MICROUNIT DEVELOPMENTS AKA “APODMENTS”



Alturra aPodment Suites (photo from www.apodments.com)

The first “micro-unit” development, sometimes known as “aPodments” (which is actually one developer’s trademarked term) was constructed several years ago. In the last few months there have been a number of others built, many on Capitol Hill, but in a few other areas of the City as well, such as the University District. 

“Micro-unit” developments consist of very small dwellings, similar in size to a hotel room, which usually have private bathrooms and perhaps a mini-refrigerator and microwave. Seven or eight of these small efficiencies are grouped around a full kitchen/dining area. Since a housing unit is defined by the presence of a kitchen, this means that they are defined as a single unit. Many of these developments have been built in areas that are exempt from minimum parking requirements, and usually few parking stalls are included in the building.

The small rooms provide affordable housing (without using City housing levy or federal dollars), are very popular and are often leased out before the building is even finished. They are typically occupied by students or other people with limited resources and minimal housing needs, short-term residents, or persons who may have a larger residence in another City but use these when they are working in Seattle. Many of these residents do not bring cars to the development. However, the development type does not fit neatly into Seattle’s land use code, and occupies a gray area that raises some questions.

Seattle’s zoning code regulates the size of buildings in specific zones, and micro-unit developments must meet those aspects of the code. But other elements, such as requirements to engage in design review, are based on the number of units in a building, and, as noted above, unit is defined as the presence of a kitchen. A typical apartment building will include studios and one or two bedroom units, each with a kitchen, meaning that the number of bedrooms corresponds fairly closely with the number of units, although there are no specific limits on the number of bedrooms allowed in a housing unit. A micro-unit building, on the other hand, may have, say, 56 bedrooms around 7 kitchens. Since a housing unit, in the Seattle code, may house as many as 8 unrelated individuals, this is a legally permitted situation.

Design review is generally required for buildings that have more than 8 dwelling units in Lowrise zoned areas, or more than 4 units in Neighborhood Commercial. Most of the more traditional apartment buildings are required to go through design review based on the number of units, but a micro-unit building with the same bulk, mass, and height is usually below the unit threshold. Intuitively, this does not seem fair.

However, the issues I’ve heard have been mostly focused on density of tenants, impact on property values, lack of notification to the neighbors, and parking. Design issues seem to be secondary.

Thresholds for review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) are 20 units in most multi-family zoned areas, creating the potential for a similar situation, although the impacts of buildings in this size range are generally pretty minimal and SEPA review rarely results in significant mitigation requirements.

The Council has been monitoring these developments over time, as has the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). As with many developments, concerns are often raised by neighbors when these buildings are going through the permit process and under construction. However, these complaints seem to die down after the project is completed, and the oldest micro-unit building, on 23rd Avenue near Madison, has been operating for years without generating any complaints that I am aware of.

Nonetheless the Capitol Hill Community Council has become alarmed by the increasing number of micro-unit buildings on Capitol Hill, and has asked that the Council put a moratorium on further construction until we can write code language that regulates them.

I agree that we should look at whether some redefinition is needed in order to treat the micro-unit buildings the same as a comparably sized apartment building for SEPA and Design Review purposes. 

However, there are some challenges to writing code that will actually work without causing problems in other areas. It would be perfectly legal to construct a building with 8-bedroom apartments; the only difference between this structure and a micro-unit structure would be presumably the degree of privacy the rooms afford – sharing a unit with roommates versus individuals living in separate “bedrooms” and only sharing a common kitchen and common hallways. Reducing the number of unrelated individuals who can live in a unit below the current 8 is problematic, limiting the opportunities for shared housing and efficient use of dwellings. Similarly, redefining ‘unit’ to be based around a bedroom rather than the kitchen/shared area would cause even more difficult problems:  would a three-bedroom apartment now count as 3 units? Builders are now constructing smaller ‘traditional’ apartments, so size may not be a good approach either.

Perhaps the most promising option would be to define both SEPA and design review thresholds in terms of the square footage of the building rather than the number of units (as it is currently defined for commercial buildings). However, this must be carefully evaluated to ensure that it is legal under State law and does not create other unintended consequences.

This may not fully address the Capitol Hill issues, however.  Many of the concerns we heard had to do with new buildings housing large numbers of residents where there had been a single family home, and decreased property values for adjacent single family homes. About half of the projects on Capitol Hill are being proposed in Midrise and Neighborhood Commercial zones, where these are not problems. Others are being built in areas that have been zoned multi-family for decades, but still have large numbers of single family houses. An apartment building could be constructed at any time in these areas, and, while a micro-unit building may house somewhat more residents than a comparably sized apartment building, it is not clear that the impacts are greater.

