Is There an Apodment Moratorium in the Works?

ApodThe rumors are flying: The Seattle City Council is preparing to consider legislation that would shut down, or at least hinder, more development of apodments,* the small affordable apartment dwellings that have been popping up in town. The arguments against apodments are weak and it is one area where Seattle is actually ahead of the game when it comes to innovative housing solutions.

And the Council has just finished it’s latest agonizing over “affordability” in discussions about zoning in the South Lake Union neighborhood. The market is producing apodments—people want them so developers are building them. Shutting these down now would be entirely inconsistent with what the Council says it wants and what its trying to tax development to do in South Lake Union. Apodments are affordable!

The first argument I’ve heard is that somehow developers are exploiting a “loophole in the code” to build apodments. That’s just nonsense. Developers are building these entirely within the existing code, a code that, in fact, has been around for a long time. Furthermore, neighbors that are griping about apodments generally speaking live in neighborhoods already zoned for low-rise multifamily housing. The truth is that places where apodments can be built would already allow regular apartment buildings. So what’s the big problem?

Opponents say that the apodments are too small. What doesn’t make any sense about that criticism is that the people making the fuss aren’t even going to live in the apodments. I’ve been in the apodments several times and even talked with people who live in apodments. They seem lucid and sane to me, not drugged or somehow coerced into living in the buildings. The truth is that the apodments pretty much have a zero vacancy rate; when one becomes vacant it gets rented out right away. People love being able to have the choice to live in an apodment.

Someone worried about apodment development on Capitol Hill said she was worried about her neighborhood changing; that’s an honest concern. She described how she knows all her neighbors and how they look out for each other, even checking in when someone’s lights haven’t been on a few days, or someone has been sick. But she worried that the apodments would be like a dorm, full of loud young people and a transient population.

I think this last worry, that apodments will change a delicate neighborhood ecosystem by introducing new, different people into it, is truly the biggest issue for apodment opponents. Change isn’t easy, especially when things are already pretty good. But the fact is that apodments are a great part of a housing continuum in Seattle. Being worried about more people isn’t unusual, but if we’re going to grow as a community we’ve got to get over it.

Finally, and most importantly, apodments are affordable. It’s baffling to me that the City Council could one day worry about taxing new development to create subsidized affordable housing—a paradoxical and self defeating move—but the next day consider putting a stop to housing that is produced for profit, with no subsidy and really is affordable.

In fact, apodments are addressing what some on the Council say they are most worried about: workforce housing. The normative standard for housing—how much we should pay for housing—affordability is 30 percent of monthly income. There isn’t a pod I’ve seen that rents for much more than $1000 per month, which is just about what a person making a little over 60 percent of Area Median Income makes.

The apodment concept uses the code wisely, using the smarts and innovation of developers to create housing that is less costly to build. The subsidy for apodments is created by innovation. The value created gets passed on in lower prices for rent and the public benefits by getting affordable density.

The City Council should resist any changes to what’s happening, but instead pass a resolution declaring May 2013 Micro Housing Month. There should be tours of apodments, a big fair highlighting other micro housing ideas, small-lot development, pre fabricated back yard cottages, anything that produces an innovative housing solution. Let the Council know, “we’re winning with apodments. Don’t go back now!”

* The term “apodments” is a brand name of one particular housing product. I’m using the term here broadly for all small apartments being built in the city.

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15 Responses to Is There an Apodment Moratorium in the Works?

  1. MarkSJohnson says:

    I think apodments are a good addition to the housing continuum, but they are also exploiting an aspect of the land use code that has not been controversial for a long time: the definiton of a household. They are effectively the same thing as boarding houses – bedrooms rented to individuals that share kitchen facilities- but the land use code views an eight bedroom apodment as a single dwelling, which is what appears so nonsensical. No one who lives in an apodment thinks of themselves as a family unit with all their fellow tenants, I am fairly sure, but that is how they are treated by the Code. Also, apodments have been exploiting the multifamily tax exemption, which means they like it both ways: treat them an eight bedroom unit as one when it suits them, and as individual apartments when that has its advantages. Doesn’t seem quite fair, even though, as I said at the beginning, I think these types of units deserve a place on the housing continuum. I think this is a new category of housing and it needs some attention to make it work fairly, and probably does not need to be subsidized with a tax exemption.

