City Hall

Mike O'Brien Details Pending aPodment Legislation

City council member Mike O'Brien outlines upcoming proposal to regulate microhousing, AKA aPodments.

By Erica C. Barnett July 18, 2014

City Council member Mike O'Brien's microhousing stakeholder committee met for the final time last night without reaching agreement about what kind of microhousing regulations both sides—developers (who support microhousing) and neighborhood activists (who oppose it)—can live with. 

That's hardly surprising, given the philosophical gulf between the two sides. Microhousing proponents argue that new regulations on microhousing (proposals have included mandatory minimum apartment sizes, minimum parking requirements, and a new rule dictating that each tiny unit have two sinks, one in the kitchen and one in the bathroom) will make the small, affordable units financially untenable for developers.

(They also note that the proposals are super micro-manage-ey for Free-to-Be-You-and-Me Seattle.)

Opponents, meanwhile, say the small units are inhumane (one compared them to "rabbit hutches"), will lead to public-safety, trash, and parking problems, and will bring too many people into neighborhoods that aren't accustomed to dense development.

"Their concern is how many people are in their neighborhood," O'Brien tells PubliCola. "I think for a lot of people, it’s the fact that there used to be five people living there, and now there’s 100, and it just feels wrong."

O'Brien is still trying to broker a compromise between the two sides; so far, they seem to only agree (in the developers' case, reluctantly) that microapartments should go through design review, a process that gives neighbors notice that a development is coming and an opportunity to air their design-related concerns.

In a conversation with PubliCola today, O'Brien outlined a few details of what he considers a reasonable starting proposal—and a few proposals he plans to leave off the table.O'Brien says he's open to the idea of limiting the number of residential parking permits for microhousing residents, perhaps to one permit per four residents.

Currently, the buildings people think of as microapartments are actually either congregate housing (group housing developments with multiple sleeping rooms) or townhouses (technically, each floor of a microhousing building has been considered a single unit, with up to eight individual residents living in divvied up apartments on the floor).

O'Brien's proposal would limit true congregate housing, which is more like a dorm, to high-density parts of the city, and perhaps only to the densest areas, urban centers and hub urban villages. That would limit congregate buildings to places like the U District, which is already full of big apartment buildings, and keep them out of places like the Morgan Junction, where O'Brien says a big congregate housing development might not be an appropriate fit. 

More importantly for those following the microhousing debate, O'Brien's proposal would eliminate the townhouse distinction, reclassifying microapartments as small studio or efficiency apartments—eliminating the weird limbo area of land use where they currently reside. "They would actually just be apartments, and they'd be really small," O'Brien says. 

How small? With neighbors clamoring for minimum apartment sizes, O'Brien seems open to the idea of some kind of average size limit (though not a firm per-unit limit) based on the requirements the city set for efficiency apartments back in the '90s: At least 150 square feet of contiguous living space, not counting things like counters, bathrooms, or closets. That ends up working out to a minimum of about 220 square feet—a mandate O'Brien says a building could meet by including bigger units on the more desirable upper floors, and smaller, cheaper units closer to ground level. 

"The community [i.e., the anti-microhousing neighbors] wants 220," O'Brien says. On the other hand, at last night's meeting, "a woman [on the committee] who lives in a 180-square-foot apartment made a compelling case that 'I just don't want more space.'"

By the way, the city of Seattle lobbied against a microhousing bill in Olympia last session from conservative Southwest Washington Democratic state Rep. Brian Blake (D-19, Pacific and Wahkiakum Counties, Aberdeen, Longview, and Kelso) that would have prohibited cities from requiring "minimum room area or floor area square footage for single-family residential buildings."

One thing that's off the table, for the moment, is parking requirements: O'Brien says he doesn't support imposing parking minimums on microhousing that don't apply to other developments in the same neighborhoods—a green urbanist position. 

However, O'Brien does say he's open to the idea of limiting the number of residential parking permits (which allow residents of a neighborhood to park in that neighborhood for longer than the posted parking hours) for microhousing residents, perhaps to one permit per four residents.

We're certainly not advocating for cars, nor do we think (based on the evidence from microhousing so far) that microhousing renters are likely to own them. That said: Limiting RPZs for micro residents only would create a two-tiered permit structure in which other apartment residents (including residents of apartments just a little bit larger than micros) would have the right to buy one permit per residence, while three out of four micro dwellers would be ineligible to pay for the same privilege. 

Less ambiguously off the table: A proposal that would have required sinks in all bathrooms (every microhousing kitchen already has a sink, and proponents argued that it makes little sense to mandate two sinks for a 200-square-foot studio), and a proposal that all microapartments be required to have a closet. 

O'Brien (who says public meetings on the issue tend to be dominated by opponents—which makes some sense, given that it's harder for the lower-income folks and students who tend to live in microhousing to show up at a 2pm city council committee hearing) says he's sympathetic to both sides of the issue. 

"You can see how someone would say, it can’t be of their own choice—someone must be forcing them to do that," O'Brien says. "But if someone chooses of their own volition to say, 'I don’t want to spend more money on housing, I want to spend my money elsewhere,' we ought to respect that person’s choice.

"But," he adds, "we ought to also consider people’s concerns about more density in [their] neighborhood."


Show Comments