Capitol Hill push sparking Seattle microhousing changes

Screen shot 2013-05-07 at 11.33.49 AMWith a second public hearing on microhousing held near the epicenter of the development wave on Capitol Hill, Seattle’s politicians and planners have moved a step or two closer to increased and, officials hope, better regulation of the housing that has garnered worldwide attention for its efficiency and minimalist approach to living — and the concerns it has generated that developers are taking advantage of a system to stuff subpar apartment buildings into neighborhoods where they do not belong.

“I think that these meetings have struck a spark under DPD to get them moving,” Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen said Tuesday following last night’s session at First Hill’s First Baptist that included presentations from community groups working to place a throttle on the developments and representatives for the companies and investors that want to build them.

Rasmussen tells CHS the Department of Planning and Development should have new proposals for regulating microhousing to the Council by late June putting the issue on track for a September vote.

In the meantime, the calls for a moratorium to bring permitting of microhousing to a halt while City Hall sorts out new rules came loud and frequently Monday night.

“We need to treat similiar types of buildings similarly,” said Capitol Hill resident Patrick Tompkins who also said there needs to be a moratorium on aPodment-style projects in the city until loopholes are closed and a better review process is in place for microhousing.

Rasmussen said that any possibility of a moratorium would need to be driven by proof that “harm is going to happen to the neighborhood if more microhousing development were allowed to continue.”

It’s unlikely. But also not impossible.

According to Rasmussen, as DPD put in place new restrictions on tax-exempt status, it has seen a flood of more than 500 additional units submitted into the program as developers rushed to get in before the loophole closed.

The “neighborhood” portion of Monday’s session included Capitol Hill’s Carl Winter from Reasonable Density Seattle group, Greg Hill from the Wallingford Community Council and longtime land use activist Dennis Saxman from the Capitol Hill Coalition group. While many have criticized groups pushing back on microhousing as irrational and NIMBY-natured, Monday’s community presentation focused on numbers and analysis compiled by “chief researcher” Saxman including a few interesting datapoints and interpretations: Screen shot 2013-05-07 at 11.33.49 AM Screen shot 2013-05-07 at 11.33.20 AM Screen shot 2013-05-07 at 11.32.56 AM

You can view all of the presentation slides here (PDF).

Meanwhile, microhousing developer Robert Pantley took a more emotional tack. “We have places for artists to do their paintings,” he said describing his projects’ attributes and showing examples of the types of people he says are likely to choose his Mini Suites projects:Screen shot 2013-05-07 at 11.35.15 AM

His full presentation is here (PDF). He also showed this video:


The presentation wasn’t a huge hit. “We’re not here to talk about Kirkland,” hollered one unimpressed audience member.

More insightful, perhaps, and definitely filled with better sound bites were the neighbors, residents and interested parties who showed up to offer comment on microhousing and the neighborhoods where they live. If Rasmussen is correct and the process has, indeed, “sparked” DPD to action, it probably has more to do with words like these from taxpayers and voters, than anything else. The spectrum illustrates the wisdom and the misunderstanding at play in the equation:

  • “It’s supposed to be about putting something that works in the neighborhood.”
  • “I believe there is a need for some of this.”
  • “We need to somehow manage these into our system.”
  • From an aPodment resident at 13th and John: “The community we have within the pod community is benefitting the neighborhood. And it’s benefitting the Hill.”
  • “They’re double and triple bunking these places.”
  • “They are like mini candy bars” — “cost more per ounce” — “if you can’t afford more, that doesn’t matter”
  • “I’m lucky enough because I can afford to live here now”
  • “We need to increase the supply of housing quickly”
  • Capitol Hill — “No better place probably on the West Coast to put lots of people”
  • “I wish there would have been some of these feelings about some of the larger projects”
  • “Get on with it”
  • “More profitable per square-foot than luxury developments”
  • “The housing glut is a myth”
  • “Vote for this moratorium”
  • “We worked hard to renovate our homes… and make them beautiful”
  • “Packing people in like rats”
  • “Don’t worry about it — if it doesn’t work, evil developers will go broke.”
  • “Anybody who has lived in my funky corner of Capitol Hilll knows it’s bologna”
  • “Why are we talking about this as affordable housing?”
  • “We should revoke permits that were issued in error.”
  • “A lot of people like minimalism”
  • “It’s not a slum”

While DPD moves forward on creating an updated rule framework for development of microhousing for consideration by the City Council this summer, don’t expect developers to jump headlong into support of increased review of the projects. Jim Potter, another developer who spoke Monday said he and others object to design review because it costs too much and takes too long. What takes months on the Eastside, takes years in Seattle, Potter said.

Also unclear is how much of the microhousing pushback really is related to the lack of design and environmental review and how much is based on frustrations about the increasing utilization of taller building heights on the edges of Capitol Hill’s more-residential areas. Guess there is only one way to find out.

For more on microhousing, see our coverage of the first City Council hearing in April: Notes from the Seattle microhousing forum: ‘fact finding’ + ‘podners’ + ‘out of scale’

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7 thoughts on “Capitol Hill push sparking Seattle microhousing changes

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  2. The developer who spoke for the pro-apodment side, Robert Pantley, has built mainly on the Eastside (Kirkland and Redmond), and his buildings are much more attractive than the monstrosities going up on Capitol Hill. Not only that, but he stated that he is required to undergo design review, and in Seattle this is not the case. His main argument was that apodments serve to take cars off the road…a very dubious assertion as many apodment renters own cars (72% in Portland, for example)….but, even if his argument has some validity, the lack of any parking at apodments is only part of the problem.

    In the public comment part of the evening, one man said that we “shouldn’t worry about it” (apodments) because if they didn’t work then the “developers will go broke.” He failed to mention that, if that happens, their buildings will remain behind, as white elephants, indefinitely scarring an otherwise-beautiful neighborhood.

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