    • Dan C says:

      Great comment Mark. Most people would indeed call this exploitation a “loophole”.

      • Randall Spaan says:

        MOST people??
        I wouldn’t be too sure of that, Dan. For one thing, see Doreenew’s comment below.
        Exploitation has shades of meaning. The first of these ~~and the one that you apparently jumped to is:
        1. unfair treatment or use: the practice of taking selfish or unfair advantage of a person or situation
        The other is:
        2. development of something for benefit: the use or development of something in order to gain a benefit.

        Certainly, the latter definition applies in this case. Very clearly, the development of Mirco-studios is a benefit to a whole class of low-wage earners and others who otherwise would not have clean, safe housing in the City of Seattle because of price point. (revisit Doreenew’s comment). And, YES, no question it’s also a benefit to the developers of this housing type. If it weren’t a benefit (a profit to be made) they wouldn’t expend the time and energy and risk their capital to develop it. That’s the free market at work! Do you realize that 95% of all the housing (either rented or owned) in existence in the United States of America today has been produced by the merchant builder? Probably not ~~but it’s time that you do. And it’s also time that you get over the fact that the merchant builder does it for profit. After all, if it weren’t for that motivation you almost certainly wouldn’t have the home you currently inhabit!

        Finally, I don’t buy the notion that there’s a “loophole” here. The land use code definition of dwelling unit is an assemblage of rooms for a household. And a household is defined as “not more than 8 unrelated persons.” These micro-studio or “workforce housing” developments are designed around 8 sleeping suites small enough to accommodate just one occupant, all having access to a common great room w/ lounge, kitchen, and laundry. That truly fits the City’s definition of household.

        Would your “loophole radar” somehow be lowered if each sleeping room didn’t have its own private bathroom? Or if each dwelling unit was composed of 4 larger bedrooms suitable for double occupancy (but still accommodating a total of 8 unrelated persons)? Do you see the illogic of your claim of “loophole” here? And why do you care? What is the negative impact ~~to you or anybody else~~ of eight unrelated persons living in one of these units, pray tell? I’d dearly love to know!

  2. Randall Spaan says:

    What does “fairness” have to do with it? Unfair to whom??

  3. MarkSJohnson says:

    If a “unit” has eight bedrooms that are individually rented out, but is treated as one unit by the Code for density and parking requirements, then why should it not be treated as one unit in terms of the rent being charged when it comes to the MFTE?

    • Randall Spaan says:

      Mark, that does not answer the questions, “What does fairness have to do with it?” and, more to the point, “Unfair to whom??”

  4. MarkSJohnson says:

    The primary unfairness seems to me to be that the landlord avoids being regulated as a boarding house, e.g. providing parking commensurate with the number of boarding rooms, and therefore holds down the cost of producing the units, but still charges relaively high rates for the rooms on a per square foot basis, and gets a tax break. Meanwhile, the rest of the city is picking up the tax burden for the landlord, who could be making a tidy profit without the tax break, and I suspect would still be providing the housing even if the subsidy were not available.

    • Randall Spaan says:

      Hi Mark
      That’s a “fair” answer to the unfairness concern you raised. But it is based on a number false assumptions.
      Unless there’s more than one Mark S Johnson in town you are a former Senior Land Use Planner with Seattle DPD (and one of the better ones, I might add; I was sorry to see you depart for the private sector). Thus you should know as well as anyone, then, that the LUC does not define a dwelling unit in terms of a “family unit.” Indeed, it’s the opposite: The LUC defines a dwelling unit as “an assemblage of rooms for a household” and, in turn, defines a household as “not more than eight UNRELATED persons.” (with my EMPHASIS added)

      1. Thus, eight private sleeping suites all sharing a common cooking facility/great room is entirely consistent with the Seattle LUC. I submit it would be “unfair” that deprive these eight individuals of a much needed affordable, safe housing environment close to work and services simply because they are not members of a large or extended family. Now THAT would be unfair. I do believe, however, just eight individuals per unit is a scale that can engender a feeling of perhaps not family but community. It’s small enough that everyone meets everyone at some point in their comings and goings and interactions in common spaces, be it the kitchen, great room, laundry, or just the mail box. And small enough to remember who’s who; who belongs and who doesn’t.

