CHS: Despite affordable housing crunch, Seattle looks at microhousing moratorium — 36 projects and counting

Screen shot 2013-03-18 at 4.47.21 PMLike any big, growing city, Seattle has an affordable housing problem, and Capitol Hill and the Central District — central, walkable, full of fantastic things and less and less affordable — is an epicenter. Even so, Seattle’s City Hall is considering putting the brakes on one of the rarest, innovative creatures of the Pacific Northwest’s urban density.

A Summit Ave microhousing project

A Summit Ave microhousing project

Last fall, CHS mapped 15 microhousing projects built, under construction or in planning stages around Capitol Hill — all but two without the design or environmental reviews standard for any other type of multifamily housing of the same scale. In the time since, spurred in large part by activism centered right here on Capitol Hill, the push for a moratorium on the projects has continued to climb the steps at City Hall. Here’s what a moratorium might bring to a stop across the city.

This time, CHS mapped the 36 project we could identify in the Department of Planning and Development database of construction that match boarding house-type characteristics unique to microhousing. Of the 36, most are clustered around the Hill and the University District — exactly where you’d expect to find dorm-like, communal style living. But the map also illustrates the pervasiveness of the trend — and its ability to transcend conventional wisdom as the projects also appear to have spread — much more slowly — into some less expected corners of the city like West Seattle and Ballard.

It is very likely that the map understates the total of microhousing projects underway or already built in the city — City Hall staff are hard at work trying to sort out how to identify the projects systematically, as you read this. We were limited by searching DPD records for certain terms used in the permitting process by microhousing developers. The latest CHS map also likely somewhat overstates Capitol Hill’s role in the Seattle microhousing revolution as CHS had a stronger home-team advantage in identifying local projects thanks to information collected by community efforts calling for a moratorium on the projects.



Those calls haven’t landed on deaf ears. City Council and DPD staff have been analyzing the projects and the various loopholes that have allowed — and in some cases rewarded — their development. Council member Tom Rasmussen — still years from his term on the Council coming up so not facing election this fall — has stuck his nose squarely into the situation even though he is no longer a member of the committee that would ultimately vote on any legislation mandating a halt to the projects until loopholes can be tightened — and eliminated.

Of course, not every microhousing project is moving forward without review. This Summit Ave project, for example, triggered the process with its skinny six-story-ness in the middle of an already densely-packed Capitol Hill block. Nor are the developers behind the projects all mercenary types looking to pull a fast one. This coming 12th Ave project, for example, is backed by one of the creators of Melrose Market.

In the meantime, the lack of a moratorium doesn’t mean microhousing developers will keep “getting away” with everything. DPD apparently identified and is squashing one loophole that allowed developers to apply for tax exemptions on their microhousing projects.

Originally published on Capitol Hill Seattle.

8 thoughts on “CHS: Despite affordable housing crunch, Seattle looks at microhousing moratorium — 36 projects and counting

  1. This needs to be sorted so that these SROs and dormatories are properly conditioned in the Land Use Code. The loophole being used is a sleight of hand — permitted as ‘bedrooms’ when what is being built is typically 32 units.

    While I hear that it is likely not cost effective for these to be built in LR1 and LR2 zones, who would have thought it a profitable venture in LR3 zones?

    Congregate housing, elder housing, and Bed and Breakfasts are ALL allowed and conditioned. It’s time to establish a better definition and groundrules for SROs in Land Use Code and Rental Code, not just the Building Code as it is now.

    • It’s not a loophole. It’s an intentional feature of the code. It’s a good idea to let people rent out bedrooms. It’s just as good of an idea to allow people to build homes specifically for this purpose. It’s also a good idea to allow these homes to be stacked in areas that allow taller heights.

      What value would design review and environmental impact statements add? Absolutely zero. They’re just a tool that neighbors are using to make sure these never get built.

      • I did not say Design Review. Can you read? I said properly defined and conditioned in the Land Use Code sections.

        Locked individual units are not ‘bedrooms’. A 4-plex of them are not just 4 homes. It is a 32 unit development. It is not the intention in the code. It is the interpretation by DPD based on NOTHING being said in the Land Use Code.

        I point to the gap in the Land Use Code and am not arguing for a particular solution. Pointless to solution jump if the root cause gap is not properly identified.

      • It is absolutely the intent of the code to define a unit as anything with a full kitchen. They have to draw the line somewhere, or they make room rentals illegal. This is just formallized room rentals.

  2. are building smaller micropod apartments really the best we can do to resolve the affordable housing issue?

    • No! We can upzone and allow developers to build enough regular sized apartments to meet demand. Also, we could reduce the burdensome regulations (that many want applied to aPodments) that dramatically increase their cost.

      But good luck with that. Apodments exist because the rich neighbors haven’t found a way of outlawing workforce housing near them yet. But don’t worry, they’ll find a way. And we’ll continue toward San Francisco levels of housing prices as we limit supply as tightly as they do.

    • I think that shared housing is a great thing. There are still 2 bedroom apartments available for the equivalent pricing of 2 apodments. I also think that SROs are needed in many parts of Seattle as an option, especially for young singles. I think it just needs to be transparent as to where it is appropriate.

      Building for 8 bedrooms per building instead of 9 to get ‘under’ the congregate definition is not fooling anyone, especially when it is a complex of 32 or 64 total units of month to month rentals.

      Would you move next door to a hotel? One point of Land Use Code is that people invest in a neighborhood that they choose to move to based on the zoning as they can expect what will be built there over time. I chose a multifamily neighborhood and I want it to dense up. I did not choose a hotel area.

      The transient nature of the renters having month to month leases impacts the stability of a neighborhood. The percentage increase in a Midrise or High Rise or Neighborhood Commercial zone is likely much less impactful.

      But, doubling the number of residents overnite in a Low Rise zone, and those residents being very transient, is hugely impactful and destructive to a neighborhood. Renters in my neighborhood who have annual leases, are important and stable participants in our day to day lives, the block parties and neighborhood watches.

      We could measure density in the code by number of bedrooms, not by just FAR and number of units. We could stop encouraging what only seems to be luxury condos in highrises. We could stop having buildings be only one of two options in the LR zones: building tall 2500 sqft townhomes with 2 master bedrooms versus apodments. The LR1 zoning explictly allows for stacked triplex style, which is a form I wish we had more of. That could render 3 2-br units per building in a 4-plex, or even more variety of unit sizes. That form would give my block a lot more NEIGHBORS. An apodment complex would give my block a ton more STRANGERS.

      • Single family homes are rented all the time. If you’re trying to legislate away rentals, you’re doing it wrong.