Reminder: Council Meeting on Microhousing on Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Council’s Transportation Committee will be having a Brown Bag Lunch on Microhousing. Because of the significance of these issue, I imagine that a number of Councilmembers who are not on the Committee will attend. The meeting begins at 11:30 A.M.  A link to the agenda can be found here: http://clerk.seattle.gov/~scripts/nph-brs.exe?s1=transportation.comm.&S3=&s2=&s4=&Sect4=AND&l=20&Sect6=HITOFF&Sect5=AGEN1&Sect3=PLURON&d=AGEN&p=1&u=%2F~public%2Fagen1.htm&r=1&f=G

Contact information for the Councilmembers can be found here: http://www.seattle.gov/council/councilcontact.htm

We’d dearly love to see you at the meeting, but if you cannot attend, call or email Councilmembers. Your voice will be counted!

Who are the Developers behind the Microhousing Projects?

Given the number of projects that have been built or are to be built, the number of developers turns out to be just a few individuals:

  • Dirk and Gary Mulhair (Calhoun Properties)
  • Jim Potter
  • Randall Spaan
  • Tyler Carr
  • Kelten Johnson
  • Kevinne Wilkins (CPA in Snohomish, WA who has notarized a number of microhousing project documents)
  • Robert Pantley
  • Paul J. Bellarte
  • Hugh Schaeffer
  • Scott Shapiro
  • Robert Dedon
  • Eric Friedland
  • Alex Dejneka
  • Michael J. Swindling

The field has been dominated by the first five individuals or corporations on the list above, with Jim Potter and the Mulhairs doing the lion’s share of these projects. The Mulhairs are the public face of microhousing, having received substantial media coverage for bringing a number of these projects to market, and  being credited with being the creators of microhousing. The typical corporate structure for microhousing projects is a limited liability corporation (LLC). Potter has frequently been involved in Mulhair LLCs, either as a managing member or with a 48% interest in the project. Potter has also been involved in some of Kelten Johnson’s projects, as well as those of Randall Spaan. Continue reading

A Call to Action to the Neighborhoods of Seattle:

While the Capitol Hill and Eastlake neighborhoods have been very active on this issue, it is past time for the neighborhoods of Seattle to rise up and demand action by the City Council to put a stop to these charades, and demand accountability from the DPD, not to mention calling a halt to aPODment projects until legislation can be put in place to stop this unbridled development phenomenon, which is being driven by, and for the benefit of a handful of developers. Failure to act promptly will lead to the wholesale destruction of the neighborhood character that we have all come to love, and for which the City of Seattle is nationally known. Proposals for microhousing projects are beginning to fan out from the neighborhoods where they are currently concentrated – Capitol Hill (16 proposed or built) and the University District (13 proposed or built)- into neighborhoods where they would never be expected, and where neighbors are kept more in the dark than even those of us in the fiefdom of Capitol Hill. City Council needs to be inundated with emails. Council Chambers need to be packed on April 18th at 11:30 a.m. Spread the word of my website to friends and neighbors. Go there armed with the information I am providing on this blog. There will be more to follow.

Here is a list of Councilmember emails and phone numbers:

richard.conlin@seattle.gov  206-684-8805

sally.clark@seattle.gov  206-684-8802

nick.licata@seattle.gov  206-684-8803

tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov  206-684-8808

tim.burgess@seattle.gov  206-684-8806

jean.godden@seattle.gov  206-684-8807

bruce.harrell@seattle.gov  206-684-8804

sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov  206-684-8801

mike.obrien@seattle.gov  206-684-8800

Well, I have a glitch in this post, but you have the basic information you need to contact Councilmembers. I will try to repair the glitch tomorrow.  All of this information and more is available here.

If Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned, Why Can’t the DPD Monitor While Neighborhood Character and Context are Trashed?

Yeah, I know,  I have just consumed millions of pixels explaining the DPD’s efforts to remedy the confusion around microhousing – at least three years after they realized there was a problem. It seems that the DPD’s strategy has always been to monitor the problem.

