Microhousing Gets a Break:O’Brien to Convene Stakeholders

More details will emerge soon, but the good news is that the microhousing legislation proposed by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is on hold. Instead, Councilmember Mike O’Brien is going to convene a group of stakeholders to work toward codifying microhousing. O’Brien is showing real leadership here and it won’t be easy. Our view is that microhousing works and that we should be celebrating it as market based solution to addressing housing demand for people who must or want to spend less. Others simply want to end microhousing.

The legislation produced by DPD was deeply flawed and was written in an effort to try and outsmart people trying to build microhousing. But as we saw with small-lot legislation, such efforts almost always have really negative consequences. Fewer rules are better when it comes to housing. I’ve included below thoughts from David Neiman on behalf of CORA Northwest,The Northwest Chapter of the Congress of Residential Architects.

We largely agree with his comments. We will also be urging that the stakeholder group address problems with design review, a costly process nobody is happy with, before imposing it on microhousing.

6/2/2014 Notes on Issue ID for Micro-Apartments

1. Design and layout of micro-housing units

Should the micro-housing units developed in Seattle continue to take the form of up to eight sleeping rooms surrounding a common kitchen, as proposed in CB 118067, or should other layout options be considered?

  • The ratio of eight rooms per one kitchen is an artifact of the code work-around that created micro-housing. The optimum ratio would naturally vary project to project depending on the demographic of the users and the particular market being served. Having one set of required ratios for micro-housing and no required ratio for congregate housing creates a level of complexity in the code. It is unclear what purpose is served by this complexity.
  • Recommendation: Study if there is a need to distinguish micro-housing from congregate housing with distinct requirements for the two types. Could they simply be considered congregate housing? Retain the micro housing distinction only to the degree that it simplifies the issues.

2. Development standards for congregate residences

Should congregate residence projects not associated with a major institution (e.g., a college dorm) or a special needs housing provider be regulated differently than those that are?

  •  Generally speaking, land use & zoning legislation should strive to be simple and create differing rules only when strictly necessary. It is unclear what purpose separate rules for institutions would serve?
  • Recommendation: See above.

3. Minimum size requirements for sleeping rooms

CB 118067 would not establish a minimum size requirement for sleeping rooms in micro-housing and congregate residence projects. Is such a requirement needed? If so, what size options should the PLUS Committee consider?

  • The land use code should not impose unit minimum sizes. The building code already has minimum standards that address basic issues of sanitation, health, and safety. Basic ergonomics and the marketplace seem to be producing housing that works quite well.
  • The IRC R304 sets these standards as 1 room with at least 120 sf and all other habitable rooms as min. 70 sf.CORA Northwest

4. Common area requirements

CB 118067 would require common kitchen areas in micro-housing projects to measure at least 120 square feet in area. In congregate residences, at least one on-site common kitchen would be required and the total amount of communal area provided, including the common kitchen space, would have to be equivalent in size to at least 10 percent of the total floor area of all the sleeping rooms in the project. Should alternative measures or features of common areas be considered?

  • Most micros are walk-up facilities without elevators. For buildings without elevator service, all commons must be on the ground floor where they are accessible to all residents. In a typical micro, much of the ground floor is already taken up by accessible units, which are of a code prescribed quantity. If the % of required common area is set too high, the accessible units plus the commons will not fit on the ground floor. This will be a de-facto requirement to have an elevator in the building. This would in turn, radically change the basic economics of micro housing.
  • Common areas make for micro-housing that is more desirable and more livable. However, depending on the location, the level of amenities available nearby, and the demographic living in the housing, common areas may be more or less desirable or necessary. It would be quite difficult to pick a single number that would be appropriate.
  • Recommendation: Do not create a % minimum communal space requirement specifically for micros. If there is to be a requirement, it should be applied to all forms of apartments.

5. Required kitchen components

Which kitchen components should be located in micro-housing and/or congregate residence sleeping rooms and which should be relegated to common areas?

  • It is unclear what public interest that is served by this issue. If there is a market and a need for highly functional rooms with food prep areas and complete bathrooms, a resident should be able to have them. If there is a market and a need for basic facilities with simple sleeping rooms and shared baths and kitchens, a resident should be able to have them. Each type of facility, and every increment in between would be a valid solution to the needs of a given demographic.
  • Recommendation: Do not create a requirement for minimum or maximum amenities with in the sleeping rooms of a micro. If there is a compelling reason to prevent a micro from having the full functionality of a studio apartment, DPD should use the standard for ADU’s in other jurisdictions – i.e., no range is allowed.


