Despite affordable housing crunch, Seattle looks at microhousing moratorium — 36 projects and counting

Screen shot 2013-03-18 at 4.47.21 PMLike any big, growing city, Seattle has an affordable housing problem and Capitol Hill — central, walkable, full of fantastic things and less and less affordable — is an epicenter. Even so, Seattle’s City Hall is considering putting the brakes on one of the rarest, innovative creatures of the Pacific Northwest’s urban density.

A Summit Ave microhousing project

A Summit Ave microhousing project

Last fall, CHS mapped 15 microhousing projects built, under construction or in planning stages around Capitol Hill — all but two without the design or environmental reviews standard for any other type of multifamily housing of the same scale. In the time since, spurred in large part by activism centered right here on Capitol Hill, the push for a moratorium on the projects has continued to climb the steps at City Hall. Here’s what a moratorium might bring to a stop across the city.

This time, CHS mapped the 36 project we could identify in the Department of Planning and Development database of construction that match boarding house-type characteristics unique to microhousing. Of the 36, most are clustered around the Hill and the University District — exactly where you’d expect to find dorm-like, communal style living. But the map also illustrates the pervasiveness of the trend — and its ability to transcend conventional wisdom as the projects also appear to have spread — much more slowly — into some less expected corners of the city like West Seattle and Ballard.

It is very likely that the map understates the total of microhousing projects underway or already built in the city — City Hall staff are hard at work trying to sort out how to identify the projects systematically, as you read this. We were limited by searching DPD records for certain terms used in the permitting process by microhousing developers. The latest CHS map also likely somewhat overstates Capitol Hill’s role in the Seattle microhousing revolution as CHS had a stronger home-team advantage in identifying local projects thanks to information collected by community efforts calling for a moratorium on the projects.

Rasmussen

Rasmussen

Those calls haven’t landed on deaf ears. City Council and DPD staff have been analyzing the projects and the various loopholes that have allowed — and in some cases rewarded — their development. Council member Tom Rasmussen — still years from his term on the Council coming up so not facing election this fall — has stuck his nose squarely into the situation even though he is no longer a member of the committee that would ultimately vote on any legislation mandating a halt to the projects until loopholes can be tightened — and eliminated.

Of course, not every microhousing project is moving forward without review. This Summit Ave project, for example, triggered the process with its skinny six-story-ness in the middle of an already densely-packed Capitol Hill block. Nor are the developers behind the projects all mercenary types looking to pull a fast one. This coming 12th Ave project, for example, is backed by one of the creators of Melrose Market.

In the meantime, the lack of a moratorium doesn’t mean microhousing developers will keep “getting away” with everything. DPD apparently identified and is squashing one loophole that allowed developers to apply for tax exemptions on their microhousing projects.

UPDATE: We’ve received a few tips on a few additional projects around the city to look into. If you know about a project that we should check out, let us know at chs@capitolhillseattle.com.

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28 thoughts on “Despite affordable housing crunch, Seattle looks at microhousing moratorium — 36 projects and counting

  1. Justin, thanks a lot for this update…great work! At the meeting with DPD director Sugimura and Council-guy-pro-developer Conlin a few months ago, it was quite apparent that City staff have mysteriously not been able to come up with any accurate data on how many apodments are being built and in the pipeline, so it’s been up to community members (with Reasonable Density Seattle) and now yourself to provide some numbers……which of course show that we anti-apodment people are not just being paranoid…..there really are a disproportionate number of these on Capitol Hill.

    I hope you are right that City Council staff are now looking into this in some depth, and I am hopeful that this will lead to a moratorium and a closing of the loopholes. This can’t happen soon enough as far as I’m concerned.

  2. “any other type of multifamily housing of the same scale”

    I do understand the jargon but apodments are hardly “multifamily” housing. Apodments in general do nothing to address the affordable housing shortage for families with children which is an extremely pressing problem. When people talk about affordable housing it does not usually address the real needs of the community, rather it creates a feel good situation for some and pocket lining for others. But what about families that need affordable housing in the area?

    • So glad you made this point; totally agree. There’s no reason that families shouldn’t have affordable housing options on the Hill as well, and they’re entirely missing from every conversation I see here (around affordable housing generally or apodments specifically).

    • Agreed. You do make a good point. There are folks with children and their situations are being ignored and these so-called “affordable housing” projects do not not address their needs. Not everyone on the hill is a single adult.

      aPodments cast in the light of affordable housing are misleading as they truly are not.

      Props to this blog for keeping everyone informed on what’s happening.

  3. Disproportionate? Capitol Hill is one of the densest and most expensive neighborhoods in the city. Combine that with the high demand from young people who want to live here, and it makes sense apodments would pop up all over the place here. Yes, apodment rent prices can approach that of some of the beautiful vintage brick buildings on the hill, but there aren’t nearly enough of those units to go around.

    Anti-density people just love fighting anything adding units to their precious neighborhood. I’d fight against poorly constructed $3/sqft apartments (Joule, The Lyric, Citizen) long before I fight this “workforce housing”.

    • I totally agree. Why are people fighting back so hard against these high density housing options on the Hill? For those without kids and pets this seems to be an ideal solution and the costs are really low compared to a lot of the apartments on the Hill. Of course you can’t raise a family in an apodment, you’re not meant to, they’re meant for the increasing amount of single-living workers that either walk or bus short distances to work in the area and make up a majority of the Capitol Hill residents. Just because it isn’t a solution to all problems doesn’t mean that it’s not a solution to some problems.

      • Won’t apodments actually drive prices up? If a 400 sq.ft. unit gets $600/mo. and I have an 850 sq. ft. unit for rent, I’m never going to charge less than $1,275 – and probably more because my unit doesn’t share a kitchen.

        Meanwhile apodments won’t stay at $600 per month. The rent will increase as high as the market will go. And considering the seemingly limitless number of people who want to move into the neighborhood, that is likely to be quite high. In San Francisco, they rent for $1200 per month.

        To build enough units that supply truly outstrips demand, you’re talking an exponential increase in density. Meanwhile quality of life plummets for the people who actually live in the neighborhood. The developers rake in the profits and never pay one red cent towards the increased transit capacity this density requires. Guess who does pay for it (if it ever gets built at all)? The taxpayer. Meanwhile the developers get to call themselves heroes for providing “affordable housing.” As if.

        You have to hand it to ’em they really have some people snowed.

    • It is untrue to say we are fighting any new units on Capitol Hill. We are fighting apodments specifically, because they are 1) out of character to the surrounding buildings; 2) bulky and ugly and cheap-looking because of no design or environmental review; and 3) provide no parking, making space availability much more difficult for everyone. Clear enough?

      And it looks like we might at last be getting the City on our side.

  4. I’m not sure apodments were ever intended to solve affordable housing for families. I think we all agree that is important also but to knock a developer for providing affordable housing to a certain segment is a little short sided. if your wanting more affordable housing for families why don’t you dis affordable housing groups that develop to this segment. that’s right, it doesn’t make sense does it.

    • How would you enjoy a 5 story overbuilt hulk five feet from your bedroom window, and 55 new neighbors and all their cars and friends’ cars going past your front door? Esp if you had no chance to voice your opinion about it? I think you are a developer’s shill and probably live in Redmond, where you also grew up and didn’t learn how to spell words in English.

      • Lee, I’d love it. That’s why I moved downtown. Views are irrelevant to me. I didn’t move here so I could stare out my window. I moved here so I could live in a dense walkable neighborhood. More neighbors (most of whom are car-less) means more businesses and current businesses staying open later. Sorry if you hate to see Capitol Hill become an actual neighborhood. I for one love the changes that have come to downtown seattle. Living here is so much easier and convenient then it was 10 years ago.

      • Capitol Hill isn’t an “actual neighborhood” already? Capitol Hill is not walkable? Capitol Hill business close early? Have you ever been to Capitol Hill?

