City Shoots Down Microhousing Complaint
The city's hearing examiner rejects a complaint alleging that microhousing, commonly known as "aPodments," violates state environmental rules.
Dennis Saxman, a Capitol Hill resident who frequently speaks out at neighborhood and city-sponsored meetings opposing development, particularly large-scale development, has lost his appeal of rules that will govern the city's regulation of so-called microhousing, or aPodments—an appeal that may, ironically, have allowed more aPodments to move forward while it was under consideration.
Saxman, along with other complainants including the City Neighborhood Council's Chris Leman, argued in a complaint to the city hearing examiner that the city's environmental review process didn't adequately consider all the potential environmental impacts of allowing microhousing in low-rise, multifamily areas of the city, such as too many people looking for parking, increased crime from all the new residents (whose criminal nature is apparently predictable by virtue of their desire to live in small, affordable apartments), harm to "birds and other animals," and increased bike traffic.
His basic claim, though, was that the new rules would violate environmental review rules under the State Environmental Policy Act. Yesterday the hearing examiner upheld the Department of Planning and Development's "determination of non-significance" under SEPA, the final ruling at the city level (although Saxman could appeal the hearing examiner's ruling to the state).
Neighborhood activists like Saxman oppose microhousing on the grounds that it brings too many new residents into largely single-family neighborhoods; that it creates parking problems; and that the residents themselves present a public-safety issue, among other objections.
Currently, city rules allow as many as eight unrelated people to live in a single "unit" of housing. The debate around microhousing has revolved around the definition of a housing "unit": Existing rules allow eight microunits to constitute a single unit as long as they share a common kitchen area. This designation, which opponents consider a loophole in the zoning code, has allowed developers to build small (sometimes 200-square-foot) studios, with kitchenettes and bathrooms, clustered around a common full kitchen area.
Saxman and other microhousing opponents say the new rules don't go far enough, writing in their appeal that they "object to the DPD's audacious disregard of the requirements of SEPA and the policy that informs SEPA. Its conclusion that the 2,842 units created by the existing, under construction, and proposed micro-housing projects" (a number DPD disputes), and proposed micro-housing projects will have no significant environmental impct ... would be laughble, did it not have such tragic consequences for Seattle's natural and built environments."
Ironically, the new rules, if adopted, will actually make it harder to build micro-apartments, by requiring them to go through the design review process (from which they're currently exempt), by explicitly prohibiting them in single-family zones of the city, by establishing a clear definition for "micro-housing," and by mandating adequately sized kitchens and common areas (a frequent complaint neighbors have about the buildings). The new rules would also increase the number of bike parking spaces required per unit.
Or, in the words of the city Department of Planning and Development's closing statement: "The proposed legislation clearly improves regulation ... and does not create further regulatory issues as appellants suggest." With regard to the supposed public-safety impacts of microhousing, DPD writes in its response, "to equate impacts under current Codes with impacts that may occur as a result of the proposed legislation is a colossal red herring." They may also require some parking (currently, microhousing isn't subject to any minimum parking requirements). According to the city, about a third of micro-housing tenants have cars.
Finally, their statement notes, existing regulations already require "numerous and redundant life safety systems," including sprinklers, fire and smoke alarms, and fire walls.
"There is no information in the record to support a conclusion that the proposed legislation will lead to greater emphasis on development of micro-units ... than is already occurring," DPD concludes.
In her ruling, city hearing examiner Sue Tanner rejected nearly a dozen of Saxman's and his fellow complainants' allegations, writing, "The evidence fails to show that the proposed legislation would spur new development of micro-housing or congregate residences, compared with what occurs under existing regulation of micro-housing. Clearly, the Appellants fear that this will occur but the record does not demonstrate that this impact would likely occur. If anything, as DPD notes, it would seem more likely that the proposal's addition of new requirements, such as design review for certain projects which are currently not required to undergo design review, ... would tend to discourage new development."
A further irony: As we noted late last year (in the story linked above), Saxman's appeal actually delayed the city council's adoption of the new regulations—allowing micro-housing to continue developing small units under the less-stringent rules that are currently in play.
We have a call out to the Department of Planning and Development to find out how many micro-housing developments have been permitted since Saxman filed his complaint back in October.
Saxman has not returned a call for comment.
All the documents in the case are available at the hearing examiner's web site.