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Seattle’s new regulations leave space for densest microhousing to continue in Capitol Hill’s core

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.


This 12th Ave microhousing project will have room for a Basque restaurant. This one will have beer. Put that in your regulations! (Image: CHS)

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.

DPD "congregate housing" related permit activity, 2010 to present. Big clouds of microhousing headed your way!

DPD “congregate housing” related permit activity, 2010 to present. Big clouds of microhousing headed your way!

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.Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 4.19.29 PM

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.

But we're only talking about 100 or so projects and no massive uptick through 2014's partial year tally

But we’re only talking about 100 or so projects and no massive uptick through 2014’s partial year tally even as Seattle still doesn’t have a plan in place to tackle housing affordability. It’s OK, though — at least somebody is thinking big

“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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 3.50.49 PMThere 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.

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69 thoughts on “Seattle’s new regulations leave space for densest microhousing to continue in Capitol Hill’s core

  1. I hate this crap. If anyone is hanging onto the belief that this god-awful way of plugging in as many bodies into a space is as a result of helping people find housing as opposed to bald-faced greed by those who benefit financially, those people are deluded. Over the last 5 years or so (out of the 20 I’ve lived here on the hill near Group Health), the time it takes to get anywhere, but specifically to go down Denny, or down Pike/Pine and turn on Boren, to get to the freeway has gone from 5 or so minutes to sometimes 30 or more. There is NO planning for any of the collateral that comes with that many people in such a small space. It truly ruins quality of life.

    • There is no way to plan or control increased density on Capitol Hill, unless the city can convince the major corporate employers to move to Spokane–then there’ll be plenty of space. The days of the neighborhood having a smaller population are over for good.

      Housing costs on the Hill are a major issue, but speed of driving from 15th to Denny and Boren is really a minor concern. In fact, the more cars that are driving on those streets at rush hour, the more the 43 and 8 buses get slowed down, inconveniencing a MUCH larger group of commuters.

      • I KNEW the “get out of your car” thing would come up; living where I live, I do walk everywhere, except when I’m taking care of family in Renton and Mountlake Terrace. It remains that there is, even now, more people than services, roads – everything but restaurants – to provide for everyone.

      • so what is your solution? that we should promote urban sprawl and bulldoze down whole neighborhoods and forests and parks for more streets and parking? so that a little over a one mile trip to get to the highway (which is already in gridlock – but that’s not micro-housing’s fault; is it?) continues to take you just five minutes?

        i see so many of these comments, bitching and complaining, but with no real solutions. how big of a problem can it be if you don’t have a solution?

      • There’s not always a solution. Fact of life. The Sodo area is available for these micro-pod-confinement cells. No old buildings or neighborhoods to destroy, no trees to chop down, lots of streets that aren’t used after 5 PM. It doesn’t always have to be cap hill or ballard.

      • I don’t see any bulldozing being done to build more streets/parking. What I do see is a lot of bulldozing to destroy older buildings/homes in favor of ugly/cheap microhousing.

      • @calhoun

        i never said they WERE buldozing down anything for more streets or parking – instead i was implying that’s what christine h was hoping to accomplish with her whining.

        @christine h

        there’s always a solution yet you offer NONE. instead you offer the typical nimby reply…some other neighborhood, please. “boo hoo, i wan’t to live in a diverse neighborhood close to freeways; but why does everyone else have to be here too?”

        here’s an idea, YOU move to sodo. no traffic after 5pm so you can take care of family in the far off netherlands and you won’t be bothered by “microhousing”.

  2. I hate it too. O’Brien’s “compromise” is a nonsolution to the problems associated with microhousing, such as too-tall buildings which exploit loopholes, bulky structures which are built to the property line, etc. These things result in ugly/cheap buildings which block light and views for the neighbors. But, hey, if the developers are also unhappy with the proposal, then there must be something good about it!

    At least some of the new apodments will be required to undergo design review, and probably developers will decide to build just below the various square footage thresholds so they can avoid more detailed review. Does anyone know what the average square footage is for the existing apodments?

  3. I love the old if I wouldn’t live like that then neither should you attitude. Guess what not everybody wants or needs a lot if space. If I were single this type of housing would be my first choice. As a white male I can’t understand why so many white people care so much about controlling how other people live their lives even such small details of how many sinks they have. It’s just crazy, let people live how they want to live.

    • Microhousing/apodments have significant negative impacts on our neighborhood, so it’s not so simple as “letting people live how they want to live.”

    • I too could care less if people want to live in 250 sqft homes. It’s none of my business and more power to them.

      My condo is 590 sqft and my family/friends outside of Seattle are amazed that I can live in such tight quarters. I feel I have room to spare. I couldn’t live in an aPodment as I like my own, full size kitchen and an actual closet. But for those who are fine with it, good for them.

