Micro-housing provokes big debate

While micro-housing is a national trend, Seattle has seen far more of it (over 3,600 units in stages from occupied to permitted), in more diverse configurations, with smaller unit sizes and less regulation than other cities.

When aPodments first appeared in 2009 it was clear they were separately leasable apartments.  They were described as townhouses (under the Land Use code) but as “boarding house” (under the Building Code) with 8 sleeping rooms (each with kitchenette and bathroom) and a tiny “shared” kitchen.  Eight was chosen because the Land Use code defines a “household” as up to 8 people in a “dwelling unit”.  DPD adopted the practice of not counting each separately leased sleeping room as a dwelling unit thereby enabling the developer to avoid Design Review and SEPA thresholds.

Because public process was avoided, parking not provided, and unit sizes were very small, these became a profitable type of project for a small cabal of developers.  Over the next couple of years these projects became more prevalent, mostly on Capitol Hill (though East Lake and the University District were also targeted) with over 1,200 units permitted in this period.

During the same period San Francisco was also looking at micro-housing and crafted legislation to allow 220 sqft apartments in a 375 unit trial.   And NYC held a design competition and allowed 250 sq ft apartments.  Seattle however was seeing units far smaller (at one point fully a third of the units on Capitol hill were less that 140 sq ft) with developers not placing sinks in bathrooms to avoid the units being called a “dwelling unit”.  DPD further clouded the issue by ignoring in-unit kitchenettes using an “unwritten interpretation” suggesting the code’s “cooking appliance“  requirement for kitchens required a full stove rather than a microwave.

Neighbors on Capitol Hill confronted former Councilmember Richard Conlin and DPD Director Diane Sugimura over the issue in December 2012.  But they rejected calls for a moratorium until regulations could be crafted and instead stated they were “monitoring” the situation.

However DPD was doing more than “monitoring”.  New variations of micro-housing projects created confusion in DPD.  During this time DPD created an internal training program that helped planners recognize and permit micro-housing under townhouse and congregate housing definitions.  Micro-housing began spreading to other neighborhoods.

There were also fire safety concerns.  Cathy Reines, CEO of Footprint (developer of nearly half of Seattle’s micro projects) stated that fire safety issues were really just people’s “fear of change”, and that they follow Seattle’s Building Code.  But the building code was updated in 2009 around the time micros first started appearing by removing the requirement for a second means of egress for buildings over 3 stories.  Seattle is now unique in the country in allowing a single means of egress in 5 or 6 story buildings.

This, coupled with loopholes introduced by Council’s 2010 update to the lowrise code and changes to building height calculations in McGinn’s  developer-driven “Regulatory Reform” package, allowed micro-housing projects to become 5-story structures in the previously 30 ft lowrise zones.

In 2010 the Building Code was again changed, this time to allow more than 16 people in a congregate housing type.  Congregate housing had traditionally meant assisted living and institutional group homes with between 9 and 16 occupants.  The implications of this change were not discussed with City Council when “ministerial change” approval was sought by Seattle’s Building Official Jon Siu.  Subsequent to this there was a rapid increase in congregate projects with 1,100 units permitted using the congregate designation with some projects housing well over 100 people and one with 235 people.

As Diane Sugimura noted, developers exhibited great creativity in developing variations of micro-housing projects.  For example, Footprint is looking to use micros as temporary tech worker housing in lieu of hotels adding to concerns of neighbors in residential zones.

After years of  DPD’s failure to grasp and respond to the issues created by micro-housing, a complicated DPD proposal (arguably  written to formally legislate what it had been doing) was released in February 2014.  But this failed to address multiple significant neighborhood concerns.  Even developers didn’t like the proposal since it mandated design review and parking, making the long awaited legislation dead-on-arrival.

To his credit, Planning, Land Use and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee Chair Mike O’Brien realized this and in June of this year took the steps to find a more practical solution.  He has recently hosted a series of meetings with micro-housing developers and community advocates to see if common ground on the controversial housing type could be found.

Neighborhoods proposed a simple solution:  1) enforcing existing Building Code standards for “efficiency dwelling units” at 220 sq ft by modifying the decade-old Director’s Rule 6-2004 (which provides for full bathroom, kitchenette and storage in a unit), and 2) removing the congregate loophole which allowed the “congregate” SRO (single room occupancy) type of housing (something that had been removed from the land use code decades earlier).

This solves the Design Review and SEPA issue for neighborhoods by counting each efficiency dwelling unit properly, and curtails the controversial “congregate’ projects.

Many developers are already building efficiency dwelling unit projects conforming to these standards and O’Brien appears amenable to this approach as a baseline.  The PLUS committee will be exploring this and the fire safety and parking issues starting later this month.

At this month’s SNC meeting we will discuss whether this approach may or may not be a point of common ground.  We will be joined by micro-housing developer Scott Shapiro, micro-housing evangelist Roger Valdez, intrepid neighborhood activist and researcher Dennis Saxman, and not-so-micro housing developer Linda Alexander.  (Linda and Scott were participants in O’Brien’s discussions).

Please join us for what promises to be a lively and informative discussion.

[by Bill Bradburd, July 1, 2014]

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