Cottage Housing Developments

by Justin Shiu, Associate Planner at M-Group

Cottage housing developments, as a form of smaller single family residential units, diversifies housing choice and provides housing that is more attractive to some households than that of traditional single-family homes.

The type of cottage housing development discussed here refers to projects that feature a cluster of units – often between four and twelve – built around a common open space. Typically, each cottage is around 1,000 square feet. This type of development is not new; the historical pattern of small housing units clustered around small parks and open spaces can be found in some parts of older cities. Recent cottage housing developments have been established as infill projects, offering a middle ground between single-family residences and multifamily development. Cottage housing can offer a smaller scale housing choice, which are suitable for meeting a variety of needs, compared to traditional detached single-family homes.

Cottage housing developments can be found around the county. They present a variety of opportunities in creating housing and meeting housing needs where other prevalent housing types are not great fits. There may be challenges implementing cottage housing developments where development constraints or local opposition limit available options. To create opportunities that allow for cottage housing development and set standards for development, a variety of considerations should be taken into account in the planning process. The following presents a brief overview of cottage housing development and provides considerations for their integration into cities.


Cottage housing developments can be found around the country. In Shoreline, Washington, Greenwood Avenue Cottages features eight units of less than 1,000 square feet around a large open space and served by a 300 square foot community building. Beyond offering attractive, smaller housing options for those drawn to their style, cottage housing developments have served needs for different segments of the population.

Union Studio. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington, D.C. Accessed October 24, 2016.

Union Studio. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington, D.C. Accessed October 24, 2016.

Cottages have been suitable for providing workforce housing. In Suffolk County, New York, Cottages at Mattituck is a 22-unit income-restricted workforce housing project. The price for the 1,100 square foot units was determined by median income earnings. The cottages will remain permanently affordable through deed-restrictions.

Cottages can be affordable options integrated into an urban context. In East Greenwich, Rhode Island, Cottages on Greene is a privately-financed, mixed-income infill development located in the historic downtown area. The cottage housing style emphasized a walkable and smaller-scale, urban living environment. This denser residential development type serves as a transition between the downtown and single-family residences and allows for locating 15 homes within walking distance to a variety of shops, services, and restaurants in the downtown. The project also allocated five deed-restricted affordable housing units.

Cottages can be important residences for groups with special circumstances. In Sacramento, Quinn Cottages is an affordable development comprising 60 one-bedroom cottages serving single residents and parents with one child. Mercy Housing manages the cottages and provides support programs that allow the development to serve as transitional housing.


The appropriateness of cottage housing developments may vary depending on the location, however the developments can have advantages over other types of development. They can make more efficient use of land than single-family residential development. Although they are denser than traditional single-family homes, cottage housing could be implemented in single family residential areas where the cluster of housing would not appear to be a significant departure from an already dense concentration of single-family homes, or a medium-density single-family residential district as applied in some jurisdictions. They can fill properties that are large and underdeveloped. While developments may have densities somewhat higher than neighboring single-family homes, design of the buildings and the common open space can minimize the perception of mass. They may also serve as a transition between single-family homes and condominiums / townhomes.

As an intermediate between lower and higher density development types, a cottage housing development may help diversify housing choices and capture needs from different segments of the population. Cottage housing offers living arrangements that are attractive to households seeking modestly-sized homes and those who desire a close neighborhood environment. This housing type is an option that can accommodate smaller households, including single residents, households with few children, and older residents seeking to downsize. The close proximity of units can lend itself to fostering a neighborhood within a neighborhood feeling, which can create a greater sense of familiarity and safety.

An advantage of cottage housing developments is their flexibility, from making more effective or desirable use of underutilized spaces to serving the needs of different populations. As an infill type development, they can maintain a spacious feeling with open courts. As higher density development, they offer privacy by having detached units. Their sizes allow them to be potentially more energy-efficient compared to larger residences. They can serve as housing for families seeking to downsize, young households, and the workforce.

Keller Court Commons. Petaluma Argus Courier, Petaluma, CA. Accessed March 6, 2017.

Keller Court Commons. Petaluma Argus Courier, Petaluma, CA. Accessed March 6, 2017.


Although cottage housing developments can present a number of opportunities, they may be accompanied by specific issues due to characteristics of the development.

Construction is not necessarily much less expensive than traditional single family homes. The baseline standards of the cottages are the same for new residences, including compliance with building standards and installation of utility connections. Furthermore, costs for cottages may be more on a per-square-foot basis because unit prices cannot be increased based on square footage with as much bedroom and living room floor area that can be relatively inexpensive to build.

Locational suitability is a limiting factor. Availability of lots with sizes capable of accommodating development may be low. Allowable density on a lot generally needs to be higher to allow for economically feasible projects. However, neighborhoods may be sensitive to denser development. Taking lot size, density, neighborhood sensitivity into account, cottage housing developments may be limited to certain residential areas.

Parking can also present challenges. The site may have limited space available for parking. Despite smaller households that are drawn to cottage housing, sufficient parking is required to mitigate excessive spillover to on-street parking.


If it has been determined that a cottage housing development would not be impractical as a result of various challenges, a set of guidelines may serve to help shape how a development might fit within the site context. Cottage housing ordinances have been established in several jurisdictions. Ordinances that were reviewed include Kirkland, Spokane, Port Townsend, Redmond, Lakewood, and Marysville in Washington, and Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania.

