The Rise of Microhousing

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First we called them aPodments, but that soon switched to micros. Whatever you call them, they inspire either horror at the resurgence of the old-time single-room-occupancy hotel or they look to be the latest and greatest in affordable urban living.

After Tuesday’s Planning, Land Use & Sustainability meeting they’re also the subject of a possible mayoral veto, but for reasons that are unclear.

I can’t imagine anyone doesn’t know what a micro unit is at this point, but just in case…. Micros started appearing as a variation on the townhome. We saw four-packs or six-packs appear in parts of town (first Capitol Hill and the U-District), but instead of a typical two-bedroom configuration, we saw a full eight sleeping rooms connected to the core kitchen.

Many neighbors came out opposed to the projects because they feared the impacts of so many people living in the buildings. In a standard four-pack townhouse development, maybe you have two people per unit for eight total. In a four-pack of aPodments, you’ll have at least one person per sleeping room for a minimum total of 32 people.

On the good side, these buildings have generally been constructed near frequent transit and most residents are trying to live in the city car-free. On the bad side many micro developers were skirting design review thresholds by counting the eight sleeping units as one dwelling unit.

I think micros are a good addition to housing choice in our city. The late developer Jim Potter was a great, irascible proponent of City government figuring out how to help the private market produce affordability without direct subsidy. He toured me through one of his micro projects on Capitol Hill a few years ago and it was impressive. It’s not where I want to live at this stage of my life, but that’s not important in policy development. What’s important to me is that micros are available, safe and regulated for “fit” in a neighborhood the same way similarly-scaled buildings for full-size apartments are.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien did the hard work of assembling a stakeholder group of developers, architects and neighborhood advocates to review the micro regulations sent to Council by Mayor Murray earlier this year. After a series of difficult meetings the group came to some agreements and remained in fierce disagreement on others.

The result is the bill we voted out of committee Tuesday along with a series of amendments. Within the base bill the City now defines “small efficiency dwelling units” (SEDU) for the first time in code. The intent of this change is to replace the current form of micro-housing, with multiple sleeping rooms arranged around a core kitchen, with individual, self-contained, small apartments that are regulated as such. The legislation also sets thresholds for different intensities of design review depending upon the size of the building. The new rules limit the number of residential parking zone passes to one per SEDU rather than the four allowed other homes inside an RPZ boundary. The bill, also, better defines congregate housing so that’s a less attractive work-around for some developers.

This definition of SEDU and the design review thresholds are a big improvement over our current situation, though the contents of the bill remain controversial, especially with some developers. The amendments acted on in Tuesday’s meeting seem to be the focus of ire now by some who think the changes go too far. (Jim Potter would probably agree.) I might agree on one of them (minimum size), but I think we struck a good balance in the exchanges represented by the others.

Minimum SEDU size – I would prefer to allow architects flexibility down to 180 square feet, but the votes weren’t there for that. I think there are great examples of smaller spaces and I don’t think all renters want more space. Councilmember O’Brien and I attempted a minimum average across all units of 220 square feet and an absolute minimum of 180 square feet, but that failed. The majority of the committee voted to make 220 square feet the minimum for SEDUs arguing that peer cities like San Francisco and New York don’t allow units smaller than 220 square feet.

Bike parking – Councilmembers in the previous meeting advocated for enough storage to ensure bikes don’t have to be kept inside SEDUs or congregate residence sleeping rooms, so we increased the required bike parking to .75 per unit and also specified this has to be a covered area. Thanks to the suggestion of a smart architect, Councilmember O’Brien proposed not counting this bike parking space in the FAR (developable people space). That amendment passed and I think was a good way to ensure we’re not trading bike parking for residential units.

Common space in congregate housing – OK, congregates are a little different from SEDUs. They’re more like dorms and play an important role in affordable housing and housing for people with special needs. Councilmember Licata proposed increasing the required common area space from 10 percent of the building to 15 percent of the building. Laundry space will count, though, I worry too many of the spaces will be less about social interaction and more about just getting the wash done.

Sinks – The draft legislation required a minimum of one sink per SEDU and that if the SEDU has only one sink that the sink be located in the kitchen area. I was OK with this until King County Public Health weighed in with advice that living units have at least two sinks, one in the bathroom and one elsewhere, as a “best practice” in disease control. Developers have argued the second sink is superfluous and just a means for project-opponents to weigh down projects with unneeded fixtures and costs. In the end I sided with Public Health. If these are now stand-alone living spaces, no longer predicated on availability of a separate kitchen, and if there may be multiple people living in the units, then units should have two sinks, however small they might be.

Parking – This may be the issue neighbors of new micro buildings bring up the most. Most of the micro projects developed to date don’t provide parking for even the majority of units in the building and, to my mind, that’s OK. Most likely at least a few of the tenants own cars and park them in the neighborhood. That’s anyone’s right to do, but neighbors see the possibility of lots of new cars clogging up parking. Personally, I think it’s good that the City got out of the business of parking minimums in urban centers, our densest neighborhoods. I think it’s worth reviewing parking rules and what we’re seeing developed further out from the core of the urban villages and near frequent transit in other areas. We amended the bill with a request for the Seattle Department of Planning & Development to conduct a review of Seattle’s current car and bike parking requirements for new development. The results of that review will come back to the Council in late March of next year.

Overall, the bill defines SEDUs in Seattle’s code for the first time, lays out development standards and sets appropriate design review thresholds. I’m not happy about where the majority of the committee landed for minimum square footage per unit, but I want to get the other standards in place as soon as possible.

The amended bill now awaits Full Council consideration. That’s set to occur on Mon., Oct. 6. Regulations would take effect 30 days after the Mayor signs the bill.