The Seattle City Council is poised to approve new regulations governing microhousing. The bill would set new minimum requirements for tiny apartments and dorm-style projects. Developers say the regulations would kill off these projects entirely.
Linda Alexander is an Eastlake resident who has seen microhousing projects go up without notice to the surrounding neighborhood. She served on a stakeholders group convened by Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien.
Alexander said an apartment building that may have housed several families can be replaced by a building that houses dozens of residents. And since the tiny apartments or bedrooms haven't counted as “units,” the projects haven't triggered the typical requirements in terms of parking, more garbage bins or any type of review by the city.
The City Council’s legislation would count each bedroom as a unit, set a minimum size for that unit, and require that all these projects undergo a design review where neighbors have the chance to make comments and request changes.
Alexander has developed multifamily housing in Seattle; she says she knows the review can be frustrating but that these projects merit it.
Design review isn't as expensive as opponents to the legislation claim, Alexander says. “I've done it many times.”
She says it’s important for developers to make a profit so the city has more housing. But she says these regulations are a reasonable response to neighborhood concerns about microhousing.
“I think the city has a duty to define what is the basic standard of habitability,” Alexander says, “and I think have done this in Councilmember O’Brien’s bill.”
O’Brien’s original bill was more flexible on unit size, but ultimately the council amended his bill to mandate a 220-square-foot minimum for these apartments.
O’Brien has mixed feelings about that concept. He says the city needs to ensure the units are safe, but going beyond that just hurts low-income renters.
“I do think at some point a unit is so small it’s just not habitable,” he says. But he added that officials need to be very cautious “if we start setting square-foot minimums on who can live where.”
Mayor Ed Murray sent a letter to council members outlining his concerns about some of the new regulations, which he said could make these projects “cost prohibitive.”
Roger Valdez of the developers’ group Smart Growth Seattle said these rules will drive up rents and make these projects no longer viable.
Valdez was happy when Mayor Murray signaled he might veto these regulations, but now says the city is sending mixed messages.
While the council's legislation – if approved – wouldn't take effect until later this fall, the city's Department of Planning and Development is already holding microhousing projects to these new standards.
On Sept. 22, DPD officials sent letters to developers with projects in the pipeline to say they need to count each bedroom as a separate unit and submit additional information if they wish to proceed.
The letter said the changes are due to a successful lawsuit challenging one of these projects in King County Superior Court. That case is now on appeal, but if the city council approves O'Brien's legislation, microhousing will soon be subject to the stricter standards in any case.