A moratorium does not, therefore, seem to be warranted. On the contrary, generally there seems to be no reason to discourage these developments:  the units are habitable and are filling a need in the housing market. The number of units in these buildings is not a regulatory issue, as underlying zoning regulates bulk, height, and other building parameters. The buildings are not any different from an apartment building that could be built in the same zone. The only exception might be where there are requirements for specific numbers of parking spaces per unit, but usually micro-units are being built in areas that do not have parking requirements.

There is a significant amount of research that is needed to design any specific code provisions that would be helpful in regulating these buildings, and to ensure that these developments are treated consistently with how other projects would be treated that have similar numbers of dwelling spaces but different unit counts. DPD will consider whether there should be a specific code section relating to them, and will do further research as to whether there are design standards or design review requirements that should be met depending on the size/impact of specific buildings.

We will continue to monitor micro-unit developments to see if there are issues that are of concern, but the design issues do not seem to be a major problem, and most of what we have heard from Capitol Hill seem to be related to the underlying zoning that permits multi-family buildings rather than to micro-unit buildings themselves.

Comments

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Comment from movers
Time January 18, 2013 at 5:47 am

DPD will consider whether there should be a specific code section relating to them, and will do further research as to whether there are design standards or design review requirements that should be met depending on the size/impact of specific buildings.

Comment from Leif Espelund
Time January 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm

These developments should be allowed all over the city. Let the market decide if people want to live in them or not. More affordable housing that doesn’t require public subsidy: yes please.

Comment from Neale
Time January 19, 2013 at 10:18 am

What you did not mention was that The City of Bellevue tried to get rid of congregate group homes for developmentally disabled adults some years ago on the basis of too many unrelated adults living in a home in a single-family neighborhood. They went all the way to the SCOTUS and lost. That is where the 8, unrelated adult limit became the lowest limit cities could enact. Since that time Fair Housing Law (both legislative and common law) on familial status and disability have likely made that even more problematic.

Comment from Kathryn Maly
Time January 20, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Please look at the Seattle Department of Planning and Development’s booklet “Design Evolution of Avenida Apodments” and then tell me which Apodment design you would like as a neighbor. Design review is a VERY important part of the neighborhood process and all developers of apartment-sized buildings ought to be held to this process, otherwise the city is incentivizing Apodment developers by allowing them to skip design and SEPA review.

http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cms/groups/pan/@pan/@plan/@drp/documents/web_informational/dpdp019303.pdf

“Architectural design is an iterative process. Critique and review of proposed designs by peers has a long history in architecture and urban design. This booklet demonstrates the design review process in Seattle. It shows the evolution of the design of Congregate Housing in the University District as a result of a series of three reviews by the city’s Northeast Design Review Board.”

Capitol Hill residents want to engage in this process with our design review board, just as the residents of the University District worked with the Northeast board to improve the design of this Apodment project.

Let’s stick to the process. It is time to close these loopholes!

Comment from Carl Winter
Time January 21, 2013 at 11:55 am

Council Member Conlin,

As you state in your defense of these buildings, unit count in these projects is based on the presence of a kitchen. However per Director’s Rule 7-83 units in Seattle Building Code are also defined by the writing of separate leases and having individual locked entrances, not to mention line d, and f of that same rule. The main problem with these projects is that the Building and Land Use Code are being manipulated to allow their construction and more importantly to allow developers to misrepresent the amount of units these buildings contain so that Design Review and Environmental Review are circumvented. In doing this, neighborhood input and a state law are completely removed from the development process of these buildings.

There is no consistency with which building code is applied to these buildings. Please take a closer look at the different names: triplex, duplex, congregate housing or boarding house that the developers are using for these buildings in the permitting process. Or, how developers change that name, and therefore the definition of what they are building, and in some cases the actual unit count of what they are building, to satisfy requirements of different regulatory bodies such as Housing and DPD and you will see what I mean. Developers should not be allowed to have it both ways. You and the DPD can no longer claim ignorance to what is going on here; which is the disregard of written Building and Land Use Code. Citizens of this city have figured out what is going on, are concerned about it, and are sharing what we have found. This is no way to develop a city. Why bother having Land Use Zoning or Building Codes at all?

You make the claim that this is an issue for Capitol Hill. I have to ask, why exclude the other neighborhoods such as Eastlake, Fremont, Wallingford and Ballard where there is also concern about these types of buildings and the broken process that is allowing them to be built?

Thank you for providing a forum to discuss this important issue. I look forward to seeing my response to your essay published in full.

