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Originally published Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 4:08 PM

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Editorial: Seattle should impose controls on ‘aPodments’ and conduct larger housing review

The surge in “aPodment” micro-housing is a savvy solution to high rent, but the city of Seattle needs to quickly tighten control on the loosely regulated buildings.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE ballooning cost of rent in Seattle has provoked the return of an old solution: the itsy-bitsy, dirt-cheap, single-tenant rental unit.

Just as the single-room occupancies, or SROs, of Pioneer Square served workers a century ago, today’s surging supply of micro-apartments, or “aPodments,” are a savvy, market-based relief valve for an overpