How many square feet in the average microhousing unit? It depends on who you ask……

If you read the online articles, you will frequently see figures of 150-200 square feet, with 200 being a frequent average. They never say where they get these averages.

The Department of Planning and Development gives an estimate of 257 square feet per unit on average. When I inquired as to how they arrived at that estimate, they said it was the figure generated by dividing the total square footage of a project by the number of estimated units in a project. This would result in a higher than average square footage, as it does not make adjustments for corridors, stairways, utility areas and common areas. The DPD’s average is not credible and cannot be relied on.

My thorough examination of drawings for microhousing projects showed the following:

Of 1751 total units, the drawings do not contain sufficiently fine-grained information to determine the size of 767 separately leasable units. Some of the projects do not yet have drawings prepared and submitted. None of the drawings specify whether the square footage is net (minus corridors and stairways) or gross. Of the 691 units that are marked with a square footage number, 473 or 68.3% are contain less than 204 square feet. Why isn’t the DPD requesting this information on all of the drawings? Mike Podowski says that it is because the DPD doesn’t have the authority to request it.  Seattle City Council should request the DPD to obtain accurate square footage, specified as to whether it is net or gross, for all separately leasable units.

My analysis of all zones showed: 5% of units are under 100 square feet, 22% are under 140 square feet, 57% are under 180 square feet, 80% are under 220 square feet, 94% are under 260 square feet, 99% are under 300 square feet, and 1% are greater than 300 square feet. In an analysis of information I provided to him, Bill Bradburd examined the square footage for the Lowrise 3 zone. In the Lowrise 3 zone, nearly all – 97% –  of the 407 reviewed units are under 220 square feet.

Close analysis provides information that varies considerably from the conventional wisdom.

How many units in that microhousing project? It depends on

Whether or not the project developer is trying to qualify for a multifamily tax exemption from the Seattle Office of Housing.

Unit count has been subject to different counting practices depending on whether the DPD is permitting projects or whether it is trying to qualify them for the multifamily tax exemption. Since this issue will be discussed more in depth elsewhere, I will just provide a couple of examples here. For purposes of permitting a project, the DPD, will list a project as having 7 dwelling units, when in fact, it has 56-64 separately leasable units. So a developer feels justified in telling project neighbors that he is only adding 7 dwelling units to the neighborhood’s residential stock, when in fact he is adding 56-64 separately leasable units. These actions led one neighborhood to organize a group to address the difference between permitting language and residential realities. Its website can be found here. In the Capitol Hill neighborhood, a  group also established a website to publish information on these issues.

On September 14, 2012, these conflicting classifications became subject to greater scrutiny when an aide to Councilmember Tim Burgess observed  that the Office of Housing counts each bathroom as a unit, and asked if this concept had been questioned. He asked the Office of Housing to check with the DPD on its interpretation of dwelling unit as it related to aPODments. The answer that the DPD provided to the Office of Housing was that since each living space has its own bathroom, sink, refrigerator and microwave, each living space was considered a unit. This DPD statement was in direct conflict with its usual practice of classifying multiple separate living spaces as a single dwelling unit, as evidenced by the number of dwelling units listed on numerous microhousing project permits.

Seattle Office of Housing Truth and Consequences

The Office of Housing also questioned whether developers were representing units to it in a manner different from the way the same developers were representing units to the DPD. Rick Hooper, Director of the Office of Housing, to his credit, stated in a memo to the Mayor’s Office, dated December 13, 2012:

Microhousing developments generally present fewer than 8 ‘dwelling units’ when entering the DPD permitting system. However, when seeking approval for MFTE, the same developers present OH with the total number of subdivided microunits that house individual tenants. As a result, under current practice it would be possible for a building permit that has seven dwelling units to obtain a tax exemption by capping income-eligibility and rents for 20% of  50 microunits. Were the building to present the same number of units to OH as to DPD, it is likely the combined income of all the tenants occupying one permitted dwelling unit would exceed MFTE standards.

Approximately two years before the email from Burgess’s aide, on September 22, 2010, Amy Gray of the Seattle Office of Housing sent an email to Rick Lupton, Engineering & Technical Codes Manager at the DPD re the Solana aPODments project of the Mulhairs. She told Lupton that the developer, on its application for the Multifamily Property Tax Exemption had represented to the Office of Housing that it intended to develop 34 units, but that when Gray had checked the permit status she had found the work following work description: “construct one structure with 4 boarding house units separated by fire wall….” She asked Lupton to confirm that Mulhair “can do the 34 boarding house type units under this permit.” Lupton’s reply follows immediately below. Amy’s question and Lupton’s reply are good examples of how confused discussions around these units had become:

I’m sorry the answer is not so simple. For building code purposes, we treated this as a boarding house. However, for land-use purposes, this is treated as a four unit apartment. For land use, a boarding house is considered lodging which may not be allowed in the zone. And generally (though I don’t currently have plans available) 34 bedrooms (or sleeping units for bldg code) would be considered as exceeding (by 2) the allowable number of unrelated persons within a dwelling unit (for land use). I know this is likely confusing-so please let me know what further information you need.

In the end, it was determined the project had only 32 sleeping units, but the incident is nonetheless useful in illustrating the confusion engendered by the DPD’s approach – a confusion that has been long running.

On November 29, 2012, Amy Gray, Seattle Office of Housing, wrote to Mike Podowski, DPD again seeking clarification on how the units were being presented to Office of Housing and the DPD:

Is there any way you can check on the attached list of micro-unit projects to see if they were permitted as ‘dwelling units’ and not ‘sleeping units’? We are trying to get a handle on whether or not any represented the projects to DPD the same way it was represented to OH.

