“Micro-unit” apartment buildings, sometimes known as “aPodments” (which is actually one developer’s trademarked term) consist of very small dwellings, similar in size to a hotel room, which usually have private bathrooms and perhaps a mini-refrigerator and microwave. Seven or eight of these small efficiencies are grouped around a full kitchen/dining area.
While these units are very popular and provide affordable housing, there has been some resistance to them in some areas of the City, particularly Capitol Hill, where a number of these buildings have been constructed. One sore spot has been the way that developers have used their ‘unit count’ in different ways depending on what City regulation they are working with. The City Office of Housing has now issued a regulation that should resolve this issue. The Office of Housing regulation requires that any building applying for a Multi-Family Tax Exemption for affordable housing use the same unit count that the developer uses in the land use permitting process.
For land use code purposes, a housing unit is defined by the presence of a kitchen. This means that seven or eight small efficiencies have been defined as one unit for land use code purposes, since they share a common kitchen. As a result, these buildings have often slipped below the threshold for design review and SEPA analysis, which are based on the number of units in the building. There are good arguments for suggesting that this is unfair, since the cumulative size and impact of eight bedrooms grouped around a single kitchen could be larger than that of a typical apartment unit.
A further problem has been that some project developers have used a different count when they apply for a Multi-Family Property Tax Exemption (MFTE) based on providing affordable housing, counting each bedroom as a separate unit. A number of these buildings have been granted MFTE status. The MFTE was designed to encourage developers to construct new affordable apartments, especially in areas where not much development was happening. City staff and electeds have agreed that micro-units are not completely congruent with the intent of the program.
The first step in resolving these problems has been taken by the Office of Housing, which has issued Housing Rule 01-2013, which simply states that “The number and size of dwelling units verified by the Owner in the application for property tax exemption for Multifamily Housing shall be identical to the number and size of dwelling units contained in the Owner’s application to the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) for a building permit…” That resolves the contradiction.
DPD is working on legislation that will address two other issues to cover micro-unit buildings in the land use code. This legislation will define micro-unit buildings, to establish that they are different from an apartment building and have different characteristics. DPD is also considering creating a new threshold for design review based on the size/square footage of the building, rather than the unit count, so that micro-unit buildings will be treated the same as an apartment building of the same square footage.
Creating a consistent unit count and applying design review consistent with an apartment building of similar size will provide a formal space for micro-unit buildings in the code and ensure that they are treated comparably to a similar apartment building. This should resolve some of the legitimate concerns that have been expressed by neighbors about micro-unit buildings taking unfair advantage of the MFTE program and unreasonably evading design review.
However, some of the opposition to these buildings is based on other, less tangible, factors related to this kind of affordable housing, even though these buildings meet the other requirements of the land use code. I continue to believe that these small room buildings provide affordable housing and are appropriate parts of our housing continuum, and I do not support regulatory actions that would prevent, rather than regulate, their further development.