I just finished reading the white paper called “Responding to Changing Households: Regulatory Challenges for Micro-Units and Accessory Dwelling Units” published by the NYU Furman Center. Dry? Not at all!
It’s a little bit of a commitment but an easy read overall. And it’s chock full of important micro-housing data. I recommend that anyone interested in expressing an opinion over the micro-housing debate read it. It’s the first report of its kind, yielding comprehensive analysis of the state of micro-housing in five major cities across the country: Seattle; Washington DC; New York; Denver and Austin.
I’m not here to question the need or validity of micro-housing. Someone else can do that. I believe in it.
This Furman white paper, without question, concludes that micro-housing is the future because it is the best known model that can respond to “the misalignment between the nature of the [housing] stock and the needs of renter households.”
“[Since the 1950s] household sizes have shrunk, people are waiting longer to marry and more are unmarried or divorced, more people are living alone, more people are sharing housing with unrelated individuals, and people are living longer.” Yet our housing stock doesn’t look much different than it did decades ago.
Seattle provides an interesting case study. We have more micro-housing development than any other studied city. But, in our haste to blaze the trail, we are setting ourselves up for failure by moving too fast and letting developers exploit an obsolete set of land use and building codes.
With trail blazing comes controversy. Seattle neighborhood organizations have two primary criticisms of micro-housing. 1) It will adversely change the character of a neighborhood; 2) It will further burden the dearth of parking availability.
I’d like to throw a few ideas into the ring that could potentially assuage the neighborhoods and close the housing stock gap at the same time:
- Car Ownership: Micro-housing should be allowed only in very dense neighborhoods where access to public transit and car sharing programs is high and where car ownership is low. In addition it should also be allowed in the “university islands” around town (UW, Seattle U, SPU, etc.) where it may function a bit more like a dorm.
- Density: The very dense neighborhoods (Capitol Hill, First Hill, Downtown, Belltown, Lower Queen Anne, ID) can most definitely become denser under the current zoning code. Infill micro-housing in these neighborhoods wouldn’t change their already dense character.
- Roll-out: Consider a micro-housing roll out. As the city grows and other neighborhoods become denser micro-housing can be added to that neighborhood’s mix. Let’s not create a situation where a less dense neighborhood becomes dense because of micro-housing – which is where we are now.
- IBC: Let’s stick to the 220 SF apartment minimum established by the International Building Code. With some design ingenuity, 220 SF can be a great place to live.
- Kitchens: Let’s not regulate whether there’s a kitchen in the unit or out. In fact, offer both options in the building. Those who have no desire to cook can have access to a shared kitchen. And the smaller percentage of those who want to cook regularly can pay a bit more for their own kitchen.
- Design Review: Require design review for ALL micro-housing projects – seriously!
- Connect the Dots: Micro-housing can solve other problems in our City. For example, incentivize developers to eliminate food deserts by locating fresh produce vendors in street level retail space or building next to a P-Patch. Or proactively partner with a car share program so a couple of the cars sit outside the building.
- Building Size: Consider whether there should be a cap to the number of sleeping rooms for micro buildings. If we limit them to say 30 occupants the building would necessarily be an infill project of less than 9,000 SF. This would prevent an entire block from becoming a micro building.
- ADUs: As a corollary to the micro-housing debate, remove the owner occupancy covenant required in single family zones, for all Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs/DADUs) so that the less dense neighborhoods have a densification plan that is commensurate with that zone.
We have a tremendous opportunity to lead the way in developing denser cities that provide for the needs of all their citizens – not just the select few. Let’s not set out to build the most micro-housing in the country, let’s set out to build the best micro-housing in the country.
Let’s build intentional, thoughtful and well-designed micro-housing buildings that support thriving communities.
Images: vergeAD’s mini studio project on Capitol Hill, infilling 4 stacked studios, each approx 380 SF.
Mike O’Brien of the Seattle City Council is reacting quickly with a compromise amidst the controversy which is partially laid out in this article. It’s a step in the right direction, but all you trail blazers out there, we still have some work to do!