      2. As for the “fairness” of providing only one space per dwelling unit (i.e., one space per 8 sleeping suites): That is rendered moot now that no parking is required within urban villages. I know of no boarding house project that has been developed outside of an Urban Village or Urban Center, except for the first one that kind of go the ball rolling: Videre’ on 23rd E just a few doors north of John Street. But you know what? In the first lease up of those 42 doors guess how many tenants had a car? Two. Just two. That’s because, even though it was not in an Urban Village it was yet on a street w/ excellent public transit and was a level bicycle ride/walk to the happening part of Capitol Hill, 2 blocks from major shopping, etc. What you need to understand is the profile of the tenant is “don’t have a car, don’t want a car, can’t afford a car, don’t need a car; but when I do it’s CAR2GO for me.” That’s a fact. In sum, I see no exploitation of parking requirements occurring here.

      3. Finally, you must have in mind the King County Tax Abatement program for affordable new construction housing. This is the program that assesses no RE tax on the value of the improvements for 12 years. Yes, you are correct in observing that the boarding house development model would in all likelihood be undertaken even in the absence of the tax abatement program. But your charges of unfairness should be directed to the program, not at this valuable housing type or even at the developer. Why wouldn’t the developer pay the $6000 nonrefundable review fee if the program is open to him/her? When you bought your Prius or retrofitted your home w/ solar collection panels did you decline to take advantage of the Federal tax credits available to you? (Mark, that was tongue in cheek; of course I don’t know if you have Prius or solar panels but I think I’ve made a valid point).
      Cheers!
      Randy

  5. MarkSJohnson says:

    So I have been outed for my background.
    1. I don’t dispute that the land use code allows eight unrelated people to occupy a single unit as a household, or that people should have a choice to live in this type of housing. I have no suggestions for changing the deffinition of a houshold, nor do I think it needs to be changed.
    2. I was not aware that the 42-room development had only two car owners in its initial lease-up, and will admit my bias that assumes a higher rate of car ownership would prevail generally. (Based on that example, perhaps these should only be allowed in places with high transit service, so that pattern would persist.)
    3. First, let me acknowledge that the program I am referring to, which Seattle calls the MFTE program, doesn’t extend outside of urban villages and centers at present as far as I know, so I don’t think the development mentioned in #2 above would have qualified for that subsidy. Also, I don’t fault anyone for exploiting a legal loophole, but that is what I believe it is. It is not fair to call an 8-bedroom unit a “unit” for purposes on meeting density limits in a particular zone, then claim it is 8 separate units for purposes of demonstrating affordability and getting a tax break. I don’t deny that the living space is affordable housing for many that choose it, but I don’t see it as necessary or equitable to subsidize a landlord that is demanding upwards of $4000 per month for a “household” of any size. There are other housing forms that the market is not providing in Seattle that deserve those subsidies, and we should re-focus the program on those.

    • Randall Spaan says:

      Hi Mark,
      It appears that your beef is with the tax abatement program, not with this housing type. In your first comment you even conceded that “apodments are a good addition to the housing continuum” and you subsequently conceded that Seattle’s definition of “household” is up to and including eight unrelated persons and, further, that you do not think that it needs to be changed.

      That’s all good but it appears that your are willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. I humbly suggest that you direct your energy toward getting the rules for the tax abatement changed if you think it’s so unfair, rather than trying to stop or impede the development of this valuable housing type. Your notion of fairness appears to be centered on developers making too much money. Those damned “one-percenters!” What you seem to forget is that those “one-percenters” are creating housing that many of the “the ninety-nine percent” desperately want. Centro (at 13th & John), for example, during construction took reservations from tenants, accompanied by refundable cash deposits. When the building was completed not a single tenant asked for a refund! Nearly all micros that are under construction or are up and operating have waiting lists and/or essentially zero vacancies. Clearly, that testifies to the level of pent-up demand for this housing type. Efforts to stop this housing type because the amount of money made by the developer (with our without the tax abatement) is “unfair” in your mind would only serve to deprive low-income singles in Seattle of a much-need affordable housing opportunity. If anything is unfair in this THAT would be it!

