Critics of micro-apartments calling for a moratorium
Neighborhood activists are calling for a moratorium on microhousing, tiny apartments with shared kitchens that are mushrooming on Capitol Hill and in the University District.
/ Seattle Times staff reporter
Judy Green was well-suited to move into a 10-by-10-foot University District apartment.
The retired AutoCAD drafter spent the previous decade on a boat before finding a home in one of the nearly 50 microhousing buildings that have sprung up in Seattle over the past several years.
The units are tiny, typically 150 to 250 square feet, about the size of a hotel room. Six or eight residents share a kitchen. And the rent is lower than the average studio or one-bedroom apartment, about $600 to $900 a month compared with $1,200 and up.
Although it’s popular with young urban singles and students, microhousing, also known by the brand name aPodments, is stirring controversy as well.
Some contain as many as 64 units, but because they’re in dense neighborhoods served by transit, they aren’t required to provide any parking.
And because the city only counts kitchens, not sleeping units, for the purposes of development regulations, the housing avoids design and environmental review and notice to neighbors that usually is required for big, multifamily projects.
Neighborhood activists are urging the city to adopt a moratorium on new micro-apartment buildings. They estimate that 19 of the developments already are renting or are being built within a square mile on Capitol Hill.
The buildings also are clustered in the University District and the Eastlake neighborhood.
On Capitol Hill, older homes are being razed to build the new units that will bring an influx of residents who may rent for only a few months, developing few ties to the neighborhood, argued Carl Winter, who formed the group Reasonable Density Seattle to lobby the city for more regulations governing the developments.
“We’re not concerned with who these people are, but with how many there are. This is a massive increase in density,” Winter said.
Mayor Mike McGinn has praised the micro-apartments as offering affordable, transit-friendly options for city living.
He also noted, in a January blog post, that some of the micro-apartment builders are participating in the city’s Multifamily Tax Exemption Program, which reserves some units for moderate-wage workers in exchange for an exemption from property taxes for up to 12 years.
But that aspect also is controversial. Builders have told the city that they have only six or eight kitchens, the definition of a dwelling unit, in order to get under the threshold for design and environmental review.
But they’ve used the total number of sleeping units — for example, 56 or 64 — when applying to the Office of Housing for the tax-exemption program.
Councilmember Tim Burgess said his staff alerted the Housing Office in September to the issue.
Only last month did the Housing Office announce that, starting April 26, it would no longer allow developers to use different unit counts for different purposes. Burgess, a candidate for mayor, said the lost tax revenue to the city is substantial.
“What’s troubling is the city looks like it’s twisting the rules to favor developers and that’s not appropriate,” he said.
Councilmember Nick Licata has advocated charging developers more, to increase the stock of housing for low- and moderate-income residents.
During a City Council hearing on microhousing Thursday, Licata grew impatient with talk about the city tax-exemption program.
“The best way to address the issue of affordable housing is to change the law to require affordable units in all new construction,” Licata said.
Neighbors have been complaining about microhousing developments for several years. In 2009, following an outcry over a 46-room project at 23rd Avenue East and East John Street, City Councilmember Sally Clark, then chair of the land-use committee, suggested that the projects undergo the same scrutiny as a similarly sized apartment building, because of the potential impacts.
But the Department of Planning and Development has continued to count kitchens, not total units, and has generally provided no notice to neighbors when a development is proposed.
“Bad on both the mayor and council that we didn’t get involved sooner,” Clark said earlier this week. She said that the number of microhousing projects has taken off since the end of the recession, and that their impacts should be addressed.
“Design review and notice to the neighbors with a chance to influence the outcome seems like a reasonable thing to ask,” she said.
Developers say that with microhousing, they’re filling a need for lower-priced housing in a city where it’s expensive to live. And they say they have no trouble renting out the units.
“People want to live in walkable neighborhoods with easy access to shops and transit,” said Jim Potter, chairman of Kauri Investments, which has partnered with other developers to build six microhousing projects in Seattle, with several more planned. He’s been asked to develop projects in Portland, California and New Jersey.
The buildings are popular, he said, because people want an affordable alternative to shared living.
Judy Green, 67, said her brand-new aPodment in the University District offered more light and more stylish finishes than the one-bedroom apartments she looked at in her price range.
She pays $850 a month for a sixth-floor room that features a sleeping loft, a private toilet and shower, a kitchenette with a sink, fridge and granite countertop, a skylight, two windows and a sliding-glass door to a small private deck. The loft brings the total square footage to 200.
The kitchen she shares with seven other tenants is on the second floor. She said she keeps fit walking up and down stairs — there’s no elevator in the building.
But she’s right across the hall from the shared rooftop deck with a view of Lake Union and the Space Needle.
“I’m a minimalist,” she said. “I think this is a wonderful thing.”
Lynn Thompson: email@example.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes