Would you live in a 180-square-foot space?

The City Council debated regulatory details about microhousing Friday. Size, parking and sink access are all on the table.
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Positano, a new microhousing aPodment building that sits between Wallingford and Fremont.

The City Council debated regulatory details about microhousing Friday. Size, parking and sink access are all on the table.

The surface-area of four regulation-size ping-pong tables. That would be equivalent to the 180 square-foot minimum size for micro-housing units that the Seattle City Council discussed at a committee meeting on Friday.

The council's land use committee is tentatively planning to vote on a package of new regulations for micro-housing apartments in two weeks. At Friday's meeting, councilmembers tried to hash out some of the remaining sticky issues that surround the legislation. In addition to size standards, the committee's discussion touched on the number of sinks each unit should have, motor vehicle and bicycle parking and the criteria for determining which micro-housing buildings must undergo the city's design review process.

The debate over the tiny-sized apartments has pitted developers against neighborhood advocates. The developers say that size rules and other proposed regulations create disincentives for building micro-apartments, which they see as a way to meet Seattle's growing demand for affordable housing. Neighborhood groups are concerned about preserving scarce street parking and that the micro-housing developments are out of character with certain parts of the city.  

A proposal O'Brien has put forward requires the average minimum size of all of the micro-housing units in a building to be 220 square feet. To prevent developers from inflating the average with one mega-sized unit, only apartments that are 400 square feet or less would be included in the calculation.

Other councilmembers favored setting a hard minimum-size requirement.

Councilmember Tim Burgess pointed to a number of other major cities that have size standards either equal to or greater than 220 square feet. "Why would we go lower?" Burgess asked.

Later, he noted that some students might be willing to live in 100 square foot spaces.

Echoing his concerns was councilmember Nick Licata.

"I don't want to have the market determine the availability and affordability of units to the extent that we end up putting people in chicken coops," Licata said. He added that he knows people who live comfortably in 180 square foot units and suggested setting a minimum size threshold at that level, which is in line with other parts of the city's building code.

O'Brien asked council staff to draw-up an amendment that would set such a minimum, while leaving the 220 square foot average size requirement intact.

Councilmember Sally Clark approved. "I like that," she said.

Tom Rasmussen said he wanted to see parking requirements for the buildings in areas that are now exempt. While O'Brien said he understood Rasmussen's concerns, he pointed out that substantially tweaking the parking requirements in the proposal could lead to a Department of Planning and Development environmental review process that would likely take months.

In O'Brien's proposed legislation there would be no minimum parking requirements for new micro-housing buildings in certain areas of Seattle, which are zoned to be especially dense and transit-centric. In other parts of the city, the developments would be required to provide one parking spot for every two units. Dormitory-style "congregate housing," which is also addressed in the proposal, would have to have one spot for every four sleeping rooms.

As he has in past discussions, Licata continued to push for more bicycle parking spots. O'Brien has proposed one for every two rooms in micro-housing apartment buildings. An original proposal from the Mayor's Office had one bike space per four units. Licata expressed support on Friday for providing spaces for three quarters of the units in a building.

Rasmussen questioned whether there would be any rules for weather-protecting bike parking areas. In the current proposal there is not, which is in line with broader city building standards. O'Brien offered Rasmussen the option to prepare an amendment to address the issue. It was not clear if he would do so. "It's really not fun to ride a bike in the rain, especially if the seat is wet," said Rasmussen.

Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, a pro-density advocacy organization backed by micro-housing developers was disappointed with the direction the council was headed on Friday. In his opinion, the proposed regulations started out bad and are "getting worse as councilmembers sort of pile on new ideas to add more controls, regulations, rules and limits."

"There's no reason to have a size limit," he said.

Despite those misgivings and the lingering complications surrounding his proposal, O'Brien said he hopes his legislation would soon "put this housing-type into a defined regulated world, as perfect or imperfect as it may be at the moment."


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