This is the big threat? A microhousing building on Capitol Hill built under existing rules.
  • Photo by Kelly O
  • This is the big threat? A microhousing building on Capitol Hill built under existing rules.

Mayor Ed Murray deserves recognition from supporters of affordable housing for sending a stern letter to the Seattle City Council today, warning them that efforts to amend a bill on small, inexpensive apartments could drive up rental costs. The letter is posted after the jump.

The letter has been perceived as veto-threat. While Murray won't declare that explicitly, he told The Stranger this afternoon, "The veto is one of the things I've got to consider if we end up with an ordinance that doesn't create affordability. I have to keep all options on the table."

But a tone-deaf council dug in their heels anyway.

Late this afternoon in a land-use committee meeting, council members approved several such amendments to a bill on so-called microhousing, including measures to: (1) raise the minimum unit size from 180 square feet to 220 square feet, (2) require covered bicycle parking, (3) increase the amount of common space, and (4) mandate that each unit have a second sink.

The common thread of the changes if they become law: fewer apartments would fit into each building and the cost of constructing each unit would increase. As a result, there would be less new housing and apartments that are available would cost more.

As Mayor Murray's letter intones, "I am concerned about indirectly regulating density through land use code standards related to storage space and other amenities, and the unintended consequences that may occur as a result."

The council's leading critic of the small units has been Council Member Tom Rasmussen—who owns a house in West Seattle worth $1.1 million, according to county tax records—and he said today that smaller apartments were "inhumane."

In his criticism, Rasmussen parroted familiar rhetoric of home-owning NIMBYs who oppose sketchy, young renters living in their neighborhoods. Rasmussen once tried to pass a moratorium on microhousing, but today, rather than trying to freeze this sort of affordable housing outright, Rasmussen and his colleagues are apparently trying to make micro-housing units so cost-prohibitive to build and expensive to rent that it doesn't get built at all.

The idea of what was inhumane was a popular nugget for council members today, but it was ironic given that some of these same council members voted last year to let homeless encampments go unregulated (a man recently died after falling from an unregulated camp). Apparently those living conditions are humane. Also humane? A city in which the average one-bedroom apartment rents for $1,381 a month, and working-class people must live in distant suburbs, spending two hours a day commuting to their city jobs by bus.

The council bill was introduced by land-use chair Mike O'Brien, who did not support the amendments. His bill would formalize zoning rules for microhousing, a construction style that involves small units with private bathrooms and a shared kitchen. The apartments have become popular in dense expensive, neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill in recent years, typically renting for less than than one-bedroom apartments or studios, and the rent also includes utilities.

Council Members Rasmussen, Tim Burgess, and Sally Clark—who represent the more conservative wing of City Hall—backed today's amendments with the help of density-opponent Nick Licata. The bill will go before the full council to be ratified in two weeks.

Mayoral spokesman Jeff Reading told PubliCola today the mayor's letter was a threat to veto the amendments. However, Reading told me later that was not the mayor's position. Murray dials it back when speaking for himself, reiterating that "all options are on the table" and a "veto is one of the things I've got to consider."

Here's Murray's letter:

September 16, 2014
Dear Councilmembers:
Edward B. Murray Mayor
City of Seattle

As you know, I sent down legislation, C.B. 118067 earlier this year. My intent was to better regulate the development of micro-housing and congregate residences by defining this type of development within the Land Use Code; prohibiting micro-housing development in single-family zones (congregate residences are already prohibited); applying a design review threshold by the size of the building (not number of dwelling units); and providing notice to neighbors as part of the Design Review process.

These were the concerns I was hearing and that is why I responded quickly with legislation.

Wanting to conduct more outreach, Council convened a working group to dig deeper into the issues that were of most concern. As a result of that stakeholder group, a substitute bill was introduced.

For the most part, I was supportive of the proposed approach of C.B. 118201, to regulate small efficiency dwelling units and congregate residences, though I was mindful about how more restrictive regulations could make these types of developments too cost prohibitive to build.

Several amendments are being considered at today’s Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee. As you review the proposed amendments to the legislation, I urge you to keep the affordability issue in mind. I am concerned about indirectly regulating density through land use code standards related to storage space and other amenities, and the unintended consequences that may occur as a result.

Regulations are needed for this type of development, but our regulations need to help and not hinder the process and the outcomes we are hoping to achieve. And one of those achievements is more housing. That is a priority.

With that in mind, I look forward to working with you and the Housing Advisory Committee on the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda in the months ahead, and developing a bold and actionable suite of recommendations to increase housing affordability and options and neighborhood livability in Seattle.

Mayor Edward B. Murray City of Seattle