        Greater density can be a wonderful thing for a neighborhood for all the reasons you list, Wes- but Capitol Hill doesn’t suffer from any of these problems.

        What we do suffer from is a lack of transit infratstructure to accomodate a sudden and exponential increase in density.

  5. My only gripe with these is that they are not affordable. They keep jacking up the rent on these things. If these were under $600 to rent and stayed that way sure that sounds great. But now it’s over $700 for 180 sq ft!

    The newest one they built on the hill I believe runs up to $1k. That’s beyond absurd.

    • Exactly. And when managers of buildings with bigger units see what people are willing to pay for 350 square feet, the price of 850 – 1000 square feet will skyrocket beyond your wildest imagination.

  6. If you find yourself against the apodment and not interested in living in one, then don’t move into one and be done with it. I won’t be found living in one, but there are many others who are going to need to take this route until they get established.

    • If it were only that simple.

      Unfortunately developers are using a loophole to take a big stinking dump in neighborhoods. Dumps that are out of scale, do not undergo design review and leave a blight on the neighborhood. That is the gripe with aPodments, not the cost.

      I don’t think anyone here is against affordable housing and we all understand it’s needed. It’s the way developers are going about it and the mess it leaves behind that folks have issue with. All people are asking is that the loophole be fixed.

    • Well, Ch1, some of us actually care about our city and our neighborhood beyond our own doors. We want it to be as “liveable” as possible and that includes not littering our streets with ugly, cheap, overbuilt apodments.

  7. Jseattle’s article title is misleading. Affordable rental crunch doesn’t justify an unfair oversight for thoughtful development. What results from aforementioned loopholes is an unhealthy, unsustainable neighborhood that isn’t good for anyone except absentee landlords and long-gone developers.

    Hoorah for affordable diverse neighborhoods, but everyone must respect and adhere to the City’s overall design guidelines and intentions.

  8. apparently the community is interested in the product or they wouldn’t rent them. perhaps you should focus your energy on affordable developers and provide some meaningful input. or better yet if your so concerned why don’t you develop this housing product yourself? maybe we should just continue to complain and blame everyone else for lack of affordable housing. hmmm….that doesn’t solve the problem does it?

  9. If there’s such a “disproportionate” number of apodments, and they’re so expensive and terrible, then why do I never see their (supposedly many) residents complaining about them?

  10. I think an important factor is being left out. I am a single adult without pets, and the more apodments get built, the more everyone feels they’ve done something about “affordable housing.” With the shared kitchen and little storage space, even if I could shove myself into a dorm room, I couldn’t see myself doing a lot of cooking in such a space (the most affordable option.) I think these are best for college students who might eat on campus or perhaps workers who can actually afford to eat out all the time. I don’t think it helps the many of us who want to have decent housing at affordable prices. One final note–many of us do not have pets because it is expensive to rent one of the very few places that will allow pets to renters–more and more that, too, is becoming another thing reserved for the wealthy.

    • Very useful comment. But I would add that, for those apodment-dwellers who eat out all the time….which is expensive over the long run…why are you living in a closet with lower-rent?

      I do disagree that pet-ownership is becoming something only the wealthy can afford….just look around our streets…there are many young people walking their dogs, and very few of them are “wealthy.”

  11. I don’t live on the Hill so I have no stake in this game, but I have to say that the Hill is not downtown and shouldn’t be developed like it is. I see commenters talking about the Hill like it’s Manhattan and can accommodate endless numbers of people. It’s not. When I visit the Hill, it’s my impression that the neighborhood is dense enough for the type of neighborhood it is. If these adpodments get built anywhere, it should be in an area that can adsorb a great deal of density — downtown. I say this as someone who lives downtown (Belltown) and while I would not want anything exempt from design review, I can at least see that apodments would make sense here. Downtown isn’t dense enough, while Capitol Hill is maxed out. I also think apodments would make sense in the UDistrict, as it is perfect student housing.

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