City Council is sitting on a HALA recommendation that could provide hundreds of affordable housing units every year—without spending a dime of taxpayer money.
Microhousing—extremely small apartments that often share communal space such as kitchens—took the spotlight last fall when the council passed new restrictions on their production. The legislation became a flash point in the ongoing debate over how to grow, with opponents arguing that microhousing ruins a neighborhood’s character and is arguably inhumane, given the cramped quarters. The restrictions that eventually passed limited, among other things, the locations where microhousing (also called aPodments) can be constructed. Since then, production of the cheapest and most efficient micro-units has plummeted.
But now, with housing affordability dominating the agenda at City Hall, microhousing is getting a new spin as part of the solution to rising rents in Seattle. Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee has recommended relaxing the restrictions signed into law by the mayor just over 12 months ago.
“The beauty of the microhousing product was that it [allowed people to have a] smaller living space in exchange for proximity to things that are very valuable, and all that largely without any tax-credit financing or [similar subsidies],” says developer lobbyist Roger Valdez, himself a microhousing tenant.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of microhousing: congregate, essentially dormitories with shared kitchens and living spaces; and small efficiency dwelling units—SEDUs—which are tiny, self-contained apartments.
Congregate is the cheaper, denser, and more environmentally friendly option of the two. Just as it’s more efficient for an entire neighborhood to share a large park than for each house to have its own lawn, it’s more efficient for neighbors to share a big living room and kitchen.
And it’s affordable. While microhousing is more expensive than subsidized housing, it’s much cheaper than standard market rents. APodments, for instance, rent for between $600 and $1,000—between one- and two-thirds of the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle.
The Yobi, a new four-story congregate microhousing building on Capitol Hill, demonstrates what that rent can get you. Architect David Neiman says the Yobi is an attempt to “purposefully design a building that was meant to house lots of people together” rather than just a way to circumvent zoning rules. He says he began with the assumption that “this can be a good way to live,” then asked, “How do we design it?”
The inside of the Yobi resembles an upscale hostel. On the ground floor is a sprawling lounge complete with a fireplace and non-ugly paintings on the walls. The laundry room is one example of how Neiman tried to bake neighborliness into the Yobi’s architecture: Rather than banishing it to the basement, he put it beside the front door, making it an extension of the lounge.
The rooms themselves are tight without being claustrophobic, like the living quarters on a yacht. A toilet and shower are separated from the main room, which holds a desk, shelves, bed, microwave, and sink. Units on the top floor boast a loft area accessible by ladder and big enough to hold a guest bed. On the building’s south side, each unit includes a small balcony.
Doug Vitaly, a Seattle University student and newly arrived Yobi resident, pays just over $1,100 a month in rent. He says he’s comfortable living in such a small space, and would consider renting a similar unit after graduating, partly because of how much he values the location. “I would definitely see myself living in microhousing,” he says, “just because of the exploding cost of rent here in Seattle. Even at a $1,100-a-month microapartment, I would pay that simply because location is one of the most important things for me. And I know for my demographic, people in our 20s, that’s important too.”
For Vitaly, size itself is part of microhousing’s attraction. “I feel like this [size of housing] is normal and natural and really all that one person needs,” he says. “I think that in the U.S. we’re really used to having all of this space and all of this luxury that just isn’t necessary.”
Production of this typeof apartment took a big hit after last year’s legislation. Data from the Department of Planning and Development shows that in 2014, the department received applications to build more than 500 congregate units in the city; as of May, 2015 has seen zero. (Applications for roomier SEDU dwellings doubled over the same time period).
The reason is zoning. “In the Venn diagram between where it’s allowed and where it makes any sense, there’s no overlap,” explains Neiman. “That’s why the production . . . has disappeared.”
The regulations limited congregate housing to so-called Neighborhood Commercial Zones, dense mixed-use areas designated for heavy pedestrian traffic where buildings are generally allowed to be six stories or taller.
For financial reasons, investors are rarely willing to build below height limits. Yet congregate apartment buildings make sense only if they are short enough not to need an elevator—up to four stories, says Neiman. “If you build an elevator in, then every one of these rooms has to be fully [wheelchair-] accessible,” says Neiman. “By the time [we’re] done making them accessible . . . we can’t offer people smaller, cheaper housing because we have to make it twice as big.”
Hence the developer’s dilemma: There are places where congregate microhousing is legal, and there are places where it makes financial sense. But there are very few places that are both.
“It’s not technically impossible,” says Neiman. “It’s just that the amount of land where it makes any sense is so vanishingly small.”
To address this problem, the HALAcommittee recommended in July expanding the areas in the city where developers can build congregate microhousing, one of 65 such recommendations made to increase affordable housing in Seattle.
However, the Council is reluctant to return to the contentious issue of microhousing zoning. While Council president Tim Burgess is “open to that discussion,” according to his staff, other councilmembers either don’t have microhousing zoning on their radar or are “not inclined to revisit this,” as Nick Licata’s staff put it. In the Council’s HALA work plan, the congregate microhousing recommendation isn’t even mentioned.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the ordinance that restricted microhousing, says he’s not interested in rehashing an acrimonious debate that concluded just last year.
“It’d be one thing,” he says, “if people were just sitting around looking for things to do, but that is definitely not the case here in Council right now. We have capacity constraints on, it seems like, almost all committees.” Because the Council doesn’t have the resources to tackle all 65 recommendations at once, he says, it makes more sense to pick low-hanging fruit than hot potatoes like microhousing.
But even without political obstacles, O’Brien says he’s not sold on the idea of expansion. “We need a lot more housing,” he says. “I get that.” But O’Brien thinks that congregate microhousing is too dense for the lower-height neighborhoods where the HALA committee suggested putting them. “I would put congregate toward the much higher-density side” of the city, he says. If developers are to be believed, that essentially means hardly any more congregate microhousing in Seattle at all.
Neiman is unimpressed. Under pressure from homeowners in July, the Council backpedaled from HALA’s proposal to increase density in single-family neighborhoods. For development advocates like him, the silence around congregate microhousing is just another instance of electoral timidity in the face of Seattle’s housing crisis.
“You can boil down the HALA recommendations really quickly,” he says. “One, you gotta build as much housing as there is demand. Whatever that demand is, you have to meet it. And if you don’t do that, then the whole housing market stays in a bidding war for scarcity, and poor people lose.
“Second, in an increasingly unequal society, people with money—society as a whole has to contribute resources to provide housing that the market can’t [provide]. And the more unequal our society becomes, the bigger that pool of people is.
“You gotta do those two things: more housing, more resources,” says Neiman. “But it’s a hard thing to get people to pay for the resources, and it’s a hard thing to get people to open the door.”
Casey Jaywork covers City Hall and policy for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-467-4332. Follow him on Twitter at @caseyjaywork.