Neighbors protest quick-sprouting microapartments in Seattle

  • Article by: LYNN THOMPSON , Seattle Times
  • Updated: May 2, 2013 - 10:52 PM

The residences in Seattle, some as small as 150 square feet, are satisfying a need in an expensive city; but neighbors are concerned about the impact of such population density.

Judy Green stretched out in her 200-square-foot apartment in Sammamish, Wash., which features a cathedral ceiling and a sleeping loft. The living quarters are close in size to a hotel room.

Photo: Steve Ringman • Seattle Times ,

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– Judy Green was well-suited to move into a 10- by 10-foot apartment in Seattle’s University District.

Green spent the previous decade on a boat before finding a home in one of the nearly 50 microhousing buildings that have sprung up in Seattle over the past several years.

The units are tiny, typically 150 to 250 square feet, about the size of a hotel room. Six or eight residents share a kitchen. And the rent is lower than the average studio or one-bedroom apartment, about $600 to $900 a month compared with $1,200 and up.

Although it’s popular with young urban singles and students, microhousing, also known by the brand name aPodments, is stirring controversy as well.

Some contain as many as 64 units, but because they’re in dense neighborhoods served by transit, they aren’t required to provide any parking. And in some cases, the buildings avoid design and environmental review and notice to neighbors that usually is required for big, multifamily projects.

Developers say that with microhousing, they’re filling a need for lower-priced housing in a city where it’s expensive to live. And they say they have no trouble renting out the units.

“People want to live in walkable neighborhoods with easy access to shops and transit,” said Jim Potter, chairman of Kauri Investments, which has partnered with other developers to build six microhousing projects in Seattle, with several more planned. He’s been asked to develop projects in Portland, Ore.; California; and New Jersey.

The buildings are popular, he said, because people want an affordable alternative to shared living.

Neighborhood activists estimate that 19 of the developments already are renting or are being built within a square-mile area in Seattle.

Older homes are being razed to build the new units that will bring an influx of residents who may rent for only a few months, developing few ties to the neighborhood, argued Carl Winter, who formed the group Reasonable Density Seattle to lobby the city for more regulations governing the developments.

“We’re not concerned with who these people are, but with how many there are. This is a massive increase in density,” Winter said.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has praised the microapartments as offering affordable, transit-friendly options for city living.

He also noted, in a January blog post, that some of the microapartment builders are participating in the city’s Multifamily Tax Exemption Program, which reserves some units for moderate-wage workers in exchange for an exemption from property taxes for up to 12 years.

But that aspect also is controversial. Builders have told the city that they have only six or eight kitchens, the definition of a dwelling unit, in order to get under the threshold for design and environmental review.

But they’ve used the total number of sleeping units — for example, 56 or 64 — when applying to the Office of Housing for the tax-exemption program.

Council Member Tim Burgess said his staff alerted the Housing Office in September to the issue.

Only in March did the Housing Office announce that, starting April 26, it would no longer allow developers to use different unit counts for different purposes. Burgess, a candidate for mayor, said the lost tax revenue to the city is substantial.

“What’s troubling is the city looks like it’s twisting the rules to favor developers and that’s not appropriate,” he said.

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