Micro-housing—dorm-room-sized apartments in desirable, walkable neighborhoods—isn’t for everyone, but it most definitely is for Anna Rogers. Anna is a recent college graduate who grew up in the suburbs of Seattle and now works a retail job while looking to start a career that harnesses her passion for politics.
Thanks to a building called OneOne6 on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Anna can afford to live her twenty-something dream of her own private place—no sharing with Craigslist strangers or returning to her childhood bedroom at mom and dad’s. Capitol Hill is one of Cascadia’s most exciting neighborhoods, a thriving center of arts and nightlife, historic home to Seattle’s gay community, and now exorbitantly expensive.
Anna is hooked on the lifestyle: walking around Cal Anderson or Volunteer Park, meeting friends for coffee or happy hour, attending Pride events steps from her door, or frequenting the year-round farmer’s market. “Things pop up on Facebook, turns out they’re just two blocks away, and I can just swing by. I love that,” she says.
“My friends were like, ‘It’s too small; don’t do it.’ But I don’t feel that way. I have my own bathroom, a full bed, a desk, shelves…. I mostly just need a safe, clean place to shower, eat, and sleep…. There’s so much going on. I’m rarely home.”
Unfortunately for the many other Annas out there, eager to live close to good city jobs or to participate in city life, Seattle has now effectively outlawed micro-housing through the minutiae of policy and zoning rules. Seattle was the modern birthplace of micro-housing in North America. It went strong from 2009 to 2013, but building micro-housing projects has since become an uphill battle. In fact, the local war about micro-housing is over… and micro-housing lost.
This article is the story of that war—the obscure changes in land-use rules and departmental regulations that have now strangled a practical, modest, sustainable, unsubsidized form of inexpensive living that held enormous potential both for Seattle and for the rest of Cascadia. I’ve been involved in Seattle micro-housing as an architect and, more recently, a developer, since 2010. Building affordable homes and livable communities for people like Anna struggling for a foothold in our housing market has become a core mission of my practice.
But first, some terminology….
What is micro-housing?
Micro-housing is the umbrella term for a housing option that is smaller than average. These homes are the modern-day equivalents of rooming houses, boarding houses, dormitories, and single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, and they come in two main flavors:
- Congregate housing is like a dormitory. The rooms are “sleeping rooms,” rather than complete dwelling units, and renters enjoy private bathrooms and kitchenettes in their units, along with shared kitchens and other common amenities for the whole building. A typical project looks like an apartment building—Yobi Apartments, near Seattle University, is one example. “Apodments,” the brand that started the micro-housing revolution in Seattle in 2009, are functionally the same thing as congregate housing, though technically they are classified as boarding houses. The size of the sleeping rooms in congregate micro-housing is typically in the range of 140 to 200 square feet.
- A Small Efficiency Dwelling Unit (SEDU) is a slightly undersized conventional studio apartment. It has a complete kitchen and bathroom and closet space. By code, SEDUs must have at least 220 square feet of total floor space, as compared to 300 square feet for the smallest typical conventional studio apartments.
All types of micro-housing unlock more affordable and small but independent homes for people who wants them. They are one more option to serve the broad spectrum of housing needs.
War of attrition
So what happened to Seattle’s micro-housing? There’s no one single moment when we lost the war. Rather, it’s been a process of accumulated bad decisions. In short, rule changes made by the city mandate larger and therefore costlier units, drastically limit the areas in which they can be built, require the extra process and expense of formal design review, and discourage participation in the city’s multi-family tax exemption, a program that lowers rents substantially for working-class households.
All types of micro-housing unlock a more affordable and small but independent home for someone who wants it.
The timeline below summarizes the series of misguided steps—most taking place just in the last two years—that have taken Seattle from micro-housing leader to micro-housing void:
2009: Micro-housing first appears on the Seattle market, near the University of Washington. Average home size is about 140 square feet.
July 2009: Seattle Times publishes an article about Videre Apartments, a proposed micro-housing building in the city’s Central District. Public awareness and NIMBY opposition grow.
2010-2013: Micro-housing proliferates and evolves. Average unit size increases to about 175 square feet, and production ramps up to more than 1,800 homes in 2013, nearly one-quarter of all new dwellings built in that year.
September 2013: New micro-housing legislation is proposed, requiring all projects to undergo design review and to include more amenities, like common areas and bike parking.
August 2014: King County Superior Court rules that all current pod-style micro-housing projects must go through the design review process, a time-consuming series of meetings with community members and a citizen panel that comment on plans. To avoid the expense, most existing projects switch over from pod-style to SEDUs.
September 2014: Revised micro-housing legislation proposes more expansive changes, including prohibiting congregate housing development in places zoned for neighborhood commercial centers and for low-rise multi-family buildings, such as small apartment buildings and duplexes. Such zones are exactly the parts of the city where most micro-housing was previously built and where it makes economic sense.
October 2014: Micro-housing legislation passes with some additional hostile amendments. Congregate housing is virtually banned and subsequently disappears from the development pipeline. SEDUs are encouraged as a replacement for congregate housing, with a minimum unit size of 220 square feet. However, other restrictions make this minimum size difficult to achieve, resulting in units averaging 250-270 square feet. Rents rise proportionally.