Sincerely,

Carl Winter
Reasonable Density Seattle

Comment from erie jones
Time January 22, 2013 at 11:37 am

1) “About half of the projects on Capitol Hill are being proposed in Midrise and Neighborhood Commercial zones, where these are not problems” – your response to decreased values. Of course it is a problem. It feels rather dismissive that one would say this.
2) Your whole argument seems to revolve around the idea that these are needed, they’re not a problem, and that it’s hard to make changes in the language.
In response, consistency in process will not prevent these structures from being built – they WILL be built. Also I feel that these ARE potentially useful additions to neighborhoods, let’s do it right and deliberately, as San Francisco does.
Further, the city is rapidly burning up any good will that it may have with neighborhoods.
My job as a teacher is hard and also takes much research, that does not stop me from doing it.
3) The city is in effect subsidizing these structures, so it’s not really a free market issue.
4) Why WOULDN’T one want consistency in design review and neighborhood input process? It defies logic.

thank you

Comment from 15 passenger van
Time January 23, 2013 at 12:22 pm

This is no way to develop a city. Why bother having Land Use Zoning or Building Codes at all?

Comment from Jeffrey Cook
Time January 23, 2013 at 6:01 pm

The notion that these congregate housing units qualify as “affordable housing” is misguided. These types of apartments are NOT part of some certified affordable housing project; they are hastily built rentals that are bringing quick profits to developers and overinflating the rental cost in the market. Charging about $5.50 per sq. ft is roughly TWICE the cost of renting an average apartment, and why would landlords of standard apartments charge less when the market costs have just doubled? Further, there is no reason why the rents of these places won’t go up in the future. Again, they are NOT part of a certified affordable housing program and have no standards or restrictions to adhere to. The notion that these types of structures should be built anywhere in the city is also ludicrous. Wedging 50 units into a street that formerly just had single family homes is a selfish and inconsiderate way to develop a city and will only serve to foster resentment and frustration among neighbors on a particular street.

Comment from Matthew Antonellis
Time January 24, 2013 at 10:36 am

Mr. Conlin quote from above: “The only exception might be where there are requirements for specific numbers of parking spaces per unit, but usually micro-units are being built in areas that do not have parking requirements.”

FALSE! – NOT TRUE! – MISLEADING!

Look at these TWO micro-unit boarding houses (the first is finished and inhabited, the second is being constructed now)

315 10th Ave., 98122 ( PERMIT # 6281021 ) permit says “5 UNITS” and the reality is 40 micro apartments. No on-site parking required.

220 10th Ave., 98122 ( PERMIT # 6300784 ) permit says “20 UNITS” and the reality is 100 micro apartments. No on-site parking required.

These two apartments are located in the heavily impacted Residential Parking Permit Zone #7. The city council and DPD allow HUGE cost-saving loopholes for the developers NOT to provide on-site parking, based on the assumption that these new tenants are walking/bicycling to work/school, or using public transportation within 1000 feet of this address. HOWEVER, in fact, and documented: a significant number of these tenants are being issued Zone 7 Parking Permits for the cars they bring to these new buildings. If developers are going to avoid their responsibility to provide on-site parking; a loophole that city council has granted based on reasonable logic (certified GREEN building design and modern urban planning) – – – then, THE CITY SHOULD NOT ISSUE PARKING PERMITS AT THESE ADDRESSES ! ! !

Comment from Matthew Antonellis
Time January 24, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Mr. Conlin quote from above: “The only exception might be where there are requirements for specific numbers of parking spaces per unit, but usually micro-units are being built in areas that do not have parking requirements.”

FALSE! – NOT TRUE! – MISLEADING!

Look at these TWO micro-unit boarding houses (the first is finished and inhabited, the second is being constructed now)

315 10th Ave., 98122 ( PERMIT # 6281021 ) permit says “5 UNITS” and the reality is 40 micro apartments. No on-site parking required.

220 10th Ave., 98122 ( PERMIT # 6300784 ) permit says “20 UNITS” and the reality is 100 micro apartments. No on-site parking required.

These two apartments are located in the heavily impacted Residential Parking Permit Zone #7. The city council and DPD allow HUGE cost-saving loopholes for the developers NOT to provide on-site parking, based on the assumption that these new tenants are walking/bicycling to work/school, or using public transportation within 1000 feet of this address. HOWEVER, in fact, and documented: a significant number of these tenants are being issued Zone 7 Parking Permits for the cars they bring to these new buildings.

