The proliferation of microhousing throughout Capitol Hill and Seattle may have hit its first major snag after a judge ruled that at least one of the dorm-style projects must go through a public design review before construction can begin.
On Wednesday a King County Superior Court judge reversed the city’s characterization of a proposed microhousing project on north Capitol Hill after a neighborhood group filed a complaint against the city, arguing the bedrooms should count as stand-alone dwelling units.
The proposed 49-bedroom building at 741 Harvard Ave E near Aloha had been characterized as having only eight “dwelling units” because the dorm-style bedrooms were clustered around eight shared kitchens and living spaces. Each bedroom will now count as a separate dwelling unit, meaning it passes the dwelling unit threshold for going through a public design and environmental review.
In her decision, Judge Laura Gene Middaugh wrote the Department of Planning and Development’s characterization of the microhousing project as having only eight dwelling units was “clearly erroneous.”
“The fact that the developer designed a communal area that allows, or even encourages, residents of an adjacent dwelling unit to interact, does not change the fact that the individual units were designed, and can function, as independent living units,” the judge wrote.
Harvard District Neighbors was the neighborhood group behind the complaint. In an email to supporters, group member LeRoy Laney said the ruling was a major win for current Capitol Hill residents.
“The judge ruled that the city’s interpretation was clearly erroneous,” he said. “We may not be finished, we don’t know, but we can certainly take this pause to stop and celebrate a victory to the people.”
The project is being developed by 741 Harvard Ave E, LLC, a company connected to Footprint Investments, which as developed several microhousing projects on Capitol Hill. Footprint founder Jim Potter passed away in May following a short battle with cancer.
It’s unclear what the ruling will mean for future microhousing developments and ongoing efforts to regulate them. The decision comes as the City Council considers revamping zoning and planing codes to better address the burgeouning microhousing market. At the very least, the decision will likely be cited by microhousing critics as proof that new projects need to be more tightly regulated.
Ever since microhousing entered the Capitol Hill lexicon, some residents have bemoaned the fact that buildings full of the tiny, cheap spaces can pop-up in single family home neighborhoods without going through a design review process. The reason is the dorm-style buildings can lump up to eight bedrooms into one “dwelling unit.” According to the city code, if a building has under a certain number of dwelling units, it does not have to go through a public design and environmental review — the common venue for neighbors to voice concerns about new projects.