May 16, 2011:  In a letter to Bill Zosel, Diane Sugimura states: “We will continue to monitor this type of development.”

On June 19, 2012, Councilmember Sally Clark sent an email to Councilmember Richard Conlin, noting the batch of emails she had received on aPODments, and asking: “Is this something you’ve already discussed with Diane and DPD? Any chance there will be a more formal discussion at committee of the rate or intensity of aPodment [sic]/micro-unit development? Conlin replied later that afternoon:

I discussed it with her, and she does not see an issue as yet. but we are watching it. I think one more will put us over the tipping point on getting something going.

June 28, 2012: In a letter to Franklin Avenue neighbors, Diane Sugimura states:

“I have discussed this type of housing with the Mayor and several Councilmembers. At this time, our direction is to monitor them to determine if we are seeing unintended consequences from such development, and determine if any code changes are needed.”

July 19, 2012: In a letter to Chris Leman of the Eastlake District Council, Diane Sugimura states:

“I have discussed this type of housing with the Mayor and several Councilmembers. At this time, our direction is to monitor them to determine if we are seeing unintended consequences from such development, and determine if any code changes are needed.”

September 11, 2012;  In an email from Bryan Stevens to Mike Podowski and Andy McKim, two very senior land use and policy figures in the DPD re a microhousing meeting, an item on the agenda was listed as:

Microhousing policy

-monitoring proposals, but no changes planned

-proposed in areas where growth is encouraged, frequent transit, good/services nearby

September 18, 2012: Bryan Jones of the DPD tells Doug Dempster, a concerned Capitol Hill resident:

“At this point, we are monitoring the complaints we receive on proposed projects, as up to this point we have not received any regarding constructed and occupied buildings.”

Hmmmm…what artful wording.

At an early December 2012 meeting with irate Capitol Hill neighbors, Conlin and Sugimura repeatedly state they see no problem with microhousing and that they had not heard anything yet that would move them to take further action at this point. Though Conlin did state his belief that microhousing projects did not qualify for the MFTE, and that he was going to stop that.

Do you detect the same pattern here that I do?

Having heard so often about  this monitoring, I couldn’t resist asking the DPD what it meant by monitoring. I received the following reply from Vicki Baucom, Code Compliance Analyst at the DPD:

I

after a customer comes into the Applicant Services Center (ASC – on the 20th

  • floor) with a project that appears to be microhousing, the ASC staff person contacts Mike
  • Mike then adds the information to the attached spreadsheet.
  • The plans are reviewed and if it is confirmed to be microhousing, it stays on the attached spreadsheet.

I hope this clarifies how we are monitoring the microhousing situation.

I was left wanting more. Hardly the type of monitoring that is called for in the situation. Though the process may explain why the DPD and I have never had lists of microhousing projects that agree. At Capitol Hill neighbors’ first meeting with Tom Rasmussen, I told him that while I had a list of 39 microhousing projects across the City of Seattle, DPD only had 22 projects listed. To this day, our lists do not agree, and many of the items that have made it to more recent lists of microhousing compiled by the DPD contain projects that in no way could be construed by a knowledgeable person as microhousing.

The Consequences to Neighborhoods of the DPD’s and City Council’s Monitoring

In 2007, one microhousing project was permitted.

In 2008, three were permitted.

In 2009, one was permitted.

In 2010, three were permitted.

In 2011, four were permitted.  Two or three of them after Sugimura told Bill Zosel she was monitoring the situation.

In 2012, nineteen were permitted or permits were applied for, fourteen of them after all the protestations of monitoring by officials which I presented above:

As of March 4 2013, 5 permits have been granted or applied for.

