OUTSIDE CITY HALL | Unregulated 'Apodments' threaten neighborhoods, tenants
Saturday, May 11, 2013 9:29 AM
“APodments” are springing up in Capitol Hill, the University District, Ballard, Wallingford, Eastlake and other neighborhoods — and causing quite a stir.
These are apartments of no more than 150 to 300 square feet about the size of glorified walk-in closets — with tiny bathrooms, a sink and room for a microwave. A building of three to six stories may contain 60 or even more of these units. Households on each floor share a common kitchen and sometimes a common room, small rooftop deck, laundry and other facilities.
Developers currently building APodments say they offer low-priced alternatives for young, single workers and students who might otherwise be priced out of Seattle neighborhoods.
Neighborhood activists, however, point out that constructing APodments often requires demolition of existing single-family homes or older, lower-density, affordable apartments.
Moreover, APodments are only happening because of zoning loopholes and the city’s lax interpretation of the building code. The city defines a dwelling unit as a living space containing a kitchen. Developers with plans to build, say, a four-story building with 64 units and eight shared kitchens, request a permit for eight units, and the city approves the permit. In the process, the developer conveniently avoids normal environmental review, parking and other essential mitigation.
Or where a building accurately described as 64 units might have been simply prohibited as too dense for that zone, the so-called eight-unit project gets built, causing significant impacts in already-crowded communities.
As our readers know, we’re not fans of runaway density, and we have the data to show that adding new rental units doesn’t mean low-cost housing will trickle dow” to the poor.
Yet, Apodments do serve a niche in our city’s hot rental-housing market. They fill up fast because some (not all) are offered in the $600- to $900-a-month range when most new units rent for twice that.
Reasonable regulations needed
Currently DPD’s passive pro-developer posture allows a free-for-all that, in addition to significant unaddressed impacts on neighborhoods, also places at risk the health and safety of several hundred tenants now occupying these things.
Seattle City Council should support the current call from neighborhood groups for a moratorium of 90 to 120 days, then bring all affected parties together — developers, tenants and neighborhood leaders — to draft a reasonable set of regulations.
These rules must not be so onerous as to preclude APodments but only allow them under certain conditions in certain zones and at a scale where they integrate with — not overwhelm — a community. And we must make sure they are livable and affordable to tenants.
Here are our priorities for new rules:
•Surveys done by neighborhood activists suggest the average square footage of an APodment may be as low as 150. We challenge anyone to live long-term in such a confined space and remain sane. The city must set a minimum-size threshold of at least 250 to 300 square feet.
•The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) has allowed “APods” above three stories with only one common fire exit, according to testimony at a public hearing. This is a critical tenant-safety issue. National standards require at least two common fire exits for larger, taller buildings.
•Without proper minimum size, design, siting and construction standards, in addition to fire-safety requirements, we risk institutionalizing a separate and unequal class of housing for lower-income people.
•Most of these so-called affordable APod units are priced at rents above what’s affordable to people with incomes at or below a true low-income threshold. A majority or significant percentage of the units should have rents explicitly restricted by the city to ensure they truly serve people with incomes at or below at least 50 percent of area median.
The city has legal authority for this by allowing APods under an incentive-zoning system. In exchange for agreeing to set low rents (and address neighborhood concerns), developers could build them when otherwise the base zoning would prohibit them.
•No more millions in multi-family tax exemptions for APods unless we require developers to provide a majority of units priced below 50 percent of median income, with some below 40 percent.
Following a similar path
APods have been likened to downtown SROs: small Single Room Occupancy units created in the last century. While we fortunately were able to save some SROs, which were subsequently renovated by nonprofits, and while they still provide a critically important source of low-cost housing, many fell into disrepair, were abandoned and later destroyed, with tenants displaced/evicted under great hardship. Some such as the Ozark Hotel burned down, resulting in many deaths and subsequent closure and abandonment of several thousand more of these units.
In the mid ‘80s through ‘90s, after a massive organizing effort by activists to save remaining buildings and avoid displacement of 2,000 of the city’s poorest households, the city wound up having to spend tens of millions to bring the SROs up to new fire code and health and safety standards. Unless they are properly regulated, APods could repeat the SRO experience.
JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.