The DPD responded the next day that they were pretty sure they had obtained the known micro unit count from a list of microhousing units provided to the Office of Housing. They stated:

so they are sleeping rooms, not dwelling units. I added the column to reflect the dwelling units, and they are consistent with our microhousing list.

This statement is not credible: in DPD documents, microhousing projects are typically represented as creating a smaller number of dwelling units than the number of units that house individual tenants, and they are permitted on that basis, not on the basis of being sleeping units. Indeed, it appears that the Office of Housing had a list showing that the number of units represented to them by project developers consistently exceeded, by a large margin, the number of dwelling units presented to the DPD. Ultimately, in a memorandum from the Office of Housing to Mayor McGinn, the Office of Housing recommended “to allow the tax exemption only when a developer presented the same number of units to the DPD and OH, and to disallow future tax year exemptions for existing MFTE projects in cases where the number of units presented to OH substantially exceeds the number of units presented to DPD.” Councilmember Richard Conlin stated at the meeting with irate Capitol Hill residents that he did not believe these projects qualified for the MFTE, and that he was going to stop the practice. Continue reading

Isn’t microhousing good because it is affordable? It depends……..affordable for whom?

I’m learning that one of the great things about blogging is that you can change direction rapidly, I decided that, before delving into eye-glazing discussion of Code definitions and characterizations, it would be better to cover two topics that always prove of interest: money and size.

The affordability of microhousing has often been the chief factor the City has pleaded in defense of it, regardless of how messy the permit process has been or how out of character with the existing neighborhood architectural context microhousing development has been. Diane Sugimura, Director of the Department of Planning and Development, went so far as to say, in a letter to Franklin Avenue Eastlake) neighbors dated June 28, 2012:

As I noted earlier, this is a non-traditional housing type, but is one which we’ve been seeing more in recent times. We recognize that this type of housing is meeting an important need by providing an affordable housing option without public subsidies.

This assertion that this affordable housing was being provided without public subsidies intrigued me. Given the emphasis the City places on public/private partnership, it was difficult to believe that anything in Seattle was built without a public subsidy. The opportunity to explore this issue further was presented when Councilmember Richard Conlin and Ms. Sugimura came to a meeting of the East District Neighborhood Council to hear the concerns of citizens irate about the proliferation of microhousing in Capitol Hill’s lowrise zones. Having previously found information at the Seattle Office of Housing that 53.48% of microhousing projects had applied for or were receiving the 12-year benefits of the multifamily tax exemption, I repeated the quote of Ms. Sugimura presented above, and asked her if she did not consider the multifamily tax exemption to be a public subsidy. Her reply: “Well, you got me.” It was good that she was so forthright in acknowledging this, but one must always wonder if she had the information I provided when she told the Franklin Avenue neighbors that microhousing was being built without public subsidies.   Continue reading

What is microhousing? It depends…….

My research began with a couple of simple questions: How is microhousing classified under the Land Use or Building Codes? Are such structures authorized under any City Code? As I pursued an answer to those questions, as with Alice in Wonderland, matters became “curiouser and curiouser.” In a nutshell, the answers are: (1) they aren’t; (2) no. Although the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) has recently created a narrative that such structures have long been authorized by City Codes, I will show in the posts that follow why that narrative lacks credibility. And I will use the DPD’s own words to do it.

The first microhousing was given a clever, trademarked name, aPodment, by Calhoun Properties’ Gary and Dirk Mulhair. Out of deference to the concerns of the Mulhairs, Seattle decided to start referring to them as microhousing or micro-housing. There appears to be no consistent usage. As you read further, you will find that inconsistency has been a hallmark of the microhousing story. During the review and permitting of microhousing projects, various justifications, descriptions and classifications have been offered by the DPD.

Information about the rapid spread of microhousing in Seattle Neighborhoods

The first issue I will be presenting information on is microhousing, a new form of Seattle housing that has taken off like a wildfire in the last year. Think small….very small. The largest numbers of these closets for urban “living” have sprouted on Capitol Hill and in the University District. I will be using this blog to discuss various aspects of the City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development’s permitting of these new developments, and to explore the confusions, contradictions, misrepresentations and mischaracterizations that have swirled around these developments. Having researched microhousing for almost 3 months, I hope to provide information which has been missing from a debate that has generated more heat than light.

In February 2013, the Department of Planning and Development said that 7 microhousing projects had been built and occupied, and that 32 were in the pipeline.  Over the five-year period from 2007 to 2011, 12 microhousing project permits were granted. In a single year, 2012, the number of permitted projects jumped to 19. As of April 2013, I have 45 projects on my list of microhousing projects. Of these 17 projects, or approximately 37% are on Capitol Hill or just a  few blocks south of East Madison Street. For comparison, there are 12 in the University District, 3 in Eastlake, 3 in West Seattle, and 5 in the Central District. They are beginning to fan out through the North Central neighborhoods as well.

Armed with this information, you should attend the upcoming public meeting to be held by City Council on April 18, 2013. You can find more information on that meeting here: http://www.seattle.gov/council/calendar/#/?i=2  The fact that this meeting is being held at all is a demonstration of the potential of committed and informed engagement with our elected officials. City Council was not originally inclined to have such a discussion.

The posts that follow will focus on and provide detailed information on select aspects of the microhousing phenomenon.