Eastlake Residents Oppose New Micro-Housing

By Erica C. Barnett July 25, 2012

If you've walked around Eastlake or Capitol Hill lately, you've probably noticed the big green signs taped to light poles and trees throughout the area: "39 New Residents! NO NEW PARKING! No Neighborhood Review. No Neighborhood Input. No Land Use Planning Sign."

The project, at 2731 Eastlake, the flyer continues, is "GREAT FOR DEVELOPERS. Easy for the Department of Planning and Development, only the new and current RESIDENTS SUFFER."

(Nearly identical flyers also appeared recently objecting to a "living building" pilot project, supported by the city council, that will give developers incentives to reduce the amount of energy and water their buildings consume.)

The project that has incensded neighborhood activists---primarily the Eastlake Community Council and its president, Chris Leman---is a five-unit building being developed by multifamily developer Kelten Johnson.

This isn't just any five-unit building, however. It's a relatively new style of apartment building that's becoming popular among low-income workers, college students, and people who just want to save on rent. Each "unit" takes up an entire floor of the five-story building, and consists of seven or eight separate living areas (each with a bedroom, ranging from 100 to 200 square feet) that connect to a central kitchen and living area.

Known colloquially as "aPodments" (after the trademarked name of a similar development next to the University of Washington), the units are technically known as boarding houses, and they're perfectly legal in dense urban areas near frequent transit service.

As the outraged flyers indicate, they don't require any formal notice or neighborhood input, and they don't have to go through the kind of strict land use review applied to "congregate housing," in which more than eight unrelated people live together.

"There's a lot of need for much more thoughtful rules and regulations on these things," Eastlake Community Council president Leman says. "For growth to be sustainable, it has to be something which people feel a part of and not something imposed on them."

The Eastlake opponents acknowledge that the units are legal, but that doesn't mean they're happy about their new neighbors. In a letter to DPD director Diane Sugimura last month, the Eastlake Community Council cited concerns about parking (because the project is near frequent transit service and in an urban village, the developer is not required to build any parking for the building), design (the plans involve demolishing a 100-year-old Craftsman house that was foreclosed and has been vacant since last year), building height (at 44 feet, the apartments will be four feet higher than the underlying zoning would ordinarily allow) and, perhaps most saliently, the number (and, tacitly, type) of new residents the development will bring to the neighborhood.

"At  43 occupants, the proposed project would greatly exceed the density of any other building in the Eastlake neighborhood," the letter says.

Delight Roberts, an Eastlake resident who opposes the project, says she finds it "outrageous" that neighborhood residents can't comment on the development. And she argues that the developer is taking advantage of low-income people who feel they have no other choice than to live with six or seven unrelated roommates. "That this is marketed to those who can't afford anything else is along the same business model as payday lending or selling fresh fruit in a food desert--people will pay $3 for a banana if they have no other choice, and people will pay $500 to live in a tiny shared space if they have no other choice."

DPD sees it differently. According to DPD spokesman Bryan Stevens, boarding houses like the one on Eastlake give people flexibility to live in the city, near their school or job, without paying exorbitant rent or needing to own a car. "There have been some concerns about the type of tenants who will rent there, but it's entirely dictated by the market," says Stevens, who likens living in a boarding house to renting out a room in a single-family home.

As for the developer, Kelten Johnson, he says his goal is to offer "an efficient, clean, safe and affordable housing alternative to Seattle students and the workforce community" at prices ranging between $500 and $600 a month. "Though the new normal is yet to be known when it comes to multifamily housing, all indicators are that affordability, transportation, urbanization, and sustainability will drive the decision making of tomorrow's renters."

It's clear, though, that boarding houses, microhousing, aPodments, or whatever you want to call them, aren't going away. Stevens says DPD has issued permits for five or six similar developments already, and has 10 or 12 more in the pipeline.
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