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.