Into the Land Use Thicket

This is a continuation of my second post. My apologies, dear reader, but it will be necessary to take a trip into the land use thicket. I will endeavor to make it understandable, but if nothing else, this post should give you a feel for why microhousing has been such a difficult phenomenon to get a handle on for proponents, developers and citizens. Since there is no microhousing section in Seattle’s Codes, it has been necessary for individuals to try to shoe-horn it into existing land-use categories, which may or may not be an appropriate fit. Think of it as the new shoe experience in land use.

Is Microhousing Really Something New?

Some individuals maintain that microhousing is just the latest reincarnation of the boarding house or congregate residence, housing types which they allege have been around forever. However, if that assertion is true, why has the City struggled so with the permitting of these buildings. Even Dianne Sugimura, Director of the Department of Planning and Development,  stated, in a letter to concerned Eastlake neighbors:

[T]his is a nontraditional housing type, but one which we’ve been seeing more in recent times.

A DPD reviewer for one project stated in an October 11, 2011 correction notice:

[A]s you may know, boarding houses are something we have recently been seeing more of, and without the code being written to directly address them, the Department has been in the process of figuring out how best to apply the code requirements to boarding houses.

A proposed rule drafted by senior DPD staff also noted:

The difficulty of distinguishing a single-family dwelling from a boarding house during the plan review process and the diverging definitions and purposes of land use and building codes means that many times the building might be classified as a boarding house for building code purposes and as a single-family residence for land-use purposes, causing confusion for applicants, staff and the general public.

That’s an excellent summary of the situation. Even Seattle developers, who are generally very sharp individuals, had difficulty navigating the permit process. On May 13, 2011, Chip Kouba, of Ecco Design Inc., who stated he had been working with Dirk and Gary Mulhair and Jim Potter on a number of boarding house projects, developing the product as they went, wrote to Roberta Baker of the DPD seeking clarification on a land-use issue. The question was:

[O]n a current project all land-use and structural and ordinance requirements appear to allow us to build a five story building with a basement with vertical congregate residences from basement to roof.… In the past, for a number of reasons, we ended up in townhouse territory, however believe that by definition these would not be included in that definition. If you could address this question, or advise on how best to review this with DPD would greatly appreciate it!

The argument that microhousing/boarding houses are nothing new does not hold water. Continue reading

Can I sleep in that loft or mezzanine? It depends on

Whether you want to avoid State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) Review.

In a correction notice from the DPD for one building, it was noted that the loft area could be used as another bedroom, and that this would lead to the dwelling units being considered as having nine bedrooms, which would cause it to be classified as a congregate residence, which classification would make the project subject to SEPA review. Given this warning from the DPD, the remark of Councilmember Sally Bagshaw regarding her tour of a microhousing unit is of considerable significance and irony: “It’s definitely small, maybe 250 or 300 square feet, but the one I went into had a little loft area for sleeping,…” The full report of her tour can be found here. It seems that the crucial behavior during the review of a project by the DPD would be for a developer to assert that the loft will not be used as a bedroom, regardless of the subsequent reality.

On another project, the developer was advised to limit the size of the lofts to the size of a bed. Using a bed as measure of acceptability in this case, when it was used as a measure of unacceptability in the case above suggests a lack of consistency in how the DPD handled project reviews.

Another Loft Issue

In those buildings with units on the fifth story which included a loft, correction notices from the DPD often referred to the size of the lofts, noting that the lofts could not exceed 50% of the area of the room below. Developers were warned that oversize lofts would lead to the lofts being counted as a sixth story. On the plan drawings at least, those requirements appear to have been met.

Useful definitions for understanding this post:

Correction notice: Request to the developer for correction of errors found by the DPD during plan review for code compliance. Many of the microhousing projects had multiple and lengthy corrections notices. Some errors were cited multiple times in multiple notices before the developer corrected them, if the developer ever did.

Congregate residence: From Seattle Municipal Code Section 23.84A.032 “R” residential use: “Congregate residence” means a use in which rooms or lodging, with or without meals are provided for nine or more non-transient persons, not constituting a single household, excluding single-family dwelling units for which special or reasonable accommodation has been granted.