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Is Your Community Ready for Micro-Housing?

By Andrew S. Lane, Attorney, Cairncross & Hempelmann

You're sitting at your desk at the permit counter. An application is dropped in front of you. You quickly skim the application — hmmm... five stories... 40 residential units... five shared kitchens — huh? Then you recognize the project address as a rather small lot. Your eyebrows (and your brain) furrow as you wonder how the architect could fit 40 units on that lot. Your forehead exchanges its confused furrows for wide-eyed astonishment as it dawns on you — each unit is only 120 square feet! At that moment, what pops into your head?

  1. That's going to provide needed affordable housing!
  2. That's a small per-person carbon footprint, which is a great step for sustainability!
  3. But it's going to be quite a change for that really nice neighborhood.
  4. Hey — didn't we just cut bus service to that area?
  5. Looks like I'm working late tonight.
  6. All of the above.

As apartment rents climb, tiny rental units are finding a niche — they can cost less to build than traditional units and the rents can be lower. Some people are also choosing to live in “micro-housing” for its smaller environmental footprint, a benefit that shouldn't be overlooked.

This article considers some of the issues that have arisen with the advent of micro-housing and identifies development code areas that should be evaluated to ensure they reflect your city's affordable housing and sustainability strategies. I'm using “micro-housing” to refer to any smaller-than-typical rental unit, consisting of at least a private room for sleeping and an attached private bath consisting of a toilet, shower or bathtub, and sink. Some micro-housing projects have a shared, centrally located kitchen while others have small kitchens or kitchenettes in each unit.

Micro-Housing can be Controversial

Micro-housing is not without controversy. In some neighborhoods where on-street parking is limited, residents dread even more parking competition with the increased densities possible with these smaller units. Some worry that neighborhood character will change for the worse. Some worry that unscrupulous landlords will ignore health and safety laws and cram tenants into unsafe conditions.

But where jobs and amenities are nearby and transit is reliable, parking impacts can be minimal (fewer residents will need or want cars). Some neighborhoods also revel in the economic and age diversity, and benefit by having more people out and about — making a more vibrant community. Micro-housing can also be one form of affordable housing that does not rely on public subsidies, tax incentives, or development fees.

However the discussion unfolds in your community, micro-housing can provide a valuable housing option when it's done well and in the right places.

How Does Your Development Code Define Micro-Housing?

Voids are made to be filled. If your code doesn't define micro-housing, then someone (an applicant, the neighbors, a judge, etc.) will define it for you. Consider a project with eight rental units and one shared kitchen. Seattle's land use code didn't specifically address this model when the first micro-housing applications were submitted. Under the old code, the best fit for this scenario was to use the standards for a single townhouse or apartment unit. One example of the potential bad fit was parking standards. In zones where parking is required, the number of dwelling units determined the number of parking spaces for townhouses and apartments. This example with eight separate renters would be treated as one dwelling unit for purposes of parking requirements — not a happy result for the current residents.

Things to think about:

  • Does micro-housing fit under an existing code definition? If so, is it adequate?
  • If a new definition is needed, are there micro-housing models (e.g., shared kitchens, etc.) that you want to encourage or discourage?
  • Should the definition include minimum or maximum unit or room sizes?
  • What comprehensive plan policies are relevant (e.g., affordable housing policies, sustainability or smart growth policies, transportation policies, etc.)?

Where Is Micro-Housing Allowed?

Micro-housing makes the most sense in areas where transit is reliable and walking and biking options are good. The increased densities can also benefit transit by helping to build a sufficient ridership level to help pay for transit. Micro-housing also makes sense in areas where you want to encourage and support local retail and services — more people on the sidewalks can be better for business.

Look at the permitted use tables in your zoning code and consider:

  • Where is the likely demand (or where do you want to encourage this housing type)? A likely micro-housing tenant may not want to settle into a single-family neighborhood with parking problems and lousy transit. But an area that has jobs within walking distance or great transit may be the perfect place.
  • Where are restaurants and retail concentrated? Micro-housing also makes sense where its residents can support local businesses.

What Development Standards Make Sense?

The more it costs to build micro-housing, the higher the rents will be. (Of course market demand drives rents, too.) Micro-housing may not be for every neighborhood. You'll need to balance development requirements with the need for micro-housing and the desire to maintain the existing character of neighborhoods.

  • Are private kitchens required in each dwelling unit? Should they be?
  • What are the minimum dwelling unit and bedroom sizes?
  • Is there a minimum size for a bathroom?
  • What about solid waste storage?

Parking or No Parking?

Parking is a significant concern. Although studies show that some demographic groups living near high-quality transit are forsaking cars, this is not always the experience. There is sometimes a disconnect between zoning and transit policies adopted in comprehensive plans and what actually happens on the ground. When zoning assumes transit will be built, but transit funding isn't adequate, more people than anticipated will have cars.

  • Is transit robust enough to support development with no new parking?
  • Is it your city's goal to get more people to go car-less? If so, requiring new parking might thwart that goal.
  • If parking is required, consider alternative parking models (e.g., Seattle utilizes restricted parking zone permits in some areas, but limits the number of permits for smaller units).
  • How about required bicycle parking?

What Type of Review Do Applications Get?

The more complicated and unpredictable the review process, the more the cost and timing of a project are difficult to predict and the higher rents are likely to be. How much review is necessary for a project depends to some extent on whether your comprehensive plan's review of housing types addresses micro-housing and the level of detail of that review. If a thorough public discussion has already occurred on this type of housing, then project review can be simplified. A more general discussion in your comprehensive plan may require greater project-level review.

Final Thoughts

Don't get caught unprepared. Sooner or later, you're likely to see a micro-housing project application. Think about how micro-housing aligns with your city's affordable housing and sustainability goals. More importantly, think about how these goals are implemented by your development code. Look at your code to make sure it provides clear definitions and standards so you'll know what to do when that micro-housing project application hits your desk.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Andy Lane

Andy Lane writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Andy Lane focuses on land use and environmental law with Cairncross & Hempelmann. He advises municipalities, landowners, and developers regarding long-range planning issues, permitting, water rights, and compliance with environmental laws. Andy takes a practical approach to the practice of law, recognizing that land use disputes can frequently be resolved by up-front planning and creative thinking rather than prolonged litigation. In addition to helping private and municipal clients resolve legal disputes, Andy also partners with planners and engineers to provide consulting services to municipalities in land use and Growth Management Act ("GMA") matters.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.