Microhousing Regulations Move Forward

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MicrohousingOn Tuesday the Council’s land use committee passed a new set of regulations for microhousing, providing an avenue for small living units to be designed and built in a safe, healthy, predictable and affordable way.

In crafting these regulations, the committee ensured a safe and healthy space for the residents, maintained affordability, and delivered predictability to neighborhoods about where microhousing can be constructed and what type of input neighbors can have through a design review process.

Microhousing units, sometimes known by the trade name of aPodments, have proliferated around the city in two forms: the pod form of 8 individually-rented sleeping rooms around a common kitchen, and in “congregate residences,” a land use definition originally intended for institutional uses like college dorms or assisted living facilities. More recently, developers have been building these congregate residences for individual private renters.

Earlier this year, the Council received legislation from the Department of Planning and Development that built a new land use definition around the existing loophole of the 8-pod unit. The proposal seemed to please no one – the development community or the neighborhoods.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien then led a thoughtful stakeholder process and introduced a new bill that regulates these units for what they are: small efficiency studio apartments. His legislation also restricts non-institutional congregate housing to denser zones (not lowrise zones) in our designated urban centers and urban villages.

This bill is much stronger. It takes a proactive approach to regulations rather than one that reacts to how some developers have used existing loopholes in the land use code.

The committee discussed several amendments on Tuesday. The first discussion revolved around minimum unit sizes. The current average for these units is about 150 square feet. I voted with the majority of the committee for a minimum of 220 square feet per unit, a number reflected in the International Building Code and still the smallest minimum in the country for small efficiency units. Seattle remains at the cutting edge of finding market-based solutions to the housing affordability crisis faced by many major cities.

Some have expressed concern that mandating in the 220 square foot minimum size will decrease the prevalence of these more affordable units. Arguments that the actions we’ve taken will make microhousing too expensive to develop or less affordable don’t stand up to scrutiny. These units will still rent for much more per square foot than average studio apartments, making them attractive to developers. And the rents will remain at what the market will bear; any marginal increases in development costs will cut into the developer’s profit margin, not be passed on directly to renters. Councilmember Nick Licata argued this line persuasively in committee (in a five-minute explanation).

Another amendment the committee adopted requires two sinks in each of these units – one for the bathroom and one for the kitchen. Seattle – King County Public Health recommended this approach and the committee adopted it.

The legislation will come before the Full Council on Monday, October 6.