December 2014: A hearing examiner appeal invalidates the working definition of frequent transit, because the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections (SDCI) determines frequent transit based on average time between transit vehicle pickups. This change dramatically curtails the geographic extent of what the city can recognize as part of its “frequent transit network.” Proximity to the frequent transit network is the test for how much off-street parking housing developers must provide. Micro-housing construction cannot pencil out unless it is exempt from mandates to build off-street parking. Because of this change, micro-housing development is no longer cost-effective in portions of several of the city’s designated urban villages, exactly the transit-oriented density magnets where affordable options such as micro-housing are most needed. (The HALA committee flags this issue in early 2015 and again in its mid-2015 final report in recommendation Prk.3. The Seattle City Council could resolve this issue by adding the word “average” in one place in the land use code. To date, no City Council member has proposed this amendment.)
February 2015: The City Council passes changes to the multi-family tax exemption (MFTE), setting the rent restriction so low for SEDUs that participation in MFTE becomes improbable. (Since this time, only three SEDU projects have applied for participation in MFTE.) The rules also exclude congregate housing from participation, but then in Fall 2015, in response to HALA recommendation R4.b, congregate housing is allowed back in.
July 2015: The HALA report is published. HALA highlights the de facto ban on congregate micro-housing and recommends relaxing recently created restrictions to increase the supply of these homes. The Seattle City Council does not include this recommendation (MF.8) in its HALA work plan.
August 2015: SDCI adopts the “70-7” rule, a new interpretation of building code language that establishes the “minimum clear floor space” in a dwelling unit. The result is that the smallest and least expensive apartments in all of the micro-housing projects my firm has been working to build are suddenly illegal. (To date, the 70-7 rule remains unpublished in any public document. Builders usually discover the issue only when an SDCI inspector reviews a permit application and sends them a correction notice.)
October 2015: Based on Seattle mayor Ed Murray’s proposal, the City Council boosts the MFTE requirement for affordability from 20 percent to 25 percent of a multi-family building’s total units unless the building includes four or more two-bedroom apartments—not an option for micro-housing projects.
February 2016: My firm, Neiman Taber Architects, submits an appeal of the 70-7 rule for congregate residences to the Construction Code Advisory Board (CCAB). The firm argues that 70-7 is inconsistent with the published code interpretation manual, past practices, and historical models of small unit housing, and moreover, that it is counterproductive to the very habitability and livability concerns that it intends to support. The CCAB ruling upholds the 70-7 rule but acknowledges that the effect of the 70-7 rule on small unit housing and affordability should be studied. The CCAB asks SDCI to develop a code change to accommodate the design of small congregate units. (To date, SDCI has taken no action, but this issue is on the CCAB agenda for its Sept 15, 2016 meeting.)
June 2016: SDCI adopts new SEDU rules that apply the 70-7 rule to the entire living area of each dwelling. Many unit designs in the 250-280-square-foot range will no longer meet SEDU requirements, meaning they will have to be expanded into the size range of studio apartments. Regular studios, not micros, begin at 300 square feet.
August 2016: June’s new rules go from bad to worse, as the Director’s Rule on 70-7 is clarified to apply not only to SEDUs but to all new home construction in Seattle. The result? Even conventional studios will have to grow in size.
How does this succession of cuts impact projects?
The timeline is damning enough, but let’s look at the same story from another perspective—that of someone who is trying to build new housing for a few dozen Annas, without going bankrupt and with apartments that Anna can afford. Here’s a composite picture of a building project you might undertake.
You buy a plot of land in an urban village to develop micro-housing, anticipating its future residents will benefit from nearby frequent transit, grocery stores, a library and park, and some local shops. Your goal is to provide homes at affordable rents in a desirable neighborhood for the most people that you can. You’d also like to participate in the MFTE program, which gives you a property tax break that covers the cost of dramatically lowering the rent for a share of your tenants as long as those tenants have low incomes.
You draw up plans to build 40 apartments of 175 square feet each. You estimate rent at $900 per month. That amount might sound expensive if you haven’t shopped for rentals in Seattle recently, but it’s a steal: conventional studios now go for $1,400 on average.
Not so fast. Some of the folks who live nearby are upset about what you have planned. So the City Council passes new rules bumping up your units to an average of 220 square feet, and then, in committee, adds some more rules that jack your average unit size further.
You redesign your project according to the new rules and find that you are now down to 27 units of 260 square feet each. Thirteen Annas just lost their housing, and the remainder saw their rent rise by a third, to about $1,200 per month. But at least you are in the MFTE program, so five of your apartments will offer a discounted rent of $1,020 per month to people whose incomes qualify. (You facepalm in disbelief, however, that whereas your original plan offered 40 units, unsubsidized, at $900 a month, your new version has just five units, subsidized, at $1,020.)
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Hold on just a second, though, because your Plan B just ran aground. The City Council has decided that the MFTE deal is too good for you, and it adopts more-demanding program requirements, dropping MFTE-discounted rents to $618 per month. Some quick math tells you your property tax break will not come close to covering the rent subsidy.
On top of this, the Mayor’s Office decides to promote family-sized housing by bumping up your MFTE participation quota: you have to subsidize rents for a quarter, not a fifth, of your tenants. You’re baffled why the Mayor’s Office thinks that driving you out of the MFTE program is helping to build family-sized housing. You give up on the MFTE program. There will be no discounted units. The Annas will all have to pay $1,200 a month. Maybe their parents will chip in?
