The Seattle City Council this week is working to close a loophole in Seattle’s building code that Not-in-My-Backyard critics say developers are greedily exploiting. But don’t expect any Seattle code tightening on Capitol Hill’s current NIMBY target, the dreaded aPodment.
Officials from both the City Council and Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development tell CHS there are no current plans for any “emergency ordinance” similar to the one being brought before the Council seeking to halt the exploitation of old City of Seattle parcel lines to justify construction of “Tall Skinny” houses squeezed into the backyards of single-family homes:
Currently, developers can build on smaller-than-allowed lots if there’s a historical record, often dating back more than 50 years, of additional parcels associated with a home.
The parcels don’t exist on the city’s current land-use maps, and city officials say they may have been created for tax purposes, not construction. They were grandfathered in when the land-use codes were written in 1957, but only uncovered over the past few years by resourceful developers.
What’s baffling to many of us is why stopping a developer that’s arguably doing a good thing is an emergency, while allowing cottages in the first place took years to tons of process. The Council initially limited cottage development to 50 units in one corner of the city, worried about a “rush” of requests. They got a few dozen. Similarly, the current legislation is premised on the idea that if the Council doesn’t act, a flood of out of scale cottages will overwhelm single-family neighborhoods. That seems very unlikely, since, after all, there are very few of these lots.
The best thing for the Council and City to do is watch what happens. At worst, we’ll have a few more housing options and at best we might learn how to better do infill in single-family.
The anti-microapartments signage of Malden Ave E (Image: CHS)
Those proponents, apparently, won’t have to worry about microhousing projects any time soon. This May, when we reported on the Capitol Hill explosion of the developments — with units averaging 170 square-feet at $575/month rent — a DPD spokesperson said the department was taking a good, hard look at the aspects of city code that were allowing developers to circumvent the Seattle design process and, in many cases, spring the project on surprised neighbors:
Zoning restrictions in residential areas are based on the number of dwelling units (unit occupancy and building size aren’t considered). The loophole has allowed developers to bypass approvals from the Design Review Board and environmental review as these buildings technically come under the dwelling unit threshold for many residential zones on Capitol Hill.
For instance, in lowrise, multifamily areas, design and environmental reviews are triggered for building proposals larger than 8 units (the residential swath from 10th to 15th between Denny and Roy is almost entirely zoned LR3). In areas zoned mid-rise, review boards are triggered at 20-unit proposals (Most of Capitol Hill west of Harvard, aside from Olive and Denny corridors, is MR or LR3). Environmental review is also triggered in LR3 and MR zones for 30-unit proposals within urban centers or station areas.
The backlash, along with other efforts at City Hall to liberalize and streamline the Seattle development process, has helped make microhousing into a boogeyman off the neighborhood’s main drags despite the trend’s density-friendly aspects.
While the Council is moving this week on the Tall Skinny problem, the microhousing spectre won’t be subject to similar emergency measures — at least, not yet. DPD spokesperson Bryan Stevens told CHS last week not to expect any changes “at this time” to give the department cover to propose limiting the projects.
Meanwhile, City Council President Sally Clark said she is not aware of any microhousing legislation in the works. Instead, Clark said the next step when it comes to the dense projects will be documenting “the pace and pattern of apodment development.” That the work isn’t yet on the calendar, she said.
The Seattle City Council will hear the proposal to place a moratorium on Tall Skinny development in a session Monday afternoon. A planning and land use committee public hearing on the moratorium will be held Thursday at 9a.
As for documenting the “pace and pattern” of microhousing development, CHS has received about a dozen tips in recent weeks about possible new projects in the neighborhood. We’ll have a post mapping the phenomenon in coming days. You can help out by telling us in comments about any microapartment projects in your area that you haven’t let us know about yet. You can also let us know about any Tall Skinny house projects underway — we’re not currently aware of any on the Hill. But, look out, Montlake. We found one likely candidate underway down in your neck of the woods. UPDATE: That Montlake already knows about :)