Article Note: This is the first installment of a five-part series on micro housing, see Part 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 as well.

The Seattle City Council may reconsider new rules restricting micro housing, according to Council President Tim Burgess. Since it first came to Seattle in 2009, the issue has riled up developers and neighborhood activists. As it comes roaring back to life, I hope to provide a comprehensive overview of the issue and make the case for why they make for good urbanism.

Background

Micro housing was introduced to the City by developer Jim Potter when he found a loophole in city zoning regulations allowing him to build eight bedrooms around a kitchen and call it a single unit. This allowed him to greatly increase the number of residents he could accommodate on individual parcels within single-family neighborhoods.

The new buildings took neighbors by surprise. A small house next door could be replaced by a four-story apartment building with 30 new residents or more. The loophole in code allowed developers to skip the public design review process, leaving neighbors with little warning or cause for recourse. Concerns ranged from neighborhood character and limited parking to the welfare of residents living in small spaces. Meanwhile, advocates cheered them as an innovative solution to the growing affordable housing crisis.

The Units

Just how small are they? The first iteration averages a mere 150 square feet–that’s less than the size of an average one-car garage. With room for a twin bed, a desk or table, a small bathroom, and kitchenette, there isn’t an inch to waste.

Residents also have access to several large common spaces, including a central full kitchen, rooftop decks, and floor lounges. They aren’t unlike college dorms.

New Regulations

New regulations passed in 2014 have redrawn the blueprint for micro housing. Developers cannot utilize the congregate housing model, in which eight rooms around a kitchen count as a single unit. Instead, each unit must stand on its own with a full kitchen and a minimum 220 square foot floor plan.

They are also subject to the public design review process, giving neighbors a chance to vet the project and voice their concerns.

A noteworthy exception was carved out for universities and non-profit housing providers to continue with congregate housing.

While some cheer the new rules as a win for livability, others decry the loss of affordable housing in a city that’s rapidly seeing young and low-income residents priced out to the suburbs.

To address these concerns, the Council also passed legislation expanding a popular affordable housing program to include micro units. The Multifamily House Property Tax Exemption (MFTE) Program provides developers with a property tax exemption if they provide income-restricted units below certain Area Median Income rates over a 12-year period. Micro units would be caped at $618 per month for a person with a maximum annual income of $24,720.

In the next installment, I’ll provide an in-depth overview of arguments in favor of micro housing.

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Ben is a Seattle area native, living with his husband downtown since 2013. He started in queer grassroots organizing in 2009 and quickly developed a love for all things political and wonky. When he’s not reading news articles, he can be found excitedly pointing out new buses or prime plots for redevelopment to his uninterested friends who really just want to get to dinner. Serving as the Policy and Legislative Affairs Director, Ben primarily writes about political issues.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Small correction. Micro housing cannot participate in the MFTE program. Small Efficiency Dwelling Units can participate but they are priced at a level that is frankly intended to discourage participation.

    • Small efficiency dwelling units are just the second iteration of micro housing in Seattle. By some definitions, the congregate housing we had before wasn’t technically micro housing. Mostly any unit below about 350 square feet is considered micro.

      • I see where you are coming from re: the micro definition. SEDU’s are certainly a form of microhousing & would be a radical downsizing from the status quo in almost every other city. In Seattle, SEDU’s are a big shift up in size and price from the congregate style micro-housing units. The congregate style micros that were essentially banned from production and not allowed to participate in the MFTE program are a big part of the story and the policy discussion. I don’t think you should conflate the two.

        I’d also clarify the the council did not expand the MFTE program to SEDU’s. SEDU’s were already able to participate. What the council did was to create a new price category for SEDU’s that is set so far below market rent that it is unlikely that developers will be able to use the MFTE program for this kind of development.

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