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April 22, 2013

Opinion: City needs better rules for micro housing

  • Micro-housing has a place in Seattle, but they must be regulated much more than they are now.

    Are micro-units the answer to providing affordable housing in Seattle or are they a threat to the quality of life in residential neighborhoods?


    So what are micro-units? They sprung up about four years ago, when some innovative developers discovered that they could build new housing projects that provided very small living units without individual kitchens.

    Using the available building codes they put up residential buildings that provided a shared kitchen for eight living units. The result was an economically viable model that has resulted in tapping a great demand for housing units that can be rented in the range of $500 to $700 a month.

    The buildings are new, generally have free wi-fi, and provide a common room in addition to a shared kitchen. On the downside, parking is limited and the rooms are small, very small, some small as 100 square feet; the average micro-unit size is subject to some debate. The city's Department of Planning and Development estimates their average size as 260 square feet but provides no backup data. There are ample examples of new buildings providing micro-units averaging barely 200 square feet.

    The developers note that their buildings are filling up with low income renters; some are young workers and others are retired. The major developer says the average income of their tenants is under $20,000 a year. Their model is so successful that developers cannot meet demand. There are now more than 2,300 living units located in 48 buildings, and more, many more are on the way.

    These buildings cannot be built in single-family neighborhoods, but they can be built in areas zoned Low Rise or Medium Rise Residential, which do have many single-family homes, although the zoning in these areas allows for higher density buildings. It is in these areas that their impact is being most felt. Of the 48 projects, 30 have been built in the Low Rise Zone, which is a dominant zone in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, University District and Eastlake.

    Single-family residents in these areas are now organizing and asking for a moratorium on issuing additional permits for constructing these projects until city departments can provide a consistent set of regulations for controlling their proliferation.

    Up until the city's Office of Housing made a change in their rules, micro-housing developers were using two different set of rules to allow them to receive property tax subsidies based on the number of their living units, while avoiding any design oversight based on a different measurement provided by the city's Department of Planning and Development. In essence, developers were able to provide a much larger number of living units without being subject to design review that would normally be applied to this number of units.

    The Council held a public hearing on April 17 and heard a number of residents complaining of the impact on their neighborhoods. Their complaints are balanced against others who have argued that given the lack of affordable housing in Seattle, micro-units provide one possible solution to the challenge of living in Seattle for those that work in Seattle.

    I believe the Council is doing the right thing by reviewing the rules and regulations that govern the permitting of micro-housing. I expect that our work will be completed in the next months, which should result in dramatically altering the process for permitting micro-units and for regulating the size of the units. Currently other cities set minimum square footage for these type of living units. Boston has a proposed minimum of 350 square feet, Portland has one that ranges between 295 and 385, New York's range from 250 to 370, and San Francisco's is at 220 square feet.

    Micro-housing has a place in Seattle, but they must be regulated much more than they are now.

    But the larger problem of providing affordable housing in Seattle must be tackled straight on by recognizing that all new housing development in Seattle must be required to provide a percentage of new housing affordable for people who wish to live and work in Seattle.

    Nick Licata is on the Seattle City Council.

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