The Seattle City Council approved a new law Monday restricting how and where the city’s smallest living spaces can be built.
The legislation involves micro-apartments, which are homes as small as or smaller than a hotel room that until now have usually been built in tandem, with a common kitchen.
The council set out to regulate the homes earlier this year after a micro-apartment construction boom in popular neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, Eastlake and Ballard led to backlash from neighbors concerned about the pace and scale of development.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the council’s land-use committee, tried to find a middle ground between the neighbors and real-estate developers who warned that restrictions would drive up rents and stifle growth.
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Whether O’Brien succeeded depends on whom you ask.
“This bill, to be clear, is a compromise,” he said Monday. “It creates a path for these affordable micro-housing units to continue to be developed.”
Existing rules limit the size of studio apartments to a minimum of about 220 square feet, with new projects undergoing the city’s design-review process when they surpass a certain number of units.
But some developers have built homes as small as about 100 square feet by defining the units as sleeping rooms served by a common kitchen, and the city has counted eight or more such apartments as a single unit for the purposes of design review, allowing many projects to bypass scrutiny.
Developers will build either “small efficiency dwelling units” or “congregate units.”
The first type, permitted everywhere other apartment buildings are allowed and treated much the same as regular apartments, will be between 220 and 400 square feet and contain at least two sinks. There will be at least three covered bicycle-parking spots for every four such units, and buildings containing the units will undergo design review based on a square-footage threshold.
Congregate units, permitted only in Seattle’s densest neighborhoods, will be as small as 70 square feet as long as they are built in tandem with common kitchens.
For now, micro-apartment projects will be subject to the same vehicle-parking rules as other apartment buildings. That could change, because O’Brien’s legislation calls for further study.
The council passed O’Brien’s legislation by a unanimous vote, and Councilmember Sally Bagshaw called the law a stellar example of give-and-take. Pro-regulation activists at City Hall also praised the measure.
“This will allow sensible integration (of micro-apartments) into the neighborhoods,” said Cindi Barker, 56, of West Seattle.
Builders and some other proponents of high-density development argued that micro-apartment construction, loosely regulated, could help Seattle combat its housing-affordability crisis by boosting the city’s overall housing supply.
Led by Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, a developer-funded lobbying organization, the anti-regulation side cautioned the council against increasing the minimum size of the homes. O’Brien’s legislation does just that, a deflated Valdez said Monday, predicting the result will be higher rents and fewer new micro-apartment projects.
“The council wanted to claim they were regulating the product while allowing it to continue, but what they did was make the product infeasible,” he said.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant voiced concern about affordability before voting for the bill, but said rent control and public housing, rather than micro-apartments, are what Seattle needs most.
After a recent court ruling against the definition of certain micro-apartments as sleeping rooms, rather than living units, the city recently put a number of micro-apartment projects on hold.
It’s unclear what will happen to those projects now.
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or firstname.lastname@example.org