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Councilmember Mike O’Brien jumps into micro-housing fight

Councilmember Mike O'Brien Credit: 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.' "

While Bradburd said that neighborhood advocates were willing to accept greater residential density and smaller apartments in the places where they live, they also want "to make sure that whatever we produce for housing is suitable for a wide range of people" and that it is "not a speculative short-term product that's targeting an influx of tech workers into the city."

This means sticking with the requirements for items like bathroom sinks, and making sure the apartments meet international building code standards.

Bradburd also pushed back on the argument that micro-housing could help alleviate the city's need for moderately priced rental units. "A $900 [per month], 160 square foot apartment is not affordable housing," he said. And while proponents of micro-housing say that it feeds a market niche, Bradburd contends that some people are moving into the small apartments because there is a dearth of other options. 

"If people are starving, they'll eat dog food," he said.

Neighborhood group representatives sent a letter to O'Brien last week staking out some of their other positions. One of the issues the letter touched on was parking. The neighborhood representatives said that if a building with small efficiency apartment units does not provide parking for at least 30 percent of its tenants, then the people living there should not qualify for the city's restricted zone parking program. That program allows residents in some areas to get a permit to freely park in their neighborhoods, while other people face time limits.

O'Brien's proposal says that buildings with small efficiency apartments would have to provide one parking space for every two units, though this requirement would be waived within land-use zones that are designed to be especially dense or transit oriented.

Another concern among neighborhood groups is dormitory-style congregate residences, which provide housing for nine or more people who are not part of a single household. The neighborhood group letter to O'Brien suggests that only institutions such as universities, nursing homes or women's shelters should be allowed to provide this type of housing.

Based on the regulations O'Brien introduced, congregate residences not owned by institutions would be permitted. Those owned by universities, nonprofits and supportive service providers would be allowed anywhere in Seattle that is zoned for multifamily housing. Congregate residences with non-institutional ownership would be restricted to the city's more densely zoned land use areas.

While O'Brien does not believe there is any single solution to providing larger amounts of affordable housing in Seattle, he sees the small efficiency apartments that his newly proposed rules would allow as one tool to help move the city toward that goal.

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 in Seattle. 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 amount of construction that is happening, on one hand, isn't enough to meet demand," O'Brien said, "and on the other hand it's a lot more than people expected to see in such a short time. That creates a lot of tension."

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