Although a cottage housing ordinance may not necessarily be a tool that every jurisdiction would want to consider integrating into their municipal codes, the examples of existing cottage housing development regulations provide a basis to review and evaluate cottage housing projects proposed within a community. The guidelines presented here do not represent a comprehensive collection of standards that have been used nor do they suggest that cottage housing design must fit within these parameters, but they present a starting point to consider what aspects of development have been applied and provide an initial point of reference for further discussion.

Units and Lot Sizes

  • Number of Units: A minimum and maximum number of units may be defined. Minimums of 4 units and maximums of 12 units have been used in some ordinances.
  • Lot Sizes: Consider not setting a minimum lot size.

Floor Area and Coverage

  • Density – Floor Area Ratio: The use of floor area ratio for a site may be an appropriate standard to allow a practical design of cottage housing development. If density is used, the standard may limit density to two or three times the density of base zoning, which also may vary based on the zoning district.
  • Floor Area: A maximum floor area may be set for each cottage housing unit. Example maximum floor areas have been found to be between 800 and 1,500 square feet.
  • Coverage: Coverage is applied on a per unit basis. Building coverage has been found to be between 40 and 60 percent.
  • Density: Increasing density may be accomplished through the following
    • Increasing density based on underlying zoning (e.g., base zoning multiplied by two)
    • Reducing minimum lot requirements (e.g., base zoning divided by two)
    • Multiple cottages on a lot (e.g., up to two cottages on a single family lot, with certain conditions)
  • Density Bonus: Consider the appropriateness of density bonus incentives.
  • Expansion Restricted: Covenants may be used to restrict the expansion of cottages.

Setbacks and Height

  • Setbacks: Consideration should first be given to the appropriateness of existing setback regulations. For setbacks different from standard residential zoning, the following have been used:
    • Front setback examples. 10-20 feet.
    • Side setback examples. 5-10 feet.
    • Rear setback examples. 10 feet.
  •   Average Setbacks: Consider using average side and rear setbacks to provide design flexibility
  • Building Separation: Use a minimum building separation to allow for space between buildings. A typical standard is 10 feet between buildings. Building code standards may be used to guide the minimum separation standard.
  • Stories: Consider whether a one story limit or a two-story limit is appropriate.
    • Some architectural styles of cottages featuring lower plate height accommodate second floor area within the roof. To limit mass, a cap on second floor area may be based on a percentage of the first floor.
  • Height: Consider whether development would create tall and overly narrow homes.
    • Pitch limitations on cottage roof.
    • Maximum ratio of height to width.


  • Parking Spaces: Off-street parking may be between 1.0 and 2.0 spaces per unit.
  • Parking Arrangement: Parking can be designed such that access is away from primary streets. Parking spaces design could be through side access by alley, side access by private street, and a non-primary street. Adequate screening should be provided for any option. Parking lots may be more feasible than individual garages.
  • Parking Clusters: Consider whether parking should be distributed among small clusters on the site to minimize visual impact. Consider maximum contiguous spaces in each cluster and minimum separation between clusters.
  • Parking Reduction: Parking reduction may be considered if the site is close to transit.


  • Design: Consider whether requirements should be placed on a color scheme and variety in design.
  • Orientation: Orient the primary entry towards the common open space area.
  • Porches: Consider covered front porches. The minimum area may be 60-80 square feet.
  • Sidewalk: Sidewalk connections and sidewalks along public streets.
  • Parking Lot: Parking may be consolidated into one or a few small lots to allow for closer spacing between buildings.

Common Space and Amenities

  • Common Open Space Area: Each dwelling unit should provide an allotment of space for a common open space area. In several ordinances, 400 square feet per unit has been used but areas as small as 150 square feet per unit have been applied as well. Common open space may also be low in instances where there is a requirement for private open space.
    • Consider specifying that required setbacks, private open space, stormwater management facilities, parking areas, and driveways do not qualify as common open space area.
  • Community Building: A community building may be permitted.

Integration into the Community

  • Outreach: Provide outreach and education
  • Trial Period: Consider a trial period to ensure regulations are working as intended
  • Conditional Use Permit: An administrative conditional use permit may be a good approach to consider developer and community input so that the project works within the context of certain areas.


Cottage housing developments offer opportunities to fill in housing needs, but they may be limited in locations that could accommodate such developments. Density and neighborhood sensitivity may make it difficult to find suitable sites for cottage housing developments, in addition to needed interest from the developers.

However, it is also the compact character of these developments that makes them attractive to those with specific housing needs that can be served by small but detached housing units. In planning for cottage housing developments, establishing guidelines may help address some concerns related to the form the developments may take. A consideration of policies and guidelines can show if cottage housing developments would fit within the local context and how development may take shape.



MRSC. “Cottage Housing.” 2016.,-Plan-Elements/Cottage-Housing.aspx

The Housing Partnership. “Cottage Housing in Your Community: A Guide to Drafting a Cottage Housing Ordinance.” 2001.

Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. “Cottage Housing Development.”

Puget Sound Regional Council. “Tool: Cottage Housing.”

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Kirkland, Washington: Cottage Housing Ordinance.”

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Regulatory Barriers Clearinghouse, Volume 7, Issue 1. “Cutting Costs with Cottage Housing.” 2008.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “East Greenwich, Rhode Island” Cottages on Greene’s Innovative Approach to Infill.”

Cottage Housing Incorporated. “All of Our Communities.”

Snohomish County. “Cottage Housing.” 2016.