally recognized cottage housing developer in the Pacific Northwest. To initiate cottage housing projects, Pruitt recommends that community leaders, developers, and prospective homebuyers first visit a completed development to fully understand the scope of the proposed community. “The public is intrigued with cottage housing; cities ensure that there is a lot of awareness by providing tangible models that the public can evaluate and experience,” explains Pruitt. Although cottage housing may not be affordable for everyone, the cost savings on land, materials, and infrastructure give first-time homebuyers, singles, and empty-nesters an opportunity to purchase new housing units built to human-scale proportions, when they would otherwise have limited homeownership options.

Kirkland is considered one of the most progressive cities in the state, but surrounding jurisdictions in the Pacific Northwest are also adopting cottage housing ordinances to provide residents with more housing options that improve affordability. Still, more innovative housing strategies need to be implemented. “Cottage housing is only one tool of what needs to be a very comprehensive toolkit of innovative single-family housing options,” says Pruitt.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.