Council closing code loophole on ‘Tall Skinny’ houses but no plans to limit Hill’s microapartments

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.

Laurelhurst is activated. Not surprisingly, proponents of density and urban infill, are baffled:

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 :)

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16 thoughts on “Council closing code loophole on ‘Tall Skinny’ houses but no plans to limit Hill’s microapartments

  1. I don’t really get the distinction between “tall skinny houses” and “apodments” (aka microhousing). Both of these pack a building into a very limited space, with hardly any open space around them, are tall and out-of-proportion to the surrounding residences, and usually are ugly to boot. Both types of housing are a detriment to our residential areas and should be severely limited if not banned altogether. Why is the City Council only dealing with one of these two categories?

    Apodments are the worst. Not only do they not require any design review or parking, but they exploit people who rent the extremely-small units at $600 a month and up.

    On Capitol Hill, we do not need apodments to increase density to a reasonable level. Just look around…new apartments are being built everywhere (especially along Broadway), and some of these will have affordable rents….especially those by Capitol Hill Housing. And for those with very low income, we have at least four Seattle Housing Authority buildings in place.

  2. I agree that many of the apodments going up are not the most attractive buildings, but I do not feel this has anything to do with the fact that they offer smaller rooms, I think it is purely a developer’s response to the Seattle Zoning regulations and attempts to cut cost while meeting neighborhood aesthetics. The market will show how well these units work out, and it is none of your business how other people choose to live. There is no zoning law stopping anyone from building a 3 or 4,000 square foot house for a single family home, which I feel is much more detrimental to Seattle than a few apodments.

    I completely disagree with you in likening apodments to tall skinny houses. They are two completely different entities and each could use their own discussion. I think these structures are typically beautiful, functional and the best option for slowly increasing density. While obstructing views or sunlight is a obviously objectionable, infill housing can be tastefully integrated and in no way detracts from the value of a neighborhood or decreases values of neighboring houses.

  3. Pretty sure the neighbors are putting them up. I walk past the signs several times per day to walk my dog.

    Initially, some signs seemed to be removed overnight, closet to the homes for sale (those homes are drivers for the signs). Now that the homes for sale are under contract, the signs don’t seem to be removed overnight.

    I’m really curious to see what happens on that corner.

  4. I’m having trouble following your logic. If folks can afford an apartment that’s not an apodment, then they won’t rent there. Same goes for getting a break on your rent with a Capitol Hill housing building. So, if apodments are exploiting people, why would you rent there?

    THANKFULLY parking isn’t required. The people who rent in these units don’t need the extra cost added to the rent. You just said you wanted rents to be lower and not “exploit” the renters. Parking would ADD to the cost of the unit.

  5. All those new apartments being built you speak of are extremely small too yet they are going for $1300+ which in turn is raising prices everywhere. Yet a small unit that goes for $600 is an issue?

    Why would they need parking in an area that is building a trolly and rail station. If anything these new apartments being built need less parking since we should be promoting the use of the new transit options we are spending a lot of money on.

  6. Dylan, would you feel differently if a “tall skinny house” was built next to where you live, blocking light and creating a huge blank wall where the sky was?

    Well, fortunately, the City Council disagrees with you and yesterday they approved an emergency moratorium on such development….which will hopefully become a permanent ban.

  7. hmm: the answer to your question is that some parking is needed because some of the apodment residents will have vehicles. Would you feel the same way if you lived in an area with already-tight parking and an apodment went up?

    I agree that the new, large developments should not provide as much parking as in the past (often a ratio of 1:1 or even 1:2 for unit:parking space), so as to encourage 0 or at most 1 car ownership, but that does not mean there should be NO parking available. The parking needs of the existing residents of the neighborhood need to be respected.

  8. There’s an apodment building coming up at 227 Boylston Ave E, called the aPODments at Cortena. Building plans to hold about 28 units. Contractors for the developers are already illegally blocking off parking in the front of the building at off hours of the day.

  9. 1. 600 Block of 12th Ave E on the west side. A single family house currently occupies the plot. A 55 unit apodment permitted and going up soon.
    2. 100 block of 13th Ave E on the east side of the street just south of John. Lot is cleared! Construction of an apodment development begins soon. (116 13th Ave. E.)
    3. E. John between 13th and 14th. 56 units up and running. (1304 E. John St.)
    4. 400 block of 11th Ave E. Foundation poured for 42 units. (422 11th Ave. E.)
    5. 216 23rd Ave. E. (46 units) on East side of 23rd.
    6. 1806 12th Ave. E.
    7. Summit and Thomas, east side of street, nearing completion. Very tall in relation to other buildings in neighborhood.

    Possible sites…

    400 block of 14th Ave E west side (411 and 417 14th Ave. E.)

