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Councilmember Mike O'Brien jumps into micro-housing fight

Both developers and neighborhood groups see the City Council member's new proposal as imperfect.
Councilmember Mike O'Brien

Councilmember Mike O'Brien Wikipedia

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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Comments:

Posted Wed, Aug 13, 11:14 p.m. Inappropriate

EVERY tenant deserves healthy housing. So if HUD's Section 8 housing voucher program requires a minimum 220 square feet, so should Seattle's. Every unit, not the "average" unit.

"Congregate" housing is for special needs populations, whether in LowRise or Downtown zoning. We can fix the "congregate" issue simply by defining units without kitchens as extended-stay hotel rooms.

Mr. O'Brien deserves kudos for shoveling an ugly pile of DPD legislative manure out the back door this Spring. Two more fixes and Micro-Housing is likely to become a positive rental housing type in Seattle.

Posted Thu, Aug 14, 6:57 a.m. Inappropriate

The neighborhood group's proposal to not issue RPZ parking permits to the microhousing address is a good idea, as it would be for any development that isn't providing parking for the units that they are building. Street parking is over capacity in some neighborhoods and if we are going to exempt developers from providing adequate off-street parking then we can't expect the additional residents they are bringing in to park on the already-crowded streets.

talisker

Posted Thu, Aug 14, 9 a.m. Inappropriate

Traditionally, affordable housing is byproduct of the capitalist boom-and-bust cycle. During a boom developers overbuild, then during a recession permanent residents move up the housing ladder to now less costly units they could not previously buy. Left at the bottom of the pile is -- an oversupply of cheap housing. Long term, this process will produce more affordable units than all government programs combined.

woofer

Posted Thu, Aug 14, 1:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, I remember what that oversupply of cheap housing felt like in Belltown back when it was still called the Denny Regrade, and what it feels like know in the blocks around the courthouse. I think that is what the neighborhoods are concerned about with these latter day bedsits.

talisker

Posted Thu, Aug 14, 1:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes! Housing is typically inherited down from the wealthy to the cost-conscious. And Mr. O'Brien seems to have recognized Micro-Housing needs to be healthy housing beyond the boom of Amazon interns. Unfortunately, it won't be long before the aPodment slums already built are overflowing with those of limited housing choices.

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 8:03 a.m. Inappropriate

"Pack 'em in like sardines!"
"There's no limit to the number of people that can come here!"
"Traffic congestion? Costly infrastructure degradation? I promise I will provide solutions for that!"

Those are probable statements O'Brien and most legislators in this region can easily make, given they consistently vote to reward and encourage mostly-immigration-driven population growth in this region, and thus ignoring the consequential impacts on every aspect of life, except those that allow the developers to maximize their intake of money, businesses to not complain about numbers of customers, and the media to be happy with what it considers a "thriving economy." All necessary now in our money-driven politics of today!

But that means double talk about not having enough money for mentally ill, parks, transit, cleaning up Puget Sound and all waterways, a very difficult-to-teach education demography, and dealing with the multiple problems we have as a consequence of a mass influx of people. O'Brien has voted for and supported encouraging and enabling illegal immigration consistently, and he supports Obama's immigration reform that maximizes legalizing illegal immigration and significantly increasing legal immigration, the two by-far largest factors in our unsustainable population growth.

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 8:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Finally the private sector builds affordable housing without subsidy, suitable for at least singles and couples. Then the city starts putting up barriers. Guess that affordability thing isn't so important to some people!

And why would we legislate minimum unit size? Should people sleep in gutters because Muffy doesn't think nice people live in 180 square feet, even temporarily?

In fact, while these units are affordable by most measures the day they open, in 20-50 years they'll be even more affordable, much like today's regular apartments from the 70s.

mhays

Posted Fri, Aug 15, 4:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Hotel and motel rooms are often 180 square feet or smaller. Apodments can certainly survive with 180 square feet.

Posted Sat, Aug 16, 7:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I appreciate O'Brien for at least trying to say something valuable about these proposed very small living spaces. While I'm sure there are people that would find them adequate because they would only sleep there, those folks will not be able to do much more than sleep in them. That means spending money to do everything else away from "home" in turn rendering the low cost illusory. The only thing that will change is who gets the money.

Furthermore, aside from the effects on people of trying to live in such small places, the conversation seems to ignore the downsides to cramming many many more people into a given neighborhood. The crowding won't be comfortable for many. With all the green spaces gone from these neighborhoods, the crowds will overflow into the areas around these things depriving everyone nearby of any space to breath. The size of the buildings being built already is making the streets dark and cold. While life in crowded large cities like New York and San Francisco can be described as "vibrant," an apparently favorite word used to justify changing Seattle to match, those who live in those places seem to view surviving there as just that--surviving, not living. Their lives seem like an arduous ordeal: hours every day carrying their lives on their backs or over their shoulders, transiting here, there, and everywhere and arriving home 12 or more hours later too exhausted to do more than fall into bed. Not a life I'd choose. That kind of life won't leave energy, time and space to enjoy the many outdoor options Seattle offers. The whole thing won't work in reality. At least O'Brien is doing a small part to resist this kind of life. Not enough, but at least something.

mspat

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