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Originally published July 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 23, 2009 at 7:57 AM

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Modern rooming house offers cable-ready, furnished rooms — the size of a parking spot

Videré, on Capitol Hill, may be the first new rooming house in Seattle in decades. Its developers say it's part of the solution to the affordable-housing problem, but some neighbors have concerns.

Seattle Times business reporter

Videré is brand new. The kind of housing it will provide is anything but.

It's a rooming house. Older ones dot the city, especially in neighborhoods like the University District. But Seattle officials can't remember the last time anyone built a new rooming house from the ground up.

The rooms are small — about the size of a parking space — but the project's developers say they fit the budget and lifestyle of young adults who might be working as baristas or $12-an-hour clerks in big-box stores.

"This is what real folks can afford," says Jim Potter, chairman of development firm Kauri Investments and a partner in Videré.

When the complex on 23rd Avenue East opens next month, Potter and partner Dirk Mulhair say, tenants will get a cable-ready, furnished room with private bath with shower for around $500 to $600 a month, with all utilities and broadband Internet included.

They'll get a single bed, table, chair and refrigerator. They won't get a closet, a private kitchen — or very much space. The 46 rooms range in size from 90 to 168 square feet, including the bathroom, according to plans filed with the city.

Potter says many younger people now don't do much more than sleep in their apartments anyway. "You have a living room somewhere else," he says — perhaps a bar or coffee shop.

And he and Mulhair say their new rooming house will provide affordable, unsubsidized shelter for a population that still has a hard time finding housing in Seattle, despite recent drops in home prices and rents.

But the number of people who will be living at Videré has taken the project's neighbors by surprise. Some still are fuming.

"Everyone thought this was just a six-unit town-house development," says neighbor Alan Gossett.

Targets young adults

Videré's priciest rooms will rent for around $675, Mulhair says. A Craigslist search of apartment listings at or below $650 turned up several dozen studios or one-bedrooms in Seattle.

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But many didn't include all utilities or required yearlong leases or first and last month's rent upfront. Those are significant barriers to much of the clientele Videré has targeted, Mulhair says.

The project requires only a $450 security deposit. The typical lease will be three months to start, month-to-month after that.

Who's likely to live here? Mulhair points to the tenants in the five older, smaller rooming houses his company, Calhoun Properties, already owns in the University District, Wallingford and the Central District.

There's an 18-year-old working for little pay in Seattle schools for a year as part of a nonprofit community-service project. A retiree waiting to get into subsidized housing. A police officer new to Seattle, renting for now while he looks for something longer term.

Ten of his 64 tenants are baristas, Mulhair says. Six more, once homeless, are recent graduates of job-training or transitional-housing programs.

"These are good, hardworking people," Mulhair says. "They don't have a place to go."

Hotel doorman Stanley Davis, 50, has lived in a remodeled Calhoun rooming house in the Central District for about six weeks. He says his room is "efficient, clean and affordable ... "

"This is Seattle. Any rent around downtown is going to cost you $700 or $800, unless you live in a dump. I pay about $550, which is unheard-of."

As for size, "it's enough space for what I need it for," Davis says. "Anything larger, I'd just collect junk I'd have to get rid of again."

The tenants who move into Videré will find two buildings on the 0.18-acre site, each split into three three-story units with seven or eight bedrooms apiece.

Some rooms have lofts. A few will have tiny, semiprivate gardens. Two are wheelchair-accessible.

There are full kitchens intended for sharing on the first floor of each of the six units — although, based on his experience with his other properties, Mulhair doesn't expect they'll get much use. Each tenant will get a locker in the kitchen to store food.

Outside, there's a terraced patio between the two buildings with views across Madison Valley toward the Cascades. The complex is steps from bus lines to downtown, Seattle Center, Seattle Central Community College and the University of Washington.

Neighbors' gripes

One of the neighbors' gripes is that the project has only six parking spaces off the alley, available to tenants for an extra $80 a month.

Six stalls for 46 residents? "All of their cars will probably get dumped on our street," says Ellie Holstein, who lives on the next block. Parking already is a problem in the neighborhood, she says.

Mulhair says most of his tenants probably won't have cars. Just 10 of the 64 people in his existing rooming houses do, he says.

Gossett is skeptical. But he says he's more upset about the way Mulhair and Potter got the project approved. "They played fast and loose with the rules," he says.

City rules

Most rooming houses are considered "congregate housing" under city law. Proposed congregate residences generally require environmental and design review, says Bryan Stevens, spokesman for the city's Department of Planning and Development.

Those processes, in turn, require public notice and opportunities for neighbors to comment and appeal city decisions.

None of that happened with Videré, Stevens says: Under the law, it isn't congregate housing, which city code defines as housing intended for nine or more unrelated persons.

None of Videré's six units — technically town houses — contains that many bedrooms.

"This is a glaring hole in the current code," Gossett says. "There's no real practical limits to this. Some developer could buy 10 lots and build 50 'town houses' and rent 400 rooms."

Potter and Mulhair say they worked with the city and followed the law. City officials don't dispute that.

And not all the neighbors object to the new rooming house. "I don't think the neighborhood is going to go down the drain," Brian Retford, who lives four blocks away, said in an e-mail. He said he has close friends who could be prospective tenants.

Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark says rooming houses could be part of the solution to the city's affordable-housing problem. In addition to Videré, Calhoun Properties plans to open a new 30-room project in the University District next month.

But she says Gossett has a point, and thinks the rules for such rooming houses should be re-examined before the concept takes off.

"It certainly walks and talks and quacks like congregate housing," she says of Videré. "We should tell the neighborhood when the development that results is significantly different from what the land-use code usually means."

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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