Nice try. The building department is concerned that your apartments are so small that they might pose a threat to life, health, and safety. (You groan in frustration. The National Healthy Housing Standard was revised by an expert panel in 2014 to radically reduce the emphasis on minimum space as a health and safety concern. Previous editions of this model US building code had, based on little empirical evidence, recommended space quotas that criminalized the living conditions of many low-income families, but the new codes, based on a thorough review of the research literature, suggest a minimum of just 70 square feet per room and eliminated all other references to crowding. Sightline’s research informed this change.) The building department publishes a new code interpretation that requires your SEDUs to have larger living rooms. You redesign your project again: Plan C. Three more Annas lose their homes. You are now down to 24 apartments of 290 square feet that rent for about $1,300 per month.
At this point, you realize you’re better off converting the units into small, conventional studios. Your unit size bumps up again, to a little over 300 square feet—Plan D—but at least conventional studios can rationally participate in the MFTE program because the required rent subsidy is lower, so 25 percent of your tenants will get an affordable rent.
Not quite. The building department has a follow-up memo. It turns out that the living room size problem doesn’t just concern SEDUs; conventional studios are now also in danger of sliding below the purported minimum threshold for human habitation. This new interpretation applies to all housing, so your studios have to grow yet again. Your units jump up to an average of 330 square feet, Plan E. Three more Annas lose homes. Your unit count drops to 21. Your rents are now at $1,400 per month. They are not micros. Micros are dead.
This is how Seattle micro-housing regulations have evolved in less than two years. Spread over dozens of proposed small unit development projects, this represents the loss of hundreds of affordable dwellings and a huge increase in average rents. How much?
Seattle’s micro-housing “fix” costs the city 829 affordable homes per year
How many affordable homes is Seattle losing due to its new thicket of rules against micro-housing? The graph below illustrates how the production of congregate housing (including pod-style) and SEDUs changed between 2010 and 2015.
Congregate housing production, which peaked at over 1,800 units in 2013, was reduced to a trickle by 2015. SEDU production ramped up to fill the void but only partially—total micro-housing production is still 23 percent below its 2013 peak—and the rules keep forcing bigger SEDUs. This reduction in new supply exacerbates affordability by worsening Seattle’s housing shortage. On top of that, because they are larger and have more features, SEDU homes are much more expensive than congregate housing. It’s a lose-lose for affordability.
How much more are locals paying for what micro-housing does manage to get built under all new the restrictions? To come up with an estimate, I took 2013 as the base year and assumed that the total square footage of micro-housing built would remain constant over subsequent years. I then compared production for two scenarios:
- Under the current rules, 90 percent of total micro-housing production is SEDU, and 10 percent is congregate (which is roughly what has been observed since 2014); half of the congregate projects and twelve percent of the SEDU projects participate in the MFTE program (a rough estimate of behavior since the February 2015 MFTE rule changes).
- Recent anti-micro-housing policies are reversed. Production is split equally between congregate and SEDU; half of the congregate projects and half of the SEDU projects participate in the MFTE program (this also assumes that the MFTE limit for SEDUs is 55% of AMI).
Compared to scenario 2, for every year that Seattle’s current micro-housing policies remain in effect under scenario 1:
- Some 1,300 people pay an average of $253 more per month in rent, or $3,040 more per year. That’s just a little short of a year of in-state tuition at Seattle Central College. And that’s just the price increase that results from micros being larger than they would have been under the rules of 2013. The general rent increases that housing shortages cause add to it. Every rent increase and every home not built ultimately increases economic displacement of low-income people.
- Some 345 homes a year, market-rate and subsidized, are not built. Developers are building fewer, larger apartments.
- Some 97 congregate homes are not built that would have been affordable to Seattleites making 40 percent of area median income (AMI; $25,320 for a single person for 2016).
- Some 51 SEDU homes and 680 congregate units are not built that would have been affordable to Seattleites making 55 percent AMI ($34,650 for a single person in 2016).
Those numbers are bad enough. But now stretch them over ten years, and they represent the loss of 8,290 affordable homes, a 25 percent rent hike for 13,000 people, and 3,450 total homes—market-rate and affordable—never built at all.
The last two years of compounding restrictions, with the final blow of the new 70-7 Director’s Rule, mean that virtually all proposed small unit projects will have to go back to the drawing board for a redesign to enlarge the units. An example of this change is shown below, where a project loses two homes per floor under the new rules. The unit count drops by about 10 percent, and the average unit size grows about 10 percent, with rents rising accordingly. Most SEDUs built from here on out will be virtually indistinguishable in density and unit size from today’s conventional studio apartments.
In sum, barring future changes, micro-housing in Seattle is essentially done. There will be a few projects around the margins that will continue to keep the format alive in the technical sense. But in real terms, that is, in terms of providing an abundant, affordable alternative to conventional development, at a production scale where it can make a meaningful difference? Nope. Game over.
Anna was lucky to find a home that fit her needs, her price point, and her desire to live in one of Seattle’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Unfortunately, far fewer Annas will find that opportunity. Seattle has effectively mandated bigger, more expensive, and fewer homes—and turned its back on a smart, affordable housing option for thousands of its residents.
The only good news in this tragedy—this travesty of displacement and exclusion of low-income workers—is that we know exactly what to do to bring micro-housing roaring back. The only things that stand in its way in Seattle are a series of unforced errors that started in October of 2014 and culminated in the 70-7 rule. Remove them, and literally thousands of Annas will have the choice of new, small, inexpensive, unsubsidized, sustainable homes in walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods.
