UPDATE 10/6/2014: The full City Council Monday afternoon approved the new microhousing rules passed by committee and detailed below. The mayor had threatened a veto of the bill if it resulted in changes that would force developers to increase rents in microhousing-style apartments. In the meantime, a judge’s decision has prompted DPD to kick 21 microhousing developments back in the planning process.
34 pages of legislation ( here in PDF) — plus a few possible last minute additions related to elements like defining exactly how many sinks an aPodment-style unit should have — are ready to move on from City Council as Seattle seeks to complete a long, drawn-out quest to regulate microhousing developments. Meanwhile, a legal battle that had a seeming happy ending for neighbors fighting a Capitol Hill microhousing development near the tony Harvard-Belmont Historical District will have a judicial epilogue.
Tuesday afternoon, the City Council’s land use and planning committee is expected to unwrinkle a final set of amendments before sending the bill onto the full council.
“People living in smaller units is a choice,” planning committee chair Mike O’Brien said. “What we really care about is how big the building is on the outside.”
UPDATE: The committee approved the legislation Tuesday afternoon and the bill will move to the full council for a vote on October 6th.
The new rules pounded out after over years of debate will continue to allow microhousing development in dense areas like Capitol Hill while setting a new average size requirement for the apartments built in lowrise-zoned areas. Under the compromises forged by O’Brien, Seattle will end up with two types of microhousing. In areas zoned lowrise where you’re more likely to find single family homes or small apartments, microhousing units must average 220 square feet — though Tuesday’s amendments may adjust size thresholds.
But buildings within “urban centers” like the western core of Capitol Hill and “urban villages” like E Madison, Miller Park, and parts of the Central District will be open territory for good ol’ fashioned microhousing with shared, congregate elements and units that can average smaller than 180 square feet.
“My proposal will allow these to continue to be built as congregate housing, but specifies that they can only be built in higher density zones in our urban villages and urban centers,” an O’Brien statement on the legislation states. “These are the places that most likely have access to transit and amenities to support a higher density community.”
CHS first began reporting on the congregate-style developments and the slow-growth groups trying to contain them way back in June 2012:
Micro-housing’s modern incarnation first came on the scene around 2008, with the confluence of the recession and rising demand for housing in central Seattle. A loophole in the city’s zoning code opened the door for densely populated, boardinghouse-style buildings to be built in low-rise residential neighborhoods while skirting the hassle of public reviews and public notices required of similar sized apartment buildings.
Bryan Stevens, spokesperson with the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said most people are unaware of the loophole until a building moves in next door.
“It can be surprising when you have an existing single family home and then something much larger goes up,” he said. “People don’t realize what that zoning allows for, that it could allow for that type of development.”
One of the earliest battle lines in the fight over the housing type came down to most of the projects (though not all) circumventing the city’s design review system because of its unit-based thresholds.
The City Council chambers weren’t the only home for debate about the new regulations. Early this year, the Hearing Examiner rejected arguments from Capitol Hill land use activist Dennis Saxman and neighborhood activist Chris Leman in an attempt to overturn a DPD decision to sign off on the proposed regulatory legislation. The activists, among other things, went so far as to suggest microhousing developments would so tax the city’s infrastructure that Seattle would suffer blackouts if the regulations as planned moved forward.
The O’Brien plan, in a move that has pissed off both the pro-development and the anti-development crowds, hinges on project square footage:
- Streamlined Design Review (not appealable) for projects containing 5,000-11,999 square feet of gross floor area.
- Administrative Design Review (appealable) applied to projects containing 12,000-19,999 square feet of gross floor area.
- Full Design Review (appealable) applied to projects containing 20,000 square feet or greater of gross floor area.
There are also non-regulatory processes helping to shape the developments. In June, we reported on aPodment developer Calhoun settling a disabled access complaint at one of its Capitol Hill buildings.
Critics and some developers are not thrilled about the pushback. Capitol Hill microhousing developer Scott Shapiro — who also helped create the Melrose Market — recently told the council there is “no good policy reason to limit size” and called the regulation a “a de facto downzone” amid “a housing crisis” in Seattle. “Design review is broken,” he said and needs to be fixed before it is “imposed” on microhousing. Shapiro offered no opinion on the sinks.
Microhousing case back in court
Meanwhile, CHS has learned that lawyers representing the developers behind the microhousing-style project at 741 Harvard Ave E have filed an appeal in the case following a judge’s August decision that bedrooms should count as “dwelling units” and the project should be subject to design review.
O’Brien and the City Attorney’s office had stayed mum on whether the city would offer a legal challenge to the decision against it and a company run by developer Footprint Investments. In the meantime, the developer is hedging its bets. A filing with DPD indicates the company has also begun planning its “early design guidance” meeting with the city — just in case.