micro-housing
Example of micro-housing. Courtesy of the Seattle Department of Planning and Development.

Background

Micro-housing (often referred to as apodments) are small units, which are usually less than 300 square feet in size. They tend to be occupied individually (like studios), but without a kitchen or kitchenette. Units are may be grouped around a common space and share a kitchen with up to 8 other units. Over the past few years, these units began popping up around Seattle and gradually garnering strong and vocal backlash. The units are possible under current zoning because they are considered similar to congregate housing. Examples of congregate-like housing include multiple unrelated people living in a single-family home, assisted living centers, or college dormitories.

The pros

This type of housing provides an option that currently is rarely available in the market place, especially at the price range being targeted. Individuals choosing this option are seeing a number of advantages such as:

  • The chance to have a private space without roommates
  • The chance to live in a new building
  • Costs in high-rent neighborhoods between $500 and $700 a month
  • The chance to live closely to a large group of people without the responsibility of cleaning common space
  • A standard lease that is legal, ensuring protection under the law rather than depending on unofficial agreements

The cons

Opponents have a large range of complaints, which include common ones like:

  • The units will bring unsavory people to the neighborhood
  • The increased density will make it harder to find (practically free) street parking
  • The buildings are ugly
  • No one can/should live in such small spaces
  • This isn’t a good solution for cheap housing

The first four complaints are blatantly specious, but have ignited a fire under council to pass regulations that differentiate this type of housing from the single-family homes that are (unofficially) used in the same way already.

Proposed regulations

All of the proposed changes will make it more expensive to build micro-housing. This leads one to ask whether the proposals aim to provide better, more affordable housing or to prevent micro-housing. A few of the regulations that are especially bad:

Where we’re at now

During the Planning, Land-Use and Sustainability (PLUS) committee meeting yesterday, a vote was expected on some of the micro-housing rules but instead a decision was made to form a stakeholder group. The stakeholder group will be tasked with determining the best way to regulate this new type of housing. The group will likely consist of about 10 members representing various interest in the debate and will draft new regulations regarding this housing type. It’s hard to say what this means before seeing the make-up of the stakeholder group. With that said, it seems unlikely that the vocal opponents of micro-housing will be the only voice. Additionally, throughout the debate there has been very little influence from people who live in these buildings. Their feedback should prove critical for considering regulation and this will give them a voice.

What the stakeholder group should consider

There’s no doubt that micro-housing isn’t the only, or even the best solution for affordable housing in Seattle. In a perfect world developers would be building units three times the size of micro-housing and charging the same, if not less. In the world we live in, the most affordable, new housing being in Seattle is micro-housing. Any regulations passed should seek to preserve or expand this value. The stakeholder group should consider:

  • What regulations can be changed to make micro-housing even more affordable;
  • How we ensure that enough micro-housing is built to meet demand; and
  • If there are regulations that can make micro-housing more livable without affecting the cost.

We look forward to moving this beyond debate and more thoroughly considering how to structure a city that builds a lot of varied and affordable housing. In the mean time, let’s not kill the projects we are building that are affordable, but instead seek to enhance their value.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Design review is one of the few things that I do appreciate about the new legislation. To be clear, I think most of the developments are pretty decent in design, but they certainly could be improved. Case and point: the entryway even in the photo above is exactly what *not* to do with any multi-unit development. But there are plenty of other cases where cheap exterior facades (of plastic) have been used and are already showing their age or that there just isn’t the right detail or orientation of a structure. Design review can account for these things and ensure superior outcomes.

    I’m all for affordability, and I totally support micro-housing, but it should be beautiful and interact well with the public realm, too.

    • Just to add to my point above: what I don’t want is DR to be used to derail a project. I don’t necessarily have a serious concern that the will happen, even if it goes through the normal DR process, as the Design Review Boards are pretty even headed. But I think that is worth noting.

      Also, it is worth noting that there isn’t anything dynamically different between micro-housing and any other multi-family like townhouses, apartments, and condos that must go through the Design Review process.

      • I think the important point (although I might be misunderstanding) is that the legislation would have different DR requirements for micro-housing than for other similar developments. If this is true it seems irrational and primarily aimed at derailing micro-housing.

        • That’s a fair point. I haven’t looked close enough to see *which* design review process it would be reviewed under. There’s 3 or 4 different types currently. I would hope that it would share the same DR process to any projects that are similar in scale, but different in tenancy arrangement.