      You may think that MFTE program applied to this housing type is “unfair” but I ask you to consider the following:
      1. Permanent financing for this development type is not easy: The housing type is non-conforming and therefore does not qualify for conventional mortgage instruments that can be sold in the secondary market. It can be financed only with portfolio funds. Portfolio funds are limited. The tax abatement may be what is necessary to encourage developers to undertake the arduous task of hunting down that funding.
      2. The 2013 MFTE rent limits for a studio are $910 to $1365 for renters with 60% to 90% of mean income.
      These sleeping suites, which are not full studios (they have a shower, w.c., sink, fridge, mircowave but no range), by comparison, rent for in the $450-700 range. That’s roughly HALF the rent limit for a studio. Is that so unfair? Just asking.
      Fairness is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to money! If we learned anything from the last election cycle it was that, I suppose.
      Randy

  6. doreenew says:

    If I ever had to move again and NOT be on assistance in order to get an apartment, this would be it. I barely make eighty cents above minimum wage and would lose everything I love about living in Seattle.

    I hope the Apodments spread like weeds and annoy their opponents to no end. Bottom line is they don’t want their ‘help’ living so close to them.

  7. MarkSJohnson says:

    I want to repsond to a couple of comments. First, I think the loophole issue is largely closed with regard to MFTE and deisgn review. You can’t any longer take the MFTE for the micro units and avoid design review by claiming you really have just a handful of units. Housing and DPD were wise to stop there. MFTE is still available to projects if that is important , but you can’t call the project two different things.

    Next, let me repeat what I said before: I think these units have a place on the housing continuum. By that I mean let’s continue to allow micros. I don’t mean let’s dream up as many new barriers as we can so they will go away. I mean, let’s make sure we don’t stop these from being built.

    That said, life safety concerns should be carefully examined. For example, from my experience as a small-time landlord, I know two units on a single hallway are required to have fire doors with closers. This is deigned to protect one tenant’s egress route from a fire started in the other tenant’s unit, by ensuring that the normal position of a door to the hallway is closed. Not too much to ask. But I don’t think this applies to bedrooms in a single unit. Should it apply to the bedroom doors in micros? I am not sure. I doubt there is much of a safety record from recent development, and it makes no sense to look back to the days of single room occupancy hotels of yesteryear; those were built without many life safety features that are now standard in all development. Perhaps if one asked insurance companies, they might have an idea how to assess this.

    Micros are a bit like babies in the bathwater. They are new and therefore vulnerable. But the bathwater can’t be ignored. I am for setting reasonable community standards on housing, but that is because I want these babies to thrive.

    • Randall Spaan says:

      Mark, You would be pleased to know that DPD already has your concerns for life/safety issues covered! While the Land Use side of DPD treats an assemblage of up to 8 sleeping suites as a dwelling unit, the Building Code side of DPD treats it as a boarding house. That created some initial confusion for those of us who design them ~~but as DPD’s head engineer said, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…it’s a boarding house!” So, yes, DPD reviews the rooms as sleeping suites, not bedrooms of a dwelling unit, which means 1-hr separations with all other spaces to the side, above, and below; which means fire rated doors w/ auto closers, etc. DPD even requires that these boarding houses be fully sprinkled!

      Ever since Videre’ on 23rd E, the first one of these to be permitted ~~which, it is fair to say, caught DPD off-guard (is it a dwelling unit or is it a boardinghouse?)~~ this treatment of micro-studios as boardinghouses for ordinance & structural review purposes has been the case. Indeed DPD amended the 2009 IBC to carve out a new category of boarding house, the R-3 boarding house, in order to encourage this housing type while ensuring life/safety standards. Director’s Rule 6-2012 was produced in response to a number of ambiguities and unintended consequences encountered in the implementation of the 2009 code amendment ~~as might be expected with a new regulation. In sum, the Ordinance & Structural review staff of DPD have endeavored very hard to ensure that this housing form is safe from hazards. To drive home the point, I was party to a conversation with Seattle Fire Department’s senior plans reviewer in which he expressed the opinion that “these R3 boarding houses are very safe.”

      With respect to life/safety issues I can confidently report that micro-studios slip through no loopholes.

  8. david smu says:

    if it walks like a tenement, looks like a tenement and smells like a tenement, it’s a tenement. Most cities are tearing them down (ie Buenos Aires and Mumbai).

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