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Microhousing: How Low is Too Low?

Posted by Johnine Larsen on October 8, 2014
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Belltown Building 3Seattle City Council approved new regulations for microhousing and micro-apartments this Monday. Tinier and tinier housing had been one answer to the city’s continued growth, but the new rules stop that limbo game. Individual units must now contain:

  • At least 220 square feet
  • At least a 150 square foot sleeping area
  • Food preparation area with sink, refrigerator, cooking appliance, and countertop
  • Bathroom with toilet, sink, and shower/bathtub

This raises the bar from recent microhousing lows. Past units were as small as 100 square feet, and many fell into the 150-200 sq. ft. range. At a time when Seattle was (and still is) the nation’s fastest-growing city, microhousing let people find homes in dense neighborhoods, and it let them find affordable homes.

But this influx of microhousing came with baggage. Namely: crowding and parking woes. People complained that their neighborhoods were becoming too congested, and because microhousing brought in more people than parking spaces, street parking disappeared.

The controversy broke down into two camps: those against (established neighbors, anti-growth advocates) and those for (developers, microhousing renters). Neighbors didn’t like the density, but without that density, newcomers could not afford to move in.


The new rules, in theory, strike a compromise between the two groups.

A developer-backed group called Smart Growth Seattle warns that the new regulations will result in fewer and more expensive units. It predicts that monthly rents will rise from $800 to $1,375.

“The people that lose in that are people with less money,” Roger Valdez, Director of Smart Growth Seattle, told KIRO Radio. “This really hurts poor people and people that are struggling to get ahead when you have the City Council imposing a bunch of rules that make housing more costly.”

The new regulations, however, are not universal. They will not affect existing microhousing, including more than 4,000 micro-apartments still in development. The rules also leave room for “congregate units,” which are tiny units (min. 70 sq. ft.) that share a common kitchen, college-dorm-style. Congregate units are only allowed in designated high-density areas.

Seattle City Council also placed other regulations on new microhousing projects, including:

  • Name change: a micro-apartment is now, officially, a small efficiency dwelling unit (SEDU).
  • Parking: Outside designated high-density areas, microhousing buildings must provide one parking space for every two units.
  • Bicycle-friendly: microhousing buildings must provide three bicycle parking spots for every four units.