After Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development proposed regulations for defining what qualifies as micro-housing (as discussed in my previous post), it then proposed regulations for where this type of housing would be allowed.

The goal of the proposed regulation is simply to ‘prohibit new micro-housing development in single family zones (or other specific zones)’.

The proposal seemed logical to me, at least at first. When a zoned area is explicitly described as a single-family zone, I imagine this area to consist mostly of small houses with a nuclear family. Close your eyes and imagine white picket fences.

However, nuclear families aren’t the sole inhabitants of single-family zones. As you might imagine, it’s not unusual for households to consist of cousins or family friends living under the same roof. To take this a step further, many areas around the U-District are single-family zones, but the households consist of college students. This is called congregate housing. Contrary to what single-family designation might imply, the city has no intention of dictating who can live with whom. Instead, the goal is a little more ambiguous; maintain the ‘character’ of neighborhoods. Maintaining the character of a neighborhood could mean a number of different things. In respect to micro-housing, the primary disruptions to neighborhood character are the effects on density and building design.

Density is controlled in single-family zones by limiting residences to consist of up to eight units. The definition of units and residences has a little bit of flexibility when it comes to planning in Seattle. Generally, a residence refers to a group of people living together. A family living in a multi-story home would consist of a residence. A condo would also be a residence. Both of these residences are allowed to have up to eight units within single-family zones. In this case, a unit refers to a room. So you could have a house with up to eight rooms. Or you might have a two story building with 16 rooms, so long as eight rooms are considered one residence and the other eight rooms are a separate residence. Micro-housing uses this eight-unit max like any other home but consists of an unusual layout. Like a typical household, micro-housing units share a kitchen, establishing them as a single residence. Like a studio, micro-housing units usually have individual bathrooms. This layout is chosen in order to easily fit into the lot size, attract a particular set of renters, lower rental prices, meet design guidelines, increase return on investment and other reasons. Lastly, the individual units are generally very small; earning the name micro-housing.

Since micro-housing might fit within the current definition allowed in single-family zones and it could benefit many people who would want to live in these areas, there is a strong argument that micro-housing should be allowed. Perhaps the most salient examples are students living in the neighborhoods around the U-District. Many of these neighborhoods are single-family zoned. Students might have the option to live in a private unit while also paying less for their housing. This increase in housing diversity could provide students the options they want.

On the other hand, one could argue that micro-housing is a fundamentally different type of housing and should be regulated differently. In that case, perhaps the city could consider changing the zoning around the U-District and other areas where there would be a demand for this type of housing.

In sum, identifying areas where individuals could gain significantly from micro-housing and allowing this construction would create the large benefits accrued over time from change and avoid the large cost from catering to the entrenched status-quo. It seems like it would make sense to diversify the housing options in single-family zones, the largest zoned area in the city.

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Article Author

Owen does servicing and consulting for a software company to pay the bills. He has an amateur interest in urban policy, focusing on housing. His primary mode is a bicycle but isn't ashamed of riding down the hill and taking the bus back up. Feel free to tweet at him: @pickovven.