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Council looks for truce on micro-housing

Councilmember Mike O'Brien Credit: Wikipedia

A workgroup of developers and neighborhood advocates, assembled by Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien, will meet this afternoon to begin discussing how they think micro-housing legislation the council is considering can be improved.

O'Brien chairs the council's planning and land use committee. He decided to convene the group after hearing critical feedback during recent meetings about the newly proposed regulations for the small-sized apartments. Developers say the proposed rules are too restrictive and would quash Seattle's micro-housing market. Neighborhood advocates are concerned about the pace at which the projects are being built, where they are located and the amount of parking.

Also up for debate are Department of Planning and Development guidelines, incorporated into the legislation, for reviewing the design of micro-housing apartment buildings.

Some neighborhood advocates are also skeptical of so-called congregate housing developments, a building classification traditionally reserved for structures like dormitories and retirement homes. They question whether these types of residences should be available for the general public to live in. Regulations for congregate residences are also included in the legislation.

Explaining the creation of the workgroup, O'Brien said, "My hope is that by pulling in some people who are willing to have a conversation, and talk about their concerns, is that we might be able to find some shared values and some common ground." He added: "I have no doubt that there will be policy disagreements at the end of it, but I'm hoping to clarify what those are and frame them up for the council."

A Department of Planning and Development list from the end of February shows 62 micro-housing and congregate residence buildings in various stages of development. The number of rooms in each of them ranges from seven to 230. All together, the planned and completed buildings would add 3,123 rooms to the city's housing market. The list showed that 704 of those units had city certificates allowing for occupants. Square footage for some micro apartments in the projects under development in Seattle would be around 200 square feet including bathroom space — about the same size as four or five pool tables. 

The proposed legislation would change the city's land use code, creating a definition for micro-apartments based on room-size and prohibiting buildings containing the small-sized living spaces in areas zoned for single family homes. The regulations also include minimum-size measurements for shared kitchen spaces as well as parking requirements.

Mayor Ed Murray directed the Department of Planning and Development to forward the regulations to the council earlier this year.

Scott E. Shapiro, a member of the workgroup and managing director of Eagle Rock Ventures LLC, a development firm with six micro-housing projects in the works in Ballard and Capitol Hill, said he is optimistic that many of the concerns raised about the proposed regulations can be addressed. But he does not support the legislation as it stands.

"I think it would greatly reduce, if not eliminate micro-housing in the city of Seattle," he said.

For Linda Alexander, who is representing the Eastlake neighborhood on the workgroup, the added strain the buildings could put on street parking is a key issue. "Parking is a big issue for all of the neighborhoods," she said.

Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, a pro-density organization backed by micro-housing developers including Shapiro's firm, said that the parking issue is being overstated. "These people don't have cars," he said. "If the people had cars, they'd go buy a product some place where there's parking."

The proposed regulations would require one parking space for every four sleeping rooms.

While Alexander, who has been a real-estate developer in Seattle for about 30 years, is not opposed to micro-housing, she does not feel the same way about congregate, dormitory-like buildings. She points to a proposed congregate building on Eastlake Avenue East, just north of East Hamlin Street, as a cause for concern. The building is currently moving through the Department of Planning and Development permitting process and, as planned, would include 113 bedrooms and no parking.

Bill Bradburd, chair of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, is not on the workgroup, but is also a critic of the congregate structures. "They don't have any rules about what needs to be put into them," he said. Bradburd also feels that micro-housing construction is happening too fast for city to handle. "We're building a decade's worth of housing in two years."

Alexander believes that there will also be extensive discussion within the workgroup about how to define micro-housing. "There doesn't seem to be a clear definition of what micro-housing is," she said.

The regulations try to nail down a definition by setting the maximum size for a micro apartment at 285 square feet of floor area, including private bathrooms, closets and sleeping lofts. For every eight micro rooms, there is also a requirement for a minimum of 120 square feet of common kitchen space. Another rule states that each room should have a bathroom with a toilet and a sink.

Valdez believes that the size requirements and other rules in the proposed legislation are too prescriptive and that the city should let market demand guide what gets built. "If people wanted bigger units, or more common space, probably developers would build it and fold that into the cost structure," Valdez said. "I think that what we are hopeful for is something that codifies what is already being built, what's already working for people."

In O'Brien's view, that is not a realistic path forward. "I don't think it makes sense to just codify what's been happening," he said.

Defining what qualifies as micro-housing, deciding in which land use zones buildings containing the apartments should be located, and ironing out the details of the Department of Planning and Development's design review process for those buildings, will be some of the more important parts of the conversation about the legislation, according to O'Brien.

This afternoon's workgroup meeting is the first of three scheduled for this summer. The group is scheduled to report back to the City Council's land use committee in mid-August.

Despite his reservations about congregate housing and some other aspects of the regulations, Bradburd was hopeful about the workgroup. The neighorhoods leader said, "We all believe that there is a tremendous need for small, affordable units."

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