6. Sink placement requirements

How should the City regulate the number and location of sinks installed in sleeping rooms and en suite private bathrooms in micro-housing and/or congregate residence projects?

  • On one hand, citizen groups have asked the city to prescribe a minimum number of sinks for a sleeping room. One the other hand, DPD has proposed (and is currently enforcing) a requirement to have sinks only in the bathroom. Both of these ideas represent regulation that is highly prescriptive in a way that is not done for any other form of housing.
  • Requiring sinks in the bathrooms and the sleeping room increases costs and unit size in a way that makes the smallest and most affordable units a little larger and less affordable.
  • Prohibiting sinks outside of the bathroom makes the for a unit design that is very difficult and inconvenient for every day living.
  • Recommendation: Do not create a requirement for minimum or maximum plumbing amenities with in the sleeping rooms of a micro.

7. Required storage space for solid waste containers

CB 118067 would provide the DPD Director with the discretion to determine the amount of solid waste storage space required for micro-housing and congregate residence developments on a project-by-project basis. Should specific square footage requirements based on the floor area or sleeping room count of such projects be established instead?

  • The code is inflexible on this issue in a way that does not reflect reality very well. SPU is often quite accommodating to reality and common sense in ways that the code is not.
  • Recommendation: Whatever space requirements are required for apartments, micros should be comparable.

8. Design Review thresholds

Under CB 118067, the following Design Review thresholds would apply to all micro-housing and congregate residence projects constructed in Seattle, regardless of zone: Streamlined Design Review (SDR): Projects containing 6,000 to 11,999 square feet of gross floor area.

Administrative Design Review (ADR): Projects containing 12,000 to 19,999 square feet of gross floor area. Full Design Review: Projects containing 20,000 or more square feet of gross floor area. Should other threshold options be considered as well? If so, what should those options be?

  • The goal should be to create thresholds for all housing types that are comparable, so that the decision to build micro or regular apartments is based on the developers read of the needs of the housing market. The current boom in micros is driven partly by demand, but also by the fact that developing a micro allows avoidance of all forms of design review that would otherwise be mandatory.
  • Recommendation: Whatever threshold is adopted for micro apartments, the thresholds for regular apartments should be adjusted accordingly to match. Review the project sizes for townhouses that would trigger SDR and coordinate accordingly.

9. Construction of micro-housing and/or congregate residences outside of Urban Centers and Urban Villages

Should the construction of micro-housing and/or congregate residences continue to be permitted outside of Urban Centers and Urban Villages?

  • See answer above. Strive to treat micros exactly the same as apartments.

10. Construction of micro-housing and/or congregate residences in Lowrise 1 and Lowrise 2 zones

Should the construction of micro-housing and/or congregate residences continue to be permitted in Lowrise 1 and Lowrise 2 zones?

  • LR2 was clearly intended as a zone where apartments were appropriate, although at a lower scale than in LR3. Micros should be allowed in LR2.
  • LR1 was intended to discourage apartments through the employment of a density limit. If apartments are discouraged, micros should also be discouraged, but only to the same extent.

11. Vehicle parking requirements

For micro-housing and congregate residence projects built outside of Urban Centers, Station Area Overlay Districts, and frequent transit service areas within Urban Villages, CB 118067 would require one parking space to be provided for every four sleeping rooms. Inside those areas, no residential parking requirements would apply per existing City policy. Should alternative parking policies be considered?

  • Recommendation: Strive to treat micros exactly the same as apartments. Conversely, strive to treat small apartments the same as micros. There are lots of small apartment projects going forward that have unit sizes not that different from micros. Perhaps apartments with average unit sizes less than 500sf should provide one parking space per 500sf of room area instead of 1:1 parking.

12. Bicycle parking requirements

CB 118067 would require future micro-housing and congregate residence projects to provide a minimum of one bicycle parking space for every four sleeping rooms. For all other multifamily residential structures, one bicycle parking space is required for every four 4 dwelling units. Given that residents of micro-housing and congregate residence projects are understood to commute by bicycle at a higher rate than the City’s overall population (DPD analysis) and have limited storage space within their private sleeping rooms, should the provision of additional bicycle parking be required?

  • See answer above. Strive to treat micros exactly the same as apartments.

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