There’s a lot of dirt getting pushed around this summer to make way for more “micro-housing” on Capitol Hill. A slew of buildings full of the modern, cheap, tiny spaces are in various stages of development around central Seattle. The dorm-style digs have garnered praise for offering actually affordable housing on Capitol Hill, but they’ve also caught some flak for using a loophole in the city’s zoning code to do it.
A company called Micro Housing is developing two buildings on the Hill. In April, demolition of a single family home at 422 11 Ave. E. (11th and Republican) got underway to make room a micro-housing structure.
Micro Housing is also behind a project at 1806 12th Ave (12th and Howell). The city approved of the project last May. According to city records, an inspector was called out to the building May 31 to investigate a building maintenance or vacancy complaint. The issue has yet to be resolved.
It’s not only Micro Housing pursuing, well, micro housing. Last month, Eagle Rock Ventures was issued a demolition permit for a multi-family residence at 116 13th Ave. E. (13th and John). A permit for a micro-housing structure on the property was issued last year. Eagle Rock properties include the Chop Suey building and Melrose Market.
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.”
The dorm-style buildings are relatively new to Seattle — city planners still haven’t agreed on a name. ‘Micro-housing’ or ‘boarding houses’ is the most common; “congregate housing” is the technical term. They’re something akin to college dorms, with single apartment units that have shared kitchens and up to 7 or 8 bedrooms.
And there’s the catch.
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 economy units are intended for young, single workers or students who travel or don’t have much need for anything but a place to crash. No surprise, demand is high in central Seattle.
Stevens told CHS there are seven projects up or permitted, and 3-4 permits under review, mostly in Capitol Hill and the U-District.
Calhoun Properties were the first to bring micro-housing to central Seattle. Their (trademarked) aPodments, like Terraza aPodment Facility at 11th and Jefferson,or its first project on 23rd Ave, are compact, modern, and affordable. There are more coming. Paperwork has been filed for a project in the 1800 block of 12th Ave. At the Terraza, rents range from $525 to $775 per month. You can live on 23rd Ave, meanwhile, for $495. Some apartments are smaller than 100 square feet. But you’ll have your own bathroom a refrigerator and, sometimes, a closet.
Stevens said it’s theoretically possible that these structures could be much larger, with larger bedrooms or more bedrooms, and still come into single-family residential zones and skirt public review.
“We didn’t anticipate new units with 7-8 sleeping rooms,” he said. “Existing zoning laws permit it, but they didn’t anticipate it being applied.”
On the building code side, micro-housing is regulated similar to apartment buildings, with limits on the number of people, fire safety measures, and outdoor access.
Stevens said planning department top-brass has directed department staff to look more closely into micro-housing regulations, including the zoning loophole, this year.