David Neiman is a principal at Neiman Taber Architects, where he is deeply involved in micro-housing as an architect, developer, and proponent in the public policy sphere. He served on the HALA committee. His firm works to create plentiful, high-quality, small unit housing, designed to support livability and promote community among residents. He coauthored a Sightline article on missing middle housing and design review for Sightline in February 2016.
This article is adapted from three articles published by Neiman Taber Architects. Sightline’s Serena Larkin, Alan Durning, and Dan Bertolet edited and adapted the pieces for Sightline.
The graph of micro-housing production counts each sleeping room in congregate housing as a separate housing unit.
As the mother of a young woman who rented an apartment in Seattle (at $875 a month in a dangerous neighborhood), I find this one of the saddest articles I have ever read. How are kids going to be able to move out of their parents’ homes and live on their own? At $900 a month, the apartments are affordable, safe, and attractive for kids just starting out AND at that rent, enough to keep the homeless bum-types away from snobby neighbors. Seattle lost an opportunity to truly be cutting edge.
> How are kids going to be able to move out of their parents’ homes and live on their own?
The same way everyone else does. Get roommates or live farther away and commute.
> AND at that rent, enough to keep the homeless bum-types away from snobby neighbors.
No, it doesn’t at all. Capitol Hill is full of heroin addicts and stumblebums.
> Seattle lost an opportunity to truly be cutting edge.
No, not really.
Let’s say they live further way.
Now you have lots of people commuting inwards to work, likely by car, which means you need more surface or garage parking, plus the economic and climactic impact of more cars on the road, and the loss of residential and commercial (and thus economically positive) buildings, in favor of cars, which will sit there all day doing nothing. Plus added traffic congestion.
What, exactly, is the issue in providing a format of housing the greatly resembles the housing young people lived in during college, or are willing to live in while they get their professional life started? Why do people just getting started as working people need to live with flatmates or roommates?
Not only that, but housing that promotes a walking & transit-focused lifestyle, one where neighbors share the amenities of an urban city? That kind of shared
Why squash a potential avenue to relieve pressure on a crowded housing market? Yes, it needs to be done in a way that contributes, but creating $900 a month housing is still expensive housing, just more in line with what can earn as someone just entering the workforce, or maybe working multiple part-time service jobs.
> Why do people just getting started as working people need to live with flatmates or roommates?
This question answers itself. Ever notice how people who live in NYC , and how it’s portrayed on TV always show people having nice, sane roommates? No?
That’s why people can’t share living space. You only share living space when the situation is temporary, or you are sleeping in the same bed. Living with strangers, who may have awful friends who steal your stuff, bring pets/vermin, hoard garbage, and so forth.
So the idea of a microsuite only works when it’s part of the business (eg on-campus housing, or self-employment) so people don’t have to commute at all. If people still have to commute, it’s a failure, because the suites are only sleeping spaces, if you have to commute you may as well just sleep at the office.
If a developer can’t build another floor to compensate for needing larger livable units, then perhaps the project was not a good idea.
Thank you Bob, you are correct. I lived with roommates for years, not expecting subsidized living for my cool urban lifestyle. Young people’s options didn’t suddenly change. They just didn’t get their way in something that no one else ever seemed to need before them.
It is helpful if you understand Bob. He doesn’t want these units and isn’t concerned if other people get screwed so he can get what he wants.
Ryan, WHO doesn’t want these units? The author David Neiman?
Who’s expecting a subsidy? The entire point is that these units allow people to afford market-rate housing.
> Young people’s options didn’t suddenly change.
Well, yes, they did. As the article notes, options like boarding houses used to be common in cities but have since been outlawed or regulated to death. It’s a relatively recent invention to demand a standard minimum apartment size regardless of what people actually want.
They’ll have to get hitched, or rethink cohabitation in the form of bunkbeds
Parking is a huge problem and housing the squeeses people into tiny spaces are probematic and the slums of the future!
Apartment-dwellers who live in cities like Seattle don’t have cars.
Living next door to an apodment, I think there are reasons to have design review. The totally black building without any greenery seems unreasonable to allow.
Also curious how many of the micro-housing units actually became air-bnb?
Also, since the micro-housing does not require any parking, street parking has now become almost impossible on capitol hill.
Seems like there has to be a way to make it work, but going around the rules that had good reasons doesn’t seem right…
What does the greenery and landscaping have to do with the size of the units in the building?
I agree with Jennifer. My older son (at the time, in his late 30s) who was teaching high school in the greater Seattle area, was renting an affordable wonderful 1 bedroom apartment in an old brownstone just behind Harborview. He and others in the building were forced out and the building was turned into micro apartments, perhaps even designed by this author. Our son never returned to Seattle. This article is more in a frustrating turn here at Sightline, giving voices to the very people who profited from this and other similar issues that many of us would agree go against the grain of what people liked most about Seattle. Was no effort given to have someone write a counter to this from the affordable housing organizations or others that fight these people on a daily basis?
It appears to be too late to save Seattle, but if the city is going to allow builders to build “affordable housing”, as we are doing in every neighborhood, it should not be by cramming people into ever smaller spaces, or allowing huge changes in our building codes so that middle class single family homes are demolished every day.
I spent 30 years of my life in Seattle, until just a few years ago. While I am realistic enough to understand that the middle income homes in Greenlake that my wife (a middle manger for a city program for teens) and I (at the time working a middle class job selling computers) could afford in 1985 no longer exist, I am gladdened that the city sees that micro housing isn’t a workable solution to the problem.