      What I dislike is the lies from developers on aPodments being affordable housing and just a bedroom of a multifamily home. That way they can circumvent the process.

      All aPodments should undergo the same rigor as conventional apartment buildings. Shared kitchens and micro floor plans shouldn’t make them exempt.

      • I just ran the numbers – a 620square foot unit in my building – housing up to 2 people runs for $1400/month – and includes ALL utilities except for electricity (mine is $15/month because utilities includes hot water and radiant heat). This is $2.25/square foot. An apodment STARTS at $600/month and includes ALL utilities including electricity. At 200 square feet, thats $3 even/square foot. So, if two people can crash together in my building for only $107.50 more/month each and have 210 more square feet per person. Additionally, the apartment in my building comes with a nice view of the city and a full kitchen/bathroom.

        The affordability argument is seriously BS

        Solution – let developers build higher


    • There are plenty of examples of `free choice’ housing being terrible for the people in it and near it; tenements and other slums in the US were really not safe for the people in them. There’s a good social reason to put a design floor under `free choice’ of how to live (I’m putting that in quotes because we’re only as free as the wage and housing structure that already exists leaves us.)

      Apodments aren’t necessarily vulnerable to any of these, but they aren’t proof against them, either. Actually, the thing that worries me is the lease arrangment; in a group house the leaseholder, or a majority, or both, can eventually get rid of a tenant who’s dangerous in the shared space, but apparently the leases are all with a third party in these, and in a downturn we’re going to have terrible absentee landlords and people stuck with bad co-tenants.

      I am also sympathetic to people who get shaded by unexpectedly huge new buildings: natural light is valuable. I’d deal with that by giving every property interest in the natural light that falls on it, so you’d have to buy the right to shade people. I think we’d end up with different *arrangements* of infill housing, with the tall stuff going in on north-block-ends (eg) where it can’t shade anyone, rather than on south-block-ends where it can’t be shaded. Changing the first-mover vs last-mover payoff can give us better overall organization.

  4. Based on numbers that Valdez kicked out about a week ago, average unit size was just under 150sf.

    If Shapiro thinks DR is broken, then why not push to repeal or fix it? Working to exempt microhousing from same processes and costs all other development must comply with, in order to protect a de facto subsidy to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars for buildings with 40+ DUs, per Roger Valdez, is both highly undemocratic and illogical. Especially considering microhousing isn’t limited to those earning <30% AMI

  5. Once this whole trendy fad of living a romantic life in a closet size spaced shared with others commune style passes, these buildings will fall into the hands of degenerates and crack heads, fall into disrepair and the neighborhoods will go to shit thanks to what essentially will turn into giant homeless shelters. And history repeats itself.

  6. Pingback: PLUS Committee to create final microhousing legislation today | The Urbanist

  7. The parking above Broadway on Capitol Hill has suffered a huge blow over the last year due to all of the microhousing units that supply zero parking spaces of their own.

    It is one thing if people want to live in these incredibly tiny spaces but they should not be able to circumvent the city building requirements to absorb some of the burden they create on the neighborhood’s parking.

    • Not a single microhousing project on Capitol Hill circumvented any city building regulation regarding parking (under either the old legislation or the new). Try again.

      • AFAIK everything with more than 8 units must undergo a design review which includes a parking space minimum. Apodments cheat by saying there are only 8 units in a building that really contains 40 so they can skip this step. Their justification is that there are only 8 kitchens so there can’t be more than 8 units.

        Sounds a lot like circumvention to me.

      • I had to go all the back to May on this blog to find the article where the city is trying to intervene with the developers skipping design review.

        I was not able to find anything parking specific but its pretty obvious these developers are purposely skirting design review process and have no interest in maintaining the neighborhood past their property line.

      • Design Review has absolutely nothing to do with parking. No cheating going on there. If you want to accuse someone of circumventing the rules, at least make an attempt to understand the rules.

        Sounds like a lot of ignorant indignation to me.

        And FWIW, the threshold for design review depends on the zoning. If the project is in an MR zone (as are many within Capitol Hill), design review is only required if there are more than 20 units. But I understand, the facts tend to get in the way sometimes.

      • Tim, do you know what the parking space minimum is for new buildings (not apodments) with more than 8 units? Is it based on square footage?

        It is patently obvious that developers of apodments are exploiting land use loopholes in order to maximize their profits.

      • Good grief calhoun, you’re a troll of the worst order. You make ridiculous, unfounded accusations and then freely admit that you don’t possess even the most fundamental understanding of the issue on which you’re commenting.

        The parking requirements within urban centers and villages are exactly the same for all residential buildings regardless of size or unit count. Doesn’t matter if it’s a single family home, an apodment or a 50 story highrise — there is no minimum parking requirement.