If developers are going to avoid their responsibility to provide on-site parking; a loophole that city council has granted based on reasonable thinking (i.e., certified GREEN building design and modern urban planning). As part of this arrangement, THE CITY SHOULD NOT ISSUE PARKING PERMITS TO PEOPLE AT THESE ADDRESSES ! These buildings are allowed to be constructed without on-site parking based on the assumption that the tenants are a new breed of car-less commuters. It wouldn’t be an infringement on a tenant’s right to own a car. Sure, they can own a car. They just won’t have a right to be issued Residential Parking Permits.

The solution is SIMPLE! Allow greater population density in our neighborhoods. But don’t ignore the impact of parking on our streets. Build more boarding houses/micro-apartments. Great! But try to find some balance – something to offset the impact. In my specific case, STOP ISSUING RESIDENTIAL PARKING PERMITS at these addresses.

Comment from Jules James
Time January 28, 2013 at 12:12 am

Count Units Properly. Eight independent living units attached to one fake kitchen are eight units by every counting but Jim Potter’s slither through our zoning code. Whether Apodments are ultimately good or bad is irrelevant. The stench of impropriety undermines our confidence in our City Hall.

Comment from YIMBY
Time January 30, 2013 at 1:11 am

Council Member Conlin,

You have happily surprised me! I applaud you. Thank you for a level-headed and reasoned take and not caving to the usual build-absolutely-nothing-anywhere-near-anything suspects on the issue.

I work in non-profit affordable housing development and we in the industry know that public subsidies alone can’t meet the need. There needs to be a way for private developers to directly contribute by producing new affordable housing in the city without public subsidies. These developers have found one way that works and I am glad you are not rushing to shut it down.

Thank you.

p.s. While some will continue to scream at the top of their lungs in public hearing rooms to end this form of affordable housing, please remember that absent from those rooms will be the voices of those priced out of the city.

p.p.s. With the inventory these apartments are creating for individuals, perhaps the city could even soon refocus its subsidies on two or three bedroom homes so that the younger people in these apartments aren’t immediately priced out of the city the day they decide to have children.

Comment from Ron Sandahl
Time February 22, 2013 at 5:23 pm

What on Earth is the Council doing? This is the fourth issue in about a year where the City Council has taken a harshly Pro-Developer stance on a frankly scummy issue that decidedly effects the citizens of Seattle badly. One is beginning to wonder whether or not the Council is receiving large sacks of money from these folks to throw Seattlites and our livability under the bus. There is absolutely no justification for allowing Developers to game the building codes with these disastrous and shameful tactics. It is not “up for debate.” It is not an “issue with many sides.” It is about lying, deceit and shameful practices condoned by the Council. I will tell you now that I have been hearing loud and clear from those living in Developer Ground Zero (i.e. Capitol Hill) that we are tire of it and that we will remember when elections come again. Several friends are looking into the requirements to recall City Council members for gross negligence of their duties. FIX THIS AND START WORKING FOR THE CITIZENS OF THIS CITY RATHER THAN THE DEVELOPERS!!!

Comment from Ron Sandahl
Time February 23, 2013 at 4:44 pm

What on Earth is the Council doing? This is the fourth issue in about a year where the City Council has taken a harshly Pro-Developer stance on a frankly shocking issue that decidedly effects the citizens of Seattle badly. One is beginning to wonder whether the Council is receiving some type of inducement from the Developers to work against the citizens of Seattle. There is absolutely no justification for allowing Developers to game the building codes with these disastrous and shameful tactics. It is not “up for debate.” It is not an “issue with many sides.” It is about lack of truth, deceit and shameful practices condoned by the Council. I will tell you now that I have been hearing loud and clear from those living in Developer Ground Zero (i.e. Capitol Hill) that we are tire of it and that we will remember when elections come again. Our expectation is that the Seattle City Council will look out for the Citizens of Seattle, NOT work against them to the advantage of Developers.

This is the second time that I have posted info here, and I hope is is not deleted again.

Comment from ian
Time April 23, 2013 at 7:37 pm

The governing rules or any legislation for this matter, IMO, should be balanced with the residing public in general. As long as the basic concerns are addressed by the gov, then this should not pose any problem. population density may raise a problem if sanitation and other related elements are not address. but the greater good of establishing this micro structures for students should be sufficient to bend certain legislations

Comment from steve
Time September 17, 2013 at 4:32 pm

This is great for developers. Transient, three month lease “housing” like this will destroy neighborhoods. It is nice that the out of town developers have such hearty representation on our city council…..

Comment from david smukowski
Time October 15, 2013 at 5:03 pm

if it walks like a tenement, looks like a tenement and smells like a tenement, it’s a tenement. Most cities are tearing them down (ie Buenos Aires and Mumbai). Is the city interested in people?