June 11, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 24

News

Managing microhousing

By Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

Under city proposal, small units with shared kitchens will be regulated more like apartments

At Footprint Avalon in West Seattle sleeping units are clustered around shared recreation and kitchen spaces. The Seattle City Council is considering legislation that would prevent microhousing developments from being built in single-family neighborhoods and would regulate the size and design of the buildings elsewhere.

Photo by: Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

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Microhousing won’t be allowed in areas zoned for single-family homes under new legislation being considered by the Seattle City Council.

Developed by the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD), the proposed legislation would limit where and how small the units can be and create a minimum requirement for parking.

Often referred to by the trade name aPodments, the multi-unit buildings consisting of small sleeping spaces with shared kitchens and common areas have been popping up around Seattle since 2008, in response to the recession.

Such units have long been permissible under current 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, according to Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for Seattle’s DPD. (“Conlin to Capitol Hill: Microhousing’s no big deal,” RC, Feb. 6, 2013)

But critics of microhousing said developers were using a “loophole” in the code to build what are essentially taller apartment buildings in low-rise neighborhoods and to bypass design review. Occasionally the buildings appeared in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.

In 2010, developers filed permit applications to build five microhousing developments with a total of 198 units. In 2013, developers filed applications to build 25 buildings with a total of 1,366 units.

Now city councilmembers are considering creating a new housing category for microhousing. Under the proposal, each sleeping unit must be at least 70 square feet and communal areas must be at least 120 square feet. No side could be shorter than seven feet.

The legislation would require most developments to go through some sort of design review. Buildings larger than 20,000 square feet — about the size of a 20-unit apartment building — would be approved by a design review board. Smaller developments could go through a faster design-review process conducted by DPD staff.

The legislation also requires that for every four sleeping spaces, developers provide one car parking space and one secure bicycle parking space.

DPD’s proposed changes did not satisfy critics of microhousing. At a June 3 meeting of the city council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee, critics of the proposal said that the minimum size of the sleeping spaces was too small.

“I’d hate to see Seattle race to the bottom and establish the smallest standards nationally,” said Ballard resident Linda Melvin.

Melvin and others said they felt left out of the process, and they wanted more time to make recommendations to the council to change the legislation.

Proponents of microhousing say it’s portable housing in desireable locations.

“I think this is an important way, as the fastest-growing city in the country, to meet the demand for housing,” said Roger Valdez of Smart Growth Seattle at a city council meeting on microhousing June 3.

Others say microshousing developments are a cash cow for developers and aren’t truly affordable. 

“I remember when apartments, when homes, when communes were living spaces,” said Capitol Hill resident Dennis Saxman.

“Now they have become investment pieces,” he said.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien is forming a panel of residents, developers and city staff to discuss a list of 12 issues related to the proposed regulations on microhousing, including the design of microhousing developments, sleeping room size requirements and vehicle parking requirements.

“There are still quite a lot of unresolved policy issues we need to weigh in on,” O’Brien said.

The panel will meet for three weeks this summer before the council finalizes the legislation.

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