Following a round of talks with developers and neighborhood groups, Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien proposed a new set of micro-housing regulations on Wednesday.
Backers and critics of micro-housing applauded O'Brien's attempt to craft legislation that balanced their interests. But both sides knocked some of the newly proposed rules and strong disagreements persist about how the small-sized units should be integrated into the city's housing stock.
Driving the tense debate are issues surrounding affordable housing, on-street parking and the fast-changing character of Seattle neighborhoods, especially in parts of town where people own homes.
"I do think that the concepts I'm proposing address a lot of the concerns and I believe they are a workable solution," O'Brien said on Wednesday, shortly after discussing the proposal at a meeting of the Council's land use committee. The proposal will need a review and approval from the committee before it is presented to the full council for consideration.
The Department of Planning and Development delivered a draft set of micro-housing regulations to the City Council in May. After developers and neighborhood advocates balked at the rules, O'Brien decided to take a crack at some revisions. To gather input, he convened a work group of micro-housing supporters and neighborhood advocates, which met three times beginning in June.
One of the big revisions O'Brien ended up proposing to DPD's draft rules is a change in how micro-housing units would be defined in the city's municipal code.
Under DPD's proposal, up to eight sleeping rooms with a shared kitchen could have been defined as a micro-housing "unit." O'Brien's proposal would dub each small living space a "small efficiency apartment," and count it as one dwelling unit. Each unit would need a sleeping room, a private bathroom, and a kitchen-area with a refrigerator, countertop and cooking appliance, such as a stovetop or a microwave.
"It creates much more clarity and transparency about what's being built," O'Brien said. "People know how many units are in a building."
There is also an average room-size requirement in O'Brien's proposal. Including bathrooms, kitchen areas and closets, the average size of all of the small efficiency apartments in a building would have to be at least 220 square feet. To prevent developers from building one large unit to skew a building's average, apartments larger than 400 square feet could not be included in the calculation.
Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, a pro-density organization backed by micro-housing developers, was unenthusiastic about O'Brien's newly proposed rules.
"It could be worse," he said. Valdez thinks that O'Brien is doing a commendable job trying to come up with the legislation, but that neighborhood advocates are creating a political climate that is overly hostile to micro-housing development. As with the earlier set of DPD regulations, he counts O'Brien's current plan as a possible death blow to the micro-housing market.
"It has almost as much potential as the previous proposal to end micro-housing as we know it," he said.
Micro-housing, in Valdez's view, is a way to provide people with affordable places to live as Seattle's population grows. The more restrictions there are on the small apartments, Valdez said, the more incentive developers have to build full-sized units instead.
"The advantages that came along with micro-housing are going to be bargained away," he said. "Developers are going to look at a parcel and they're just going to build one bedroom apartments." This, Valdez said, will force people into bigger apartments, which they don't necessarily want to pay for. "It's like telling somebody you can't buy one can of Coke, you have to buy the whole six pack," he said.
Valdez wants to see the room-size restrictions and requirements for fixtures like stoves and sinks scrapped from the proposal.
"The fact is," he said. "The market is sorting these things out."
Bill Bradburd, chair of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, does not buy that argument. He would like the size restrictions in O'Brien's proposal tightened, so that they are not based on an average, and have a hard minimum requirement of 220 square feet per unit. "We don't think that's a prudent way to produce housing," he said, "to say, 'you have to live in this broom closet.' "
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