City Hall

City Could Put Moratorium on aPODments

City council member Tom Rasmussen may propose legislation that could halt development of so-called "aPODments," the modern version of boarding houses.

By Erica C. Barnett March 7, 2013

Image via Seattle's Land Use Code.

Learn to trust the Fizz: City council member Tom Rasmussen confirms this morning's caffeinated news and gossip that the council is considering legislation, which he may propose, that could place new restrictions (including, potentially, a moratorium) on so-called "aPODments," a brand name that's now widely used to describe buildings that contain numerous small housing units that surround a central living area and kitchen on each floor. 

The units have been drawing opposition in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Eastlake, where residents are incensed: because they require no land-use review (each floor technically constitutes just one unit, even if it houses several unrelated people, so they're legal under existing code); because they don't typically require on-site parking, and, most importantly; and because they increase density—specifically, density of people like college students and low-income workers, the kind of folks who are frequently charged with diminishing the "character" of Seattle's established neighborhoods. 

Rasmussen—who visited one such development on Capitol Hill and compares its units to "small dorm rooms"—tells PubliCola he understands the "market for smaller units like that," but says that Capitol Hill residents, in particular, have expressed concern about the new developments, and are "feeling like too many are being proposed or developed" and want the council to take a look at "whether they fit in to neighborhoods, and whether or not there should be design review. Some of them look pretty good, some of them not so much." 

"In the case of aPodments, they are putting in place something that we want, which is density in places that are zoned for density"—Richard Conlin

If the council did propose a moratorium—and Rasmussen makes it clear that he's still polling his colleagues on that question—"it would be to give us some breathing room" to develop design and land use regulations for aPodments "and [to say] that it may be good to not issue permits any more until those guidelines are in place."

A moratorium would require the council to adopt "emergency" legislation, along the lines of the bill they adopted last September temporarily banning new small houses on so-called "substandard" lots in single-family neighborhoods.

Council land use committee chair Richard Conlin, who sponsored the substandard-lot moratorium, said he does not support a moratorium on aPodments. "The difference between this and the small-lot issue is that with small lots, people were taking advantage of something that was never intended to be a buildable lot. ... In the case of aPodments, they are putting in place something that we want, which is density in places that are zoned for density."  

On that subject, Rasmussen says, "We shouldn't increase density for density's sake. It has to be for a good purpose and have positive result." 

It's far from clear that Rasmussen will have the votes if he proposes a moratorium. Council member Tim Burgess says, "I'll wait to see what the specifics are, but I sure am reading all the e-mails from a lot of people who are very concerned about it."

When we asked Mayor Mike McGinn what he thought about aPodments, he gave this equivocal response: "One of the things people complain about is that they’re surprised by them, and that’s a fair concern when somebody doesn’t realize what is going to happen in their neighborhood and they’re surprised.

"So we need to take a look at it. The flip side is that we’ve built a lot of very affordable units. They’re selling out. We’ve got so many jobs coming to our city right now, if we don’t come up with a strategy to create more housing, both subsidized and market rate, we’re going to price everybody out."

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