        It boggles the mind how you could have made so many (uninformed) comments on this blog over the years and yet failed to figure out this very simple, fundamental fact.

      • Over-react much, Tabitha?

        I was just asking a question about minimum parking requirements, not asserting that they in fact were in place. You have answered my question, but in a pretty nasty way.

    • My 2c worth is that for any Apodment (or other new new multifamily bldg) that gets approved having to provide any parking, nobody with that home address should be eligible for Residential Parking Zone passes. If they have a car and want to move into a bldg w/ no parking, they should bear that whole risk.

      • Jim, what about single family homes that don’t have a garage or any other form of off-street parking. Should they be denied RPZ passes as well?

      • Tabitha, you seem to have difficulty reading. Jim stated in his post “Apodment (or other new new multifamily bldg)”

        He didn’t mentioned single family homes because, for those of us who are bright enough to understand, they do not have the same impacts on street parking as placing 50+ people into the same space does.

      • Timmy, you seem to be a very unpleasant person. Not sure how I’m supposed to be able to read something that wasn’t written. I guess that people can only ask clarifying questions if they don’t challenge your world view.

        Good to know that going forward I can ignore any comments that you offer.

      • But lower-density households also aren’t affected as much by expensive parking, as there are fewer people to park.

        It’s all a question of how we subsidize parking — free or zoned street parking isn’t really free — One logical answer is to have *no* free street parking at all, and Let the Market Sort It Out. Well, the market and how we voted for transit afterwards. I do not think this answer would get any political traction, so we’re going to be stuck with one overexploited commons or another.

      • Grandfather them. They were built according to the density in effect at that time. You can’t go back and retroactively apply rules to houses that have been where they’re at, with the occupancy density they’re built for, for 80 or 90 years. Going forward, developers can choose to build w/o parking, and residents can chose to move into no-parking buildings, knowing the ground rules. If it’s really true they’re designing these buildings for people who really don’t have cars, it shouldn’t be a hardship at all.

      • But aren’t today’s projects also being built according to the density at the time? Why should any one single resident have more of a “right” to the public space in their neighborhood than any of their neighbors (or any other member of the public)?

        I live in Pike/Pine and I have to pay to park in the street in front of my home. Should I feel justified in demanding that I be allowed to park on the street for free (or for the cost of an annual RPZ pass) due to the fact that my home was built long before the City started charging for street parking?

        Why is it alright that parking on our public street should be “free” for one class of citizen (the homeowner), yet not be allowed for another (the renter)?

      • Tabitha, to answer some do your questions:

        1. Yes, these are being built according to today’s rules and densities. But rules change. And they should. But they change going forward, not rewriting the past.
        2. Why should any one (or some) resident have more right to public space than others? Isn’t that exactly the case for RPZ decals? You’re mKig this personal. It’s not personal. PEOPLE don’t have zonings against them. Buildings do. And zoning is different in different places, as it should be.
        3. No, you shouldn’t feel entitled to park on the space in front of your house with an RPZ. Nobody gets that guarantee. They get a pass to park in the ZONE, not in front of their particular house. And the RPZ never comes with a guarantee the streets in the Zone won’t change. But yes, you should feel entitled to an RPZ decal, even if it means you have to walk a block or two to get to a zoned spot. Nobody else gets a spot guaranteed in front of their house either.
        4. I don’t know where you’re getting this psedo-classist notion that one “class” (homeowners) should be entitled to parking that another “class” (renters) don’t. It has nothing to do with homeowner or renter. It has to do with RESIDENT, regardless of whether you own or rent. As for unequal rights for some over others- like I said, it’s tied to the building, not the person. There’s a long-established precedent for granting residents of specific buildings or neighborhoods rights that the general public doesn’t get. (Like RPZ passes). There’s a long-established precedent for zoning rules changing and grandfathering existing structures. This isn’t any different. Every city does it. We don’t need to examine this as yet another “proletariat/worker struggle” issue like everything else on Capitol Hill seems to turn into.

    • please cite specific studies that show that it’s microhousing, alone, that’s caused capitol hill to suffer “a huge blow over the last year” to its parking?

      do you know that everyone who’s moved into a microhousing unit has brought a vehicle with them? can you positively link the issue with parking to anything other than simply, more people on the hill? who’s to say that someone didn’t rent out their single family home to a group of 5 people willing to share the rent? there’s potentially 5 cars right there.

      i’m fine with recognizing that microhousing is causing an issue; if you can prove it’s an issue (and i agree on the ugly argument of some of these structures). but from everything i’ve read in the various comments on this blog it seems like people are just raising unsubstantiated arguments because they don’t like the idea of apodments. if you can point me to the data, i’m happy to consider your argument.