    600 block of Malden Ave E west side. (605 and 607 Malden Ave. E. and 1412 Mercer Ave. E.). For Sale sign now up.

    1305 E Mercer St, large older home purchased by Calhoun Properties

  10. “Why would they need parking in an area that is building a trolly and rail station.”

    I’ll tell you why parking is needed: Because people sometimes need to go somewhere other than downtown or Husky Stadium. Even with light rail, busses etc. it will STILL take over an hour to get to Fremont, Greenlake, Ballard, etc. by public transit, and about 20 minutes by car. The idea that all these new residents will live a car-free lifestyle is pure fantasy.

    Developers should be required to contribute to the infrastructure that increased density requires. If it’s not parking stalls, they should be required to pay into a fund that can be used towards increased public transit. As it stands, they are being allowed to push this cost off onto the taxpayer, while they reap the profits scott-free. It’s great that we’re finally building some light-rail but it is a TINY drop in the bucket compared with what is needed.

  11. Hey “Neighbor”: Have you ever actually been to Capitol Hill? If so, you might have noticed that there are literally hundreds of buildings that have been built over the past 120 years that have zero parking. Somehow these tens of thousands of Capitol Hill residents have managed to live car-free in the neighborhood for generations.

    Why should I (and they) be forced to pay higher rents just because some of our selfish, entitled “neighbors” feel that free, convenient on-street parking is a right. You wouldn’t have to worry about the supply of parking if you weren’t a freeloader yourself.

  12. And just how do you know that “neighbor” is actually parking on the street? But, if he/she is, “free, on-street” parking is actually a right….unless you propose to eliminate it all together.

    And by the way, regarding all those older buildings without parking, many people in them “for generations” do own cars….and where are they parking?….you know the answer.

    In my opinion, it is very selfish to oppose all parking requirements for new buildings, because this position creates significant problems for those who must use on-street parking (not me, fortunately).

  13. Car-free Hiller, I have lived on Capitol Hill for more than ten years. You state “there are literally hundreds of buildings that have been built over the past 120 years that have zero parking.” That is correct, but what the City has in mind for our neighborhood will increase the density FAR beyond what it is today.

    “Somehow these tens of thousands of Capitol Hill residents have managed to live car-free in the neighborhood for generations.” Um, just because someone lives in a building that doesn’t have parking, doesn’t mean they don’t own a car. Why do you think parking is already so tight? Many/most of the new residents in our neighborhood will need cars to get to their jobs, etc. That’s just the reality of our city.

    I agree it’s best if people ride transit, but eliminating parking doesn’t magically increase transit capcity! The new lightrail is great and all, but what if you need to go somewhere other than north/south? Newsflash, not everyone works downtown, and not everyone can afford to spend two extra hours on the bus each day, when the same trip takes 30 – 40 minutes by car.

    I compare this to developers in rural areas who build a bunch of houses in the middle of nowhwere, and then expect the taxpayer to pay for all the new roads, sewers, fire departments, schools, etc. that the new communities require. Developers are being allowed a “pass” under the guise of so-called “affordable housing” and expecting the taxpayer to foot 100% of the bill for any increased transit capcity.

  14. Here is an unofficial list compiled by the neighborhood group ReasonableDensitySeattle. For more info visit their website .

    1. 621 12th Ave E. A SFR to be razed. A 55 unit apodment permitted and going up soon. At 5 stories will dominate SFRs to North and West. Will completely shade the house to the north
    2. 116 13th Ave E. Lot is cleared. Construction of an apodment development, foundation poured. N.B. Less than one block from project below.
    3. 1304 E. John St. 3 Towers completed. 56 units up and running. N.B. Less than one block from project above. “Centro”
    4. 422 11th Ave E. Foundation poured and framing started on two towers of 42 units.
    5. 216 23rd Ave. E. Completed 46 units in two buildings that fit in well with surrounding buildings. “Videre”
    6. 306 Summit Ave E. 55 unts nearing completion 7 stories, very tall in relation to surrounding buildings in neighborhood.
    7. 227 Boylston Ave. E Building plans to hold about 28 units. “Cortena”
    8. 310 17th Ave. S, Unknown unit count. “Solana”
    9. 413 11th Ave. Unknown unit count 6 stories very tall in relation to surrounding buildings. “Terrazza”
    10. 1510 23rd Ave. Unknown unit count. “Pine South”
    11. 1520 23rd Ave. Unknown unit count. “Pine North”
    12. 1305 E Mercer St Large SFR to be razed. 56 units proposed.

  15. @Dandid I was trying to do some research myself and I was curious where you got the numbers for the place at 621 12th ave E.

    When I looked at the permitting it appeared that the building would have 5 units and then notes that it can have 8 bedrooms per floor. This would be only 40 bedrooms max but I’m new to the whole permitting process so would appreciate if you could point me to better information.