Seattle's 'micro-housing' boom draws criticism, support

SEATTLE -- Spitting distance from Seattle University, on 11th Avenue near E. Jefferson St., one tower rises above the others.

It's slim and compact -- channeling the colors of autumn -- and squeezes 56 living units into one small footprint.

The developer calls it an aPodment; Patrick Tompkins calls it unregulated.

"If they're a large-scale structure, they're supposed to go through design review, no matter what they're going to build," said Tompkins, who lives on Capitol Hill with his family. "I think the sense there is that this is something the city got backed into. They had no intention of creating this."

Tompkins, who heads up the Capitol Hill Coalition, lives about six blocks from a micro-housing development called Centro on East John Street. The building advertises furnished "suites," each with a kitchenette and bed, starting at $575 per month.

One local community college student who lives in the building showed off her loft with mini-fridge and private bathroom, all packed into about 200 square feet. At $850 per month, she said, it was becoming too expensive for the neighborhood given the amenities she has. (She shares a coin laundry and a larger kitchen in a small common area on the ground floor.)

City land use planners and private developers tout micro-housing -- popular on Capitol Hill and in the U-District -- as easy, affordable living in an otherwise pricey real estate market.

"Yes, (living) is pretty expensive," said University of Washington student Lydia Walsh, who lives near campus. "I work two minimum-wage jobs, so it's definitely a little hard to make ends meet sometimes."

On the flip side, critics argue the micro-housing trend is skirting city regulations -- and falling under the radar of neighbors -- due to a loophole in city law. Forty-seven micro-housing developments are currently permitted in Seattle, city planners say; most, however, do not have to go through a traditional design review process.

"For most of the micro-housing developments that we're seeing, they require only a building permit," said Mike Podowski, manager of land use and development at Seattle's Department of Planning and Development. "Design review is not required of all multi-family buildings either. The thresholds are based on the number of dwelling units."

Podowski points to city code which says that buildings that have nine or more "dwelling units" have to go through a design review. A "Dwelling unit" is defined by a shared kitchen or food prep area.

Tompkins, however, says this is the exact loophole that neighbors are trying to close.

"I think there's a general consensus that there's a need for this kind of housing," he said, "(but) I think they really want to have a careful, thoughtful hand in shaping how our neighborhoods get created."

Tompkins and others met with city councilmembers last week to talk to them about drafting a short-term moratorium that would limit construction on micro-housing units while the city studies the impacts of high-density living. A legislative aide in Councilmember Tom Rasmussen's office said there is discussion among city leaders about drafting something, but "nothing's on paper yet."

"I don't know if (the aPodment) would be something I'd be interested in," added Walsh, the UW student, "but they sound cool, and I think that those would work for lots of young professionals or college students."

KOMO News contacted the aPodment development company for comment. A building manager said, "we don't do media," and then refused to contact the company's main office.