While I am happy this retail clerk likes her place, it may have been at the cost of a teacher’s apartment. I just hope her parents are not helping her subsidize this because it’s too costly for her to afford.
I forgot to mention that the rent also went up substantially when it the units were converted.
Your comment contradicts itself- you say affordable middle income homes no longer exist, and yet middle class single family homes are getting demolished. You just said those homes don’t exist.
Your actual point seems to be, “I would never live in a tiny house, so no one else should be allowed to.”
Affordable middle income homes no longer exist in Greenlake. The houses are still there, but they are no longer affordable at 900k+. See https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/6520-Latona-Ave-NE-98115/home/307076, a former 1100 sq ft 2 bedroom house, pimped up with “remodeled” basement [likely moldy, low height or both] to double the square footage and bedroom count.
The specific case of the building near Harborview is an interesting one. The existing building was built of un-reinforced masonry, and as such it could likely collapse in a major seismic event. It required a multi-million dollar retrofit in order to bring it up to an acceptable level of soundness. It was not the existence of micro-housing as a legal form of dwelling that displaced the existing tenants. What displaced them is the need to do significant work on the building to bring it up to life safety standards and to recoup the costs of that investment with higher rents. If not in the form of small affordable micro-housing units it would have been in the form of larger more expensive units, but the displacement was inevitable.
It seems like you’re implying that building micro-apartments has displaced residents–e.g., owners of apartments will kick out tenants, tear down the building and replace it with micro-housing. Is this really what has taken place? And if so, wouldn’t the tenants be able to be able to afford find affordable units (if more micro-housing is available)? Or, is this a matter of losing a bigger apartment and not wanting to live in a smaller one?
Why couldn’t your son just move into a micro-apartment? It might be smaller than his previous place, it would be newer and cleaner. You’re exhibiting classic NIMBY-ism.
A teacher in his late 30’s crammed into a micro-apartment? I don’t see that lifestyle for anyone except the very young and unestablished. Poor guy grading student’s homework spread all over his pod!
Alice E. Lockhart
Thanks for this great article, a sensational reference as we ask for fair zoning and housing. We should have design reviews for single family homes, not micro-housing! McMansionization is removing trees and yards, reducing wildlife, using huge amounts of carbon, moving couples into houses big enough for dozens of people, taking away the possibility of affordable housing for dozens of years. These are destroying my neighborhood. We could build two apodments or congregate houses and one micro-park for every three 5K square foot houses that are going in now, creating both housing and green spaces. We need to start building for people, not cars!
I don’t understand how a huge apodment building is any less of a tree-remover or yard-remover than a McMansion. All the condo stacks I see going up remove the nearby trees and have no yards but the garden level units may have a below-grade area 15 x 6 which catches the litter from late-night street-level passers-by.
I am so glad that Anna enjoyed her small space, but the complete lack of interviewing others who lived in Capital Hill (and who loathe apodments) is quite telling. It is the height of arrogance to center this article on one type of potential renter while completely ignoring those who have lived for decades in the city of Seattle (and, yes, including the desirable Capital Hill) and who have seen their community undermined by tiny spaces that don’t provide space for the cars some renters have, etc.
Once again, this type of article demonizes those who disagree. Sightline: I am quite disappointed. What about those–like Al Bergstein above describes–whose apodments are at the expense of others? Whatever happened to looking at those who live in a community now and those who wish to build so-called affordable spaces that change the entire nature of the community?
I think the issue is the “height of arrogance” demonstrated by comments like this; the attitude of “I’ve got mine, so too bad for the rest of you.” You’re saying that people shouldn’t have a place to live, and housing should be unaffordable, because you have an inviolable right to free and convenient street parking. I’m sorry, but street parking is a public resource. If you want a parking guarantee you can buy or rent your own spot. Don’t demand that the rest of us subsidize you.
Really think about what you’re saying and at least recognize that your aesthetic concerns have costs for others.
Welcome to the new America: race to the bottom. Where people demand the right to live in matchboxes. I got mine. It looks like you will not get yours.
Where, Dean (who’s so bent on calling others arrogant) do you see “I’ve got mine, you can’t get yours”? Where do you see parking as held as a higher good? I’m noticing reality: some apodment dwellers have cars! I for one bicycle everywhere and my car is not on the street (it’s used to get around on some nights because public transport near me is NOT safe at night).
And you’re so sure you know what “aesthetic concerns” are, aren’t you? Perhaps some green space is a psychological/social need for many (see research on this). I love how you mount an attack, Dean, instead of reading. Does that make it easier for you to follow your religion of “I’m right”?
C’mon Arlene – “demonizes”? You lost me with the hyperbole.
No Dean, people who can’t afford to live in an area can share housing like everyone else has in past times or move. It isn’t a right to live anywhere.
I keep seeing these comments with the sentiment that no one should be able to do something that people didn’t do in the past. “Share and apartment or move! We didn’t use to have any other options so you shouldn’t either!” True, there isn’t a right to live in a certain place, but that doesn’t mean the ability to do so is a bad thing. And maybe it’s even a good thing. I don’t see why micros can’t find some hybrid- structures with a little greenspace and a combination of different-sized units.
I see those comments like, “Do as we did” as responses to people who seem to think there are no such options available to them. In fact, I wonder why apartments aren’t made that are 2 x 220 sf to serve two roommates but have only one bathroom and one kitchen? Wouldn’t that drop the rent for both people? There seems to be this strange insistence or assumption that all units must be for one person only. Do the young and hip want to save money or not?