        • Ah, here you go (taken from the Council brief):

          8. Design Review thresholds
          Under CB 118067, the following Design Review thresholds would apply to all micro-housing and congregate residence projects constructed in Seattle, regardless of zone:

          Streamlined Design Review (SDR): Projects containing 6,000 to 11,999 square feet of gross floor area.

          Administrative Design Review (ADR): Projects containing 12,000 to 19,999 square feet of gross floor area.

          Full Design Review: Projects containing 20,000 or more square feet of gross floor area.

          Should other threshold options be considered as well? If so, what should those options be?

          • Yeah, it’s by zone threshold and then process type based on what the project consists of. I can see the rationale for the different threshold levels depending upon the scale of the project. For example, a small mirco is probably more similar to a few townhouses while a full fledge apartment micro is, well, essentially an apartment and should go through the full review process. (Not that I’m endorse one arrangement for review or another.)

      • My view on this is that DR is a large cost for these inexpensive projects. Unless I’m mistaken DR doesn’t fundamentally have the power to change anything – vinyl siding is legal, and they can build with it if they want. DR only allows them to trade things they want that aren’t allowed by code (such as a smaller setback) in exchange for improving their design (switching to concrete board siding).
        If DR really worked the way it should, then we might as well make it optional, and developers would choose to use DR to get what they want. But in practice, it seems the DR board has the power to slow the process down enough to practically kill it if they don’t get their way.

        • I would hardly say that microhousing are small projects. A small project is a deck or minor addition. I also fail to see how it’s somehow unfair to treat microhousing like *any* other multi-family project. The added effort in ensuring good design is worth the process from my experience.

          • I said inexpensive, not small.
            And yes, I’d be perfectly happy removing DR for all projects, at least as a requirement. Most large projects would choose it anyway, but if you’re following our codes and standards DR is not useful.

      • Another issue with avoided DR is that it’s a de facto subsidy for one type of development over another. And the city/public haven’t had chance to say whether this is desirable or appropriate.

  2. I think it’s great city is taking step back on this, and it will be interesting to see what results. I wouldn’t say ugly buildings are specious – they become lightning rods for opposition. Much of the design issues could be resolved through better designers, more urban-oriented policy (e.g.form-based codes paired with dropping modulation…) – but this is an issue with most development in city, compounded by a lack of actual planning by city.

    Fundamentally, the city should be setting minimum unit sizes – for a number of reasons including future flexibility, equity, and dignity. The city sets floors on an array of issues for reasons of equity and dignity, including now a higher minimum wage – so this isn’t unprecedented. Furthermore, affordable housing is so tight and tenants voices so weak that the ‘market’ can’t demand larger units – the city needs to step in here on this one.

    Another issue which hasn’t been addressed but has been in a couple of EU cities is whether microhousing increases land prices. microhousing, through lower soft costs (avoided DR), higher leasing rates (up to and over 2.5x market rate on SF basis for same ‘hood) and more leasable area (eg less amenity space, high end units cant get away with 7’6″ ceilings) has potential to significantly increase economic productivity of LR lots (or SF lots, as developers have argued for). As land value is partially derived from income potential, an increase due to microhousing would further increase the inequity divide. Larger minimum unit sizes would be a check on that. It would be tragically ironic if microhousing, through the guise of being affordable, were to instead increase the inequity gap.

    • I think you make some important points and I tentatively agree with the concept that a minimum on unit sizes could be a good thing in a functional rental market. You use the example of a minimum wage but I would use the example of minimum parking requirements. I think the latter is more relevant because it is a minimum based on a preferred lifestyle, similar to setting a minimum space requirement beyond what is safe. It’s not so much that people prefer a lifestyle with a smaller apartment (although some will) but that many people prioritize costs before size.

      I also think the point you make about future flexibility is interesting. This is something that should be prioritized but I’m not sure how micro-housing is less flexible than other types of units since you could tear out walls and whatnot to increase the unit sizes.

      Most importantly though, I think all of the arguments against micro-housing put forth an array of suggestions that would incrementally make it harder to build the housing. This means it will either not be built or become more expensive. I think this often gets our priorities backwards, in which our first priority should safety, our second affordability and then everything else. Until I see actual buildings going up that meet the price point that micro-housing is providing, it doesn’t make sense to kill these projects or make them more expensive.

      In the end this is new and an experiment so I’m open to see where it goes and this thread has pretty much convinced me that DR requirements are an important part of the legislation.

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