News of Madison Valley

Apodments: When is a rental unit ‘just’ a bedroom?


Councilmembers Rasmussen, Clark, Licata and Conlin will hold a public meeting on micro-housing developments, April 18, 11:30 AM–1:30 PM, Council Chambers, 2nd Floor, 600 Fourth Avenue. The public is invited to share feedback with Councilmembers and City staff. Read the news release. 

If you cannot attend, you can email your comments to: [email protected][email protected][email protected], and [email protected].

‘Micro-housing’ or ‘apodments,’ are current marketing terms for congregate or Single Room Occupancy (SRO)-style housing where individual units are a bedroom and optionally a bath, with shared kitchen and bathrooms. Congregate housing, rooming houses, or SROs have been a common use of apartment or rooming house buildings in Seattle and can be an option for many individuals. Shared homes, where an owner rents bedrooms or a group of individuals rent a whole house, are also very common in Seattle.

Why all the discussion now and what about it pertains to Madison Valley in particular?

In the last few years, developers have been getting permits to build apodment complexes in the Multifamily Low Rise (LR) zones, mainly the most dense LR3 zone, in Seattle. These apodment complexes of 48–96 units have not been permitted as apartment buildings, but as separate townhouses, each with 8 bedrooms. The Low Rise sections of the Land Use Code, which were revised about 4 years ago to be more flexible, does not specify anything regarding micro-housing uses. Many view permitting these apodment complexes of 48-64 units — as if they are merely a 4-pack, 6-pack or 8-pack group of 8-bedrooms townhouses — as a loophole.

Madison valley has Multifamily Low Rise zoning in about 20% of the land within our community’s borders. The majority of the Low Rise zoning in Madison Valley is LR1 and LR2, with LR3 zoning along 23rd and Madison. The ‘loophole’ permits have so far been in LR3 zones. Unless the loophole is closed, this ‘6-pack of 8-bedroom townhouse’ loophole could easily be applied to build apodment complexes in the LR1 and LR2 zones. These zones are specifically planned for less density than Neighborhood Commercial, Mid-Rise and High-Rise zones, both due to an interest in creating stable, dense, residential, family neighborhoods and their proximity to Single Family zones.

The issues for Madison Valley are these:

• Are micro-housing units living units or bedrooms? If each apodment is considered a living unit, then a development would be considered an apartment building, or an SRO, or a dormitory, and building safety standards applied. If a bedroom, then a different set of building safety standards apply.

• 48 units in a development is considerably more than the expected maximum for most Low Rise residential developments, where one would expect 6 townhomes, or (with recent code revisions) a mix of up to 10–12 larger and smaller housing units. Apartment buildings are allowed in Low Rise 3 zones, but they need to go through Design Review. If this loophole is exploited in LR1 and LR2 zones, effectively apartment buildings will be built in those zones. Note that LR1 and LR2 zones already allow tripex style building in order to achieve a variety of housing unit sizes and greater densities.

• 48–64 units built using the ‘8-bedroom townhouse’ loophole create badly designed communities. If a lot is developed as an micro-housing type apartment building, the whole of the first floor can be utilized for shared amenities. For example, I have seen a design where the building has one main entrance, a very large family style kitchen, dining area, a huge lounge, exercise room, a study, etc., that is truly configured for a community. Small kitchens are on each of the other floors as well. If built as separate townhouses, each townhouse has one smaller kitchen and not much else in the way of community space.

• Micro-housing is now being built in Single Family zones as 7-bedroom rehabs and a Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit. Single Family zones have long had housing rented by groups of individuals, owners renting out rooms, and some who have been permitted for using their homes for congregate elder housing. It seems strange to have a home operated as if it is just a small apartment building.

• The price per square foot is relatively high. Where a few people could share an apartment for under $1000, these units are running about $600 per person for much less space. The rents are more comparable the closer one gets to downtown, and in a desirable area, this form of housing can make sense for an individual. However, these are not being built to support low-income families.

• The rentals are monthly, so the population has a high turnover rate. Two micro-housing developments on a Low Rise residential block of mixed owners and long term renters could mean that all of a sudden ½ of the people are not part of the neighborhood life. This can have a negative impact on community resilience when dealing with issues such as crime or resolving the kinds of things we need to resolve when living close together, because people will not know each other.

• Parking is an issue. Parking is always an issue when more people live in an area. The question is whether transit options will suffice to mitigate the need for owning cars.

It seems that Micro-housing is a new twist on a long valued housing option and that it needs to the recognized in the Land Use code and locations defined appropriately. It should not be a matter of exploitation of loopholes. Certainly, on main streets in Neighborhood Commercial buildings, and in Mid-Rise and High-Rise and some LR3 zones, where one expects not to have parking and one expects that one won’t necessarily know his neighbors, micro-housing developments can make sense.

Please consider expressing your opinions about this apodment loophole in the land use code to council. If you cannot attend the public hearing, consider sending an email with your thoughts to the Councilmembers listed above or the City Council as a whole: [email protected].

April 18, 2013
Video of the hearing, which took place today can be seen here:

Topics: Community Planning