How much worse has street parking actually gotten in Capitol Hill? I lived there twenty years ago and street parking was next to impossible then. When I visit in a car, I don’t see a lot of difference.
Squeezing, schmeezing. I lived in a boardinghouse in my twenties, which is a lot squeezier than an apodment. Plenty of us did, and the sky did not fall, nor were the streets overrun with the vehicles that none of us could afford anyway. It was clean, safe, affordable, and uninspiring, which was good enough.
The way to keep apartments from being slums isn’t to make them larger, it’s to enforce sensible laws on slumlords. Hugh Sisley rented out skeezy, rat-infested single-family homes for years. Their square footage means nothing.
But if micro-apartments only require about the same amount of space persons (maybe even less), aren’t they the best of both worlds? There are inherent problems with any boarding house situation because complete strangers are sharing a small space.
I just left Seattle, largely because there’s no decent, affordable housing there. I’d be happy to live in a micro-apartment for about $750-800/mo. All many of us want is a clean place to eat and sleep, so we don’t need much space.
The fact that fully half of the comments on this article whine about the impacts of housing to (free, on-street) parking. That alone tells you our priorities. Until we get politicians with spines who can say “your parking is less important than ensuring people have homes”, we will continue to create policies that favor cars over people.
This democracy, right? As long as politicians still care about their next election they will not have spines. By the way – what is stopping you from becoming the first politician with a spine?
I don’t understand the objections to these small, more affordable housing options. Unless you have a well paying tech job, people have a hard, if not impossible, time finding affordable housing near downtown Seattle. At least these small living spaces are an option for someone just starting out. Although $900 is a lot for so little space, one bedroom apartments cost twice as much in that area. Seems like a good way to provide less expensive housing options in desirable, high rent areas, particularly if you don’t need or have a car. This also seems more desirable than forcing renters further and further out, which usually increases traffic and congestion.
Could you add this to your series, Legalizing Inexpensive Housing?
If residents in each microhousing complex is only allowed four zoned street parking permits like the rest of us, then we have less problems with it. This would be a very simple fix for those who are for or against microhousing. For those who think that parking is not important, I bet you a huge amount that you will change your mind when you have kids (if you ever do). Uber does not come with car seats.
Micro-housing isn’t intended for people with children. Many of us who are single don’t have, need, nor want our own personal vehicle. Limited parking is actually desirable to many of us because it discourages people from owning cars.
Why is limited parking desirable to those of you who don’t have, need, or want your own vehicle anyway? What’s it to you, then? Are you wishing to limit the choices of others who may have, need, or want their own vehicle?
This is typical of government interventions in the marketplace – it ends up hurting the have-nots to benefit the haves. NIMBYism, and the government policies that enable it, is a growing worldwide problem. It is a major cause of housing shortages, unaffordability, and ultimately homelessness. If you agree tiny houses should be allowed, vote Libertarian to let innovation happen and markets work to bring down the cost of living! LP.org or JohnsonWeld2016.com.
This article is written by a guy who is part of the problem and the reason he is in this mess. Greedy developers have raced to the finish line to make the maximum profit while building poor-quality, ugly crap and now they whine that they can’t get around zoning laws and restrictions. They’re all saying, “look how high rent is next door. Now I’m going to have to charge that much because my investors aren’t happy with how this is penciling out. And also, I screwed up big time and tried to take advantage of a system before there were any rules hoping we would all walk away rich after we flipped it.” If they had taken a rational approach in the beginning, they wouldn’t be here. No sympathy.
Maybe go back and read the post? They tried to offer cheaper apartments and were shut down. Now the only alternative is to build bigger and more expensive units. They make their money either way, it’s the rest of us that suffer from less housing.
Dean – Dana has a point. The developer banked on the lack of rules. When the rules were defined and were against him the developer started to whine. No sympathy from me neither.
The developer banked on the rules in the place at the time. There was never a “lack of rules” regarding development in Seattle, just a lack of rules outlawing this type of development.
I’m not against micro housing, but Dana states a very simple truth. The developer is still going to make money regardless. His only motive in writing this article is that he genuinely cares about providing affordable housing, and his critiques are apt if you share his point of view.
This isn’t right or wrong, it’s simply people sharing opinions. You are free to assert and believe that every developer is a greedy mcscrooge, but if that’s true why would he expose such anti-affordable housing legislation? The only people losing in this context are those seeking affordable homes.
Most people commenting here have good points, and Dana is absolutely right, but painting this developer as greedy, even if it was true, is a complete non-sequitur.
Apologize, I meant Dean.
When these projects began they were legal. Over the course of development the city changed rules the effectively made micro-apartments illegal and unprofitable.
They weren’t trying to skirt the rules, but were trying to build affordable housing according the rules as they existed.
They’re trying to build enough homes for all the people who live in Seattle. Why are fewer homeless such an issue for you? Less reason to gripe?
I think housing diversity is part of the solution, but focusing solutions for the “Anna”s of our community is a very narrow focus and frankly not a demographic that needs support as much as low income families! Families that often have multiple generations living together. The instability in housing for school age children of color is yet another example of how our system is rigged. That reality in comparison to “Anna”‘s dream of affordable living on Cap. Hill close to coffee shops and night-life illustrates to me how frankly meaningless the “end of micro-housing” in Seattle is.