      • You know fully well no such ridiculous “study” has been done, nor will there likely be any time soon. So now your next conclusion is no doubt to totally discount what are some fairly obvious assumptions. When a microhousing plays games understating the # of “dwelling units”, and #dwelling units drives the conversation about parking (and requirements, if any exist), it’s pretty self-evident that understating the # of dwelling units leads to less parking (whether mandated or not). You don’t need to be a genius to figure that out.

      • @zeebleoop: Well, of course we all know that NO ONE in apodments owns a car (wink,wink), so there is no way these buildings can have an impact on parking or traffic congestion. (wish that were true!).

      • again, prove it. it’s like saying african americans are responsible for all crime or only middle easterners are terrorists. your using personal bias without any sort of proof to try and get your way. you’re like a petulant teenager.

      • So you are claiming that no residents of apodments own a car? I don’t have to prove it….it’s just common sense that some of them have vehicles.

        I’ve never said that ALL parking problems on Capitol Hill are due to the proliferation of apodments… made that up.

  8. Somehow it’s acceptable to bellyache about small apartment units being personally offensive, but not the gigantic multimillionaire mansions that dominate the north half of the neighborhood. I can’t understand why anyone would want a 6 car garage, but I’m not going to haughtily seek out the city council to make 6 car garages against zoning regulations. If it’s not a fire hazard, then what’s the big deal?

    This is a city. People have different needs. Mind your own business.

  9. It’s ugly, plain and simple and is destroying what’s left of Capitol Hill’s charm. Truly a blight. And we will all look back 20 years from now and wonder how in the hell we allowed such monstrosities to be built

    • ah, and there it is, what all the arguments boil down to. a vocal group of residents (likely nimby homeowners) that want things to look how *they* want them to.

      to those people, i suggest you find a nice gated community to move to. where everything can be managed and guarded to your liking and nothing (and nobody) will ever offend your senses by being – ugly.

      • a lot of us were here before the current crowd of cool kids were here and we’ll be here AFTER you’ve decided to join up with the other cool kids, have little cool kids, decide that living in your 200-sq foot cell isn’t working out and have moved out to Bellevue/Redmond/Kirkland, anywhere but here, and we’d like our neighborhood to reflect what that demographic looks like.

      • ah, yes. the old, moss-back, i was here first argument. “why can’t it be like it was?”. and you won’t be here if we drive you out with our thinking that this neighborhood needs to be as dense as possible (though you christine h show how dense parts of this neighborhood can be). all hail apodments!!!

  10. They shouldn’t be denied RPZ permits, the permits themselves should just be allocated in an equitable manner. For instance the maximum number issued would be one for 1,600 square feet of lot area (e.g. 6 for a 9,600 square foot lot) even if a developer manages to squeeze 72 apodments on it. This would also call the develolper’s bluff that their tenants do not own cars. Furthermore, the RPZ zones themselves should be more narrowly defined so that only apply to the area more immediately around the property and sharing the same type of zoning/classification (e.g. urban center, urban village, etc.). Lastly, as on street parking is in fact a shared public resource, the city should make sure that there is some correlation between the number of permits the issue in a particular zone (i.e. preferably a more tightly defined zone) and the number of on-street parking spaces that exist. I can understand perhaps over issuing permits by 20% or so but I would bet that the city has no clue as to how many permits it has issued for any particular zone and how many available on-street parking spaces stalls that zone might actually have. I would not be at all surprised if in some areas the city has provided five times more permits than there are actually stalls. Right now the developers of the apodments are laughing all the way to the bank as they save out on having to develop expensive parking stalls and let the rest of us all bear the cost of this additional strain on our shared public (and finite) resource of on street parking

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  12. Mossback? Really? You’re so kind; was I on the #8 with you this week? This is poor planning; planning has to think of the future; nothing lasts forever, not booms, not slumps. Seattle has a history; my family lived through slumps here. “Last one to leave, please turn off the lights.” When Amazon, PAllen, others, aren’t the dominant players or, more likely, have moved to greener and cheaper pastures, the eastside or outsourced to India, we cranky, moss-backed, beauty-loving grannies/grandpas are going to look at those Apods and other shitty remnants and think, what a missed opportunity. Planning for CHill/Seattle means thinking of the future, not just now when the cool kids want to live here because they want to (the clubs!), because living in, god forbid, Lake City/White Center (lots of buses over there, kids) is out of the question. Living in those cells is not a long-term solution; you might start your family in one, but you won’t be raising a family there. PS: Yes, there are problems that have NO solutions, none; maturity is learning to identify those and helping to alleviate some of the suffering as one can, but recognizing reality is a big step to putting on your big-girl/boy pants.

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