Many in Seattle are taking a stand against rise of micro-apartments
An uprising by residents in several Seattle neighborhoods has prompted a City Council proposal, backed by the mayor, that attempts to strike a balance between developers of micro-apartments, opponents, and the needs of a fast-growing city that is home to many one-person households.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Shifting Seattle demographics signal a demand for no-frills housing in trendy locales. But in response to neighborhood unrest, the City Council next month will consider a proposal to restrict how and where Seattle’s smallest and most controversial homes are built.
The plan, backed by Mayor Ed Murray, reflects an attempt by Councilmember Mike O’Brien, the council’s land-use committee chairman, to strike a compromise between ambitious real-estate developers and disgruntled neighbors in Capitol Hill, Eastlake and Ballard.
The uproar is about micro-apartments, hotel room-sized units built in tandem with a common kitchen.
“I’ve never seen my neighborhood so upset and unified,” said Jules James, 57, an Eastlake resident and triplex landlord.
Neither side is fully satisfied with the proposal.
It would allow dorm-style housing to continue to sprout in select zones, while requiring units in most neighborhoods to average at least 220 square feet, a measure that would reduce the density of future projects.
Some neighbors pushing the council to rein in the micro-apartment market believe O’Brien’s plan doesn’t go far enough.
But a pro-development advocate warns that the plan would cripple a real-estate model tailor-made for rapidly growing Seattle.
“You might see some get built to the new standards, but there will be fewer projects and the units will be more expensive (to rent),” said Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, which lobbies for developers.
O’Brien will hold a committee hearing next Friday (Sept. 5) and hopes for a full council vote by the end of September.
The city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is “very supportive” of O’Brien’s plan, the agency says. And Murray is a fan.
Micro-apartments aren’t right for everyone, but “people have different lifestyles and different needs,” he said.
The upcoming debate could test O’Brien’s political clout and become a talking point in the run-up to 2015 council elections. Candidates will answer more directly to neighborhoods as the council moves to district-based representation.
“We’re going to judge them next year based on what they do this year,” Valdez said. “We’re going to get organized in 2015 and remember what they did.”
City of singles
Micro-apartment builders say they are providing Seattle with housing stock it desperately needs.
A report released this month by New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy says an increasing number of Seattle adults are unmarried and living alone.
By 2011, there were more single-person households than there were studio and one-bedroom homes, and singles accounted for more than 40 percent of all households.
Unrelated adults sharing homes and couples without children may represent additional “hidden demand for studio and one-bedroom units,” the Furman Center researchers believe.
The numbers indicate that a mismatch between household size and housing stock may be one reason some people are willing to pay as much as $1,000 a month for fewer than 200 square feet, said John Infranca, a co-author of the report.
“Demographically speaking, there is definitely demand,” Infranca said.
The popularity of certain neighborhoods among young professionals and transplants also is “a piece of the puzzle,” Infranca says.
Andrea Negrete, 28, is three months into a nine-month lease at a building in Eastlake, where units are listed for up to $1,300. They range from 170 to 220 square feet, and the building housed a group of Amazon.com interns this summer.
“It’s serving its purpose,” Negrete said. “It’s expensive for what it is but if I want to be by myself here, it’s the cheapest option.”
Development hot spot
The Furman Center researchers — who also looked at micro-apartment issues in New York, Washington, D.C., Denver and Austin, Texas — encountered a unique situation in Seattle, where developers have enjoyed significant leeway.
Current regulations here limit the size of studio apartments to about 220 square feet and new projects must include community input via the city’s design-review process when they surpass a certain number of units — eight in low-rise zones and 20 in mid-rise zones.
But some developers have built living spaces in the 100-square-foot range by defining them as sleeping rooms served by a common kitchen. They’ve been allowed to build units as small as 70 square feet, though none have.
In addition, the city has counted eight or more such micro-apartments as a single unit for the purposes of design review, allowing projects with many dozens of homes to bypass scrutiny.
Those two wrinkles have helped make Seattle a hot spot for micro-apartment development.
DPD estimates it has approved 43 building-permit applications submitted since 2010 for micro-apartment projects, including 15 in 2013. Of those, 22 are complete, accounting for nearly 1,000 new homes. Another 25 projects await permits.
Capitol Hill/First Hill and the University District have seen the most activity, with 20 and 17 projects permitted, respectively.
O’Brien’s plan would split future micro-apartment development into two categories.
New micro-apartments across the city, including in low-rise zones, would be smaller than 400 square feet and would be considered individual units. They would be need to average 220 square feet throughout a project, with a minimum of 180 square feet.
But micro-apartments in mid-rise and high-rise zones within “urban centers” and “urban villages” designated for density years ago could continue to be built smaller than 180 square feet under a “congregate housing” model, with nine or more units using one kitchen.
Since 2010, most micro-apartment projects have been in low-rise zones within urban centers and villages. New projects there would fall under the first category.
Under O’Brien’s plan, both categories of micro-apartments would be subject to design review based on square footage.
In low-rise zones, the city would mandate one parking space for every two micro-apartments rather than one space for each unit, as it currently requires.
But in transit-rich, high-density zones, there would continue to be no parking requirements.
“My hope is that we get to a spot where folks say this allows for more housing to be built in the city, but maintains the desirable fabric of our neighborhoods,” said O’Brien, who lives in Fremont. “That’s the path we’re trying to walk here.”
It’s a path, however, that some developers would rather not follow.
“Mike is trying to compromise in a classic Seattle way but it won’t work,” said Valdez.
Calhoun Properties, which uses the “Apodments” brand and which is Seattle’s largest micro-apartment developer, with 14 buildings, isn’t associated with Smart Growth Seattle. It declined to comment.
Valdez, however, claims micro-apartment construction, loosely regulated, can help keep rents down by boosting the city’s overall housing supply.
But Seattle’s micro-apartments shouldn’t be considered affordable housing, says Michele Thomas, policy director at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
And the city shouldn’t shy away from regulation in the name of affordability, she says.
“When developers build more housing, that doesn’t necessarily mean rents go down elsewhere,” said Thomas.
Valdez says O’Brien’s plan likely will lead developers to scrap projects, build fewer units and charge higher rents. That makes no sense for a city that needs to become denser as it grows, he says.
In cities with stricter rules, micro-apartment builders are including bells and whistles like movable walls to justify higher rates, Infranca noted.
”When you force people to rent more square footage than they want, you’re making the city more expensive and reducing the number of people that can move here,” Valdez said, dismissing critics as “not in my backyard” naysayers.
Victory for opponents
The neighbors don’t see themselves that way, of course.
“It’s not about ‘not in my backyard,’ ” said Larry Nicholas, 48. “They need to close these loopholes.”
Nicholas, who lives on Capitol Hill, helped form a group that sued the city over a project proposed for 741 Harvard Ave. E.
The group won this month when a King County Superior Court judge ruled the city should have counted each of the project’s 49 micro-apartments as individual units and mandated design review.
The review process taps the brakes on projects while allowing the public to weigh in on issues like height, how a building looks and how it relates to other structures.
The judge’s ruling applies only to the project in question, but the council may take the decision into account.
Linda Melvin, a Ballard resident, worries about the impact of new micro-apartment buildings on parking and infrastructure. The project under construction across the street from her is replacing a single-family home, she says.
“Now 48 people are going to be living there,” said Melvin, 69.
Like-minded activists say O’Brien is letting builders off the hook by using 220 square feet as an average rather than a hard minimum, pegging design review to square footage rather than unit count and preserving for-profit congregate housing.
But Murray has limited sympathy for residents of urban centers and villages concerned about density.
“That can’t come as a surprise for folks when you’re in an area designated going back to (Mayor) Norm Rice as an area where we would concentrate growth,” the mayor said.
Some of O’Brien’s council colleagues might be more sympathetic.
Councilmember Tom Rasmussen last year briefly considered proposing a freeze on micro-apartment construction.
Some neighbors oppose the micro-apartment concept entirely.
James says the units are too cramped and will become an unhealthy option of last resort when the economy slows.
“This is our version of setting up a tent in the middle of the city, except a tent comes down when the boom is over,” he said.
Daniel Beekman: email@example.com or 206-464-2164.