Actually, finding a place for Anna will help those families. Where does Anna live if not in a microunit? In a 3 bedroom apartment or house that she splits with her friends, a home that could have been occupied by a family. I’ve been this alternate Anna, several times.
Such multi-bedroom homes are very prevalent in places I’ve lived, because fewer and fewer families can afford it, but a few young professionals can.
Build more places for these yuppies, and they’ll be less concentrated in these 3 bedroom units. They prefer to have their own place, but will take over homes if the studios and 1 BRs are too pricey.
Spot on, A.M. Housing economics can be very simple: fewer units means higher rents. Without units that makes sense for them, people with more income will take over units that previously housed people with lower incomes, as these rents increase.
Gotta supply housing at every level, and incentivize developers to build housing at every level.
I’d like to address the parking concerns for a moment…
Requiring that parking be built with housing increases the cost of building housing, causing fewer housing units to be built, and constraining the supply of housing. However, lack of parking incorporated into residences causes overutilization of street parking, effectively pushing a negative externality on the community, increasing consumption of a limited (and unpriced) resource. The solution is to require a permit for parking on the street overnight; the permit fee would also need to be based on what the market can bear, perhaps some style of auction. When a street parking permit costs upwards of (for example) $100/mo, those who are most able to will choose other alternatives (be it purchasing parking in a garage, or switching to shared vehicles).
Here’s a possible model: 3/4ths of all parking spots in a zone would be auctioned to residents on a multi-month basis (and would re-auctioned every 12 months thereafter). 1/8th of the parking spots would be auctioned on a month-to-month basis. 1/16th of the spots would be auctioned on a nightly basis (for guests, etc). This leaves 1/16th of spots un-auctioned, ensuring that parking utilization does not exceed 94%, so vehicle operators should be able to reliably find parking near their homes (assuming a fairly even density of vehicle operators across the zone).
[Also need to address non-residential parking generators, too, such as retail & office. Maybe offer parking permits for specific day-of-week and hour ranges.]
I’m a fan of more housing, but microhousing needs to limit parking among its tenants if it’s to survive, which the parking grievances above demonstrate.
It’s a matter of geometry. A microunit building may have say, 4 curb spaces, yet dozens of units. Microunits, en masse, are grossly incompatible with mass car ownership on a given block.
Meanwhile, non-microunit dwellers, especially single family home owners, moved to the neighbourhood on the assumption that they could park on the same block as their home. There’s an obvious ratio of curb space to cars owned there, so that system approximately works – as long as everyone who can park on the street lives in a house.
Sure, auctioning parking permits will work. But I’m concerned that it will take so much work and irritate the status quo so much that it won’t get implemented.
And, after all, if you’re trying to encourage a more urban car-free lifestyle among microunit dwellers, why are you going to try so hard to protect these dwellers’ right to own a car? Either limit their number of permits to the number of parking spaces available at the building’s curb, or give them no permits at all. Let them park off-street entirely (a la Japan). Is that discriminatory? Sure. But it reflects the fact that microhousing and curb parking for everyone don’t work.
this is a fair compromise. build the housing, don’t issue new street parking permits, this is what berkeley does.
Are there objections to larger, multi-unit, multi-story apartment buildings with built in parking, perhaps on a ground floor or underground? With more units per building (50-100 units), shouldn’t the per-unit cost fall? New clusters of high density housing within walking distance of BART were built in the San Francisco Bay Area over the last ten years. They each house hundreds to thousands of people.
Is there a checklist that other WA cities and counties can use to clear the way for micro-housing?
Too bad. I would have LOVED micro housing multiple times during my life’s arc. Pre-parenthood, while grinding at startups, maybe again when I decide to downsize.
That’s interesting. I wonder how a single person living in a pod transitions to married life? Does s/he date only someone who lives in a house? Or, do two single pod people who want to live together each give up their easy commute and move farther out where the larger, roomier, family-style domeciles are? Then they will have the so-called 2-hour commute or, egad, buy a car?
Re: Parking concerns.
The raison d’être for micro-housing is that is allows market rate development to provide new housing at affordable rents. On-site parking requires about 300 gross square feet per parking stall, which takes up more space than the micro-housing unit itself. While there are many other urbanist and environmental arguments for developing housing without parking, in the specific case of micro-housing, building parking simply defeats the entire value proposition; parking makes dense, affordable housing significantly less dense and less affordable. As a general proposition, our city has matured to a point where parking requirements are a de-facto density limit that prevent us from meeting our growth needs and creating the broad range of housing types needed to meet the housing needs of a complex, diverse city. This is why parking requirements were eliminated in Urban Centers and Urban Villages and why our parking policies should continue to liberalize in the years to come. In the meantime, with a half million street parking spaces, Seattle needs to work on strategies to better price and allocate that street parking and use it efficiently. See: http://www.sightline.org/series/parking-lots/
Regarding general objections to micro-housing on the basis of disliking developers, greed, and profit taking: Market rate housing development is a for-profit endeavor. There’s no point in quibbling about this fact. We live in a country where virtually every good and service is produced by a for-profit endeavor. In a growing city with a regulatory environment that exacerbates housing scarcity, developers can make money by building large expensive housing, small affordable housing, and everything in-between. For that matter they can make money by buying existing buildings and simply watching the rents go up due to the lack of supply. Real estate investors love to put money into cities that have “high barriers to entry” because those policies generate the scarcity that pushes up rents and the value of their investments. If this dynamic doesn’t sit well with you, realize that restrictions on development that prevent housing developers from meeting the demand of the market work to enrich property owners and capital investors in real estate and does great harm to people struggling to maintain a foothold in the city.
It seems to me that approximately 90% of the problem with microapartments is the parking.
How can anyone seriously think none of the people living in microapartments will have a car? Of course people there will have cars, plus people visiting them with cars. In fact, many of the tenants will use the money they save on rent to afford a car. They might even have a luxury car. Some people are weird like that – they’re content to live in a miserable dump so long as they can be seen driving around in style. The idea that 100% of the people in microapartments will choose not to have a car is ludicrous. Even if 10% of them get a car, they take away more than their fair share of parking.
Of course, this is a disaster for the neighborhood. They are living on the cheap (and the developer is getting rich) by polluting the neighborhood with cars while everyone else is paying their fair share for parking. It’s perfectly reasonable for the neighborhood to push back against this. All neighborhoods needs space for residents PLUS space for guests, deliveries, servicers, shoppers, tourists, and many others. NOT just for the cheapskates who think they’re entitled to what is basically a scam on building codes.
There’s one easy solution – make it a felony for anyone who lives in a microapartment to have a car. A year in prison and $100,000 fine will clear up the problem just fine. Then make it a misdemeanor for them to accept a guest who arrives in a car. If they don’t like it, they can pay for a parking space. Problem solved, microapartments abound.
Noted: you would literally rather send one of your fellow citizens to jail for a year than spend an extra 20 minutes a week looking for a parking space or pay for a reserved spot at a garage.
Interesting set of priorities, to put it mildly.
I’m a different John but I get his point. To cram a bunch of people into a small plot of real estate is asking for cars to follow. Has anyone considered that people with cars will sooner or later also seek out these affordable micro-apartments, rent them, and simply park their cars anywhere they can in the neighborhood, displacing a homeowner’s car? We are talking about unconventional people here, these micro-dwellers. I mean, if an unconventional thinker doesn’t mind living in a very small space, what’s it to this person to walk two blocks or more to where s/he parked his/her car? I think it’s a dangerous assumption to think that dropping a people-bomb on a small plot of real estate will not somehow negatively affect parking in surrounding neighborhoods.
Strange that so many people think that parking can be a problem with micro-apartments. Ok, say, me and my friends live in micro-apartments and each of us has a car. If you forbid the microapartments, it’s not exactly like we’ll have money to move into a personal house each – we’ll just rent a 3-bedroom apartment together – and guess what? There would still be three cars parked in front of the same (possibly smaller) space.
Artificial inflation by developers is the worst part of the micro-housing trend. They single-handedly drove up prices that for years stayed relatively steady, hundreds of dollars per month. This affected “Annas” who had a great space and were forced out because their retail job did not supply enough to afford the price gouge. And from experience, I can tell you that $900 a month is most of a retail paycheck in a month’s time. So instead of having a 2 bedroom shared with a roommate where they split rent that was about $1200/month, she’s barely staying afloat after being forced out and has little to no savings due to not being able to find a place to live in the city. This is the entirety of Seattle, not just Capitol Hill.
The micro-housing model is just not sustainable and it’s a deception by people like the author of this article to convince you it is. It costs more to have to move now than it does to stay and try to keep up with the engorged rents, because they’re comparable in all of Seattle.
It is simple greed, but not necessarily the developers. Building management companies are the people with dollar signs in their eyes.
The all comes back to the failure of the capitalist system.
Businesses want to exploit the working class of Seattle? Force them to build affordable housing (min. 500 sq. ft.) for all their workers. Force developers to build this housing as well if they ever want to be considered for government contracts.
But that’s just a temporary fix. Housing with sufficient space for human flourishing is an *absolute right* and is only denied as such by greedy capitalists. Seattle headed in the right direction when they elected an open socialist to the city council a few years back – we the workers who actually make this place run should continue pushing until the entire council sees the wisdom of performing the municipal version of nationalization of all key industries. Only when gov’t owns and builds all the housing and we have stripped the evil profit motive from the equation will we begin to see these problems go away.
I can not fathom the willingness to live like packed sardines.
You folks are tough, no disputing that……..
Call it a rich internal life.. plus gratitude for a solid door that locks behind you, leaving you secure in a space where you can feel safe.
Well, then don’t live that way, but why deny it to those who are ok with it?
In many other parts of the world, this is normal. Japanese, Koreans, people all over Europe, live in small apartments, walk or take public transportation and spend most of their leisure time outside of their homes. Only Americans think the ideal is a huge house with a two car garage, and if you can’t afford that, then screw you, find a roommate, get married, or any of the other ridiculous suggestions by the nay-sayers in these comments. Why not build housing that is affordable and fits in with our modern lifestyles? The reason this type of housing was never needed before was because we were content living in the suburbs and driving big gas guzzling cars into the city. That type of lifestyle is no longer sustainable. Disappointed in Seattle. Let’s see if another progressive city can move this forward.
Hi – Could someone please explain what specifically the 70-7 rule is? Thanks.
I don’t agree that:
Yes, but are you considering the allowable unrelated people that can occupy one unit? What is that figure in Seattle? I was there from ’63 to ’79, relocated to Palo Alto ’79, Sparks, Nevada in ’85 and then Boulder in “87, where Tom Carr, who was the city attorney in Seattle became Boulder’s city attorney about 8 yrs ago. I think the occupancy limit was 8 when he left.