February 6, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 6

News

Conlin to Capitol Hill: Microhousing’s no big deal

By Amy Roe / Editor

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Microhousing, very small rental units that typically share a kitchen, may rankle some, but city leaders say more of them are on the way.

Sometimes marketed under the trade name aPodments, microhousing developments fill a need in the housing market and are consistent with the city’s building codes, said City Councilmember Richard Conlin, Chair of the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee.

Conlin met in December with some Capitol Hill residents, including members of a group called Reasonable Density Seattle, who want a moratorium on microhousing until new rules to govern them can be created. They have accused microhousing developers of exploiting a loophole to build the units. The loophole means, as Reasonable Density Seattle’s Carl Winter then put it, “in the future many neighborhoods will have to deal with the reality of hundreds of temporary neighbors who are not invested in their community and are only looking for cheap housing.” (Winter declined to be interviewed by Real Change, saying the group had been misrepresented by the media.)

Conlin concluded that no moratorium is needed; microhousing’s impacts are no greater than that of an apartment building, and they are going up in areas already zoned for apartments.

“About half of the projects on Capitol Hill are being proposed in Midrise and Neighborhood Commercial zones, where these [microhousing projects] are not problems,” Conlin writes. “Others are being built in areas that have been zoned multi-family for decades, but still have large numbers of single-family houses. An apartment building could be constructed at any time in these areas, and, while a micro-unit building may house somewhat more residents than a comparably sized apartment building, it is not clear that the impacts are greater.”

Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD), told Real Change microhousing first appeared in Seattle in 2009 in response to the recession. The units have long been possible under city code, which enables people to rent out rooms in single-family buildings, a practice common in the University District, where students share rental houses and live in fraternities and sororities.

“Current code allows flexibility to allow up to eight people to live in one unit, assuming each have their own room,” Stevens said. “That number has been in our code for the past 30 years.”

Under current code, a dwelling unit is typically defined by the presence of a kitchen, and sometimes, a separate entrance.

In essence, Stevens said, “What a lot of these [microhousing] projects are is a single dwelling unit with seven or eight bedrooms.”

Critics of microhousing say they are an emerging category of housing that ought to be subject to design review and environmental review. On that front, they appear to have made some headway with the city.

Design review, which is mainly concerned with aesthetics, is already required of any multifamily development with more than eight units. For environmental review, the threshold is higher — 20 units.

DPD is looking at whether either type of review is appropriate for microhousing, Stevens said.

But he added that the city generally favors microhousing and wants to encourage it as a way to expand the variety of housing stock without a government subsidy.

To date, Seattle DPD has issued 29 permits for microhousing developments, and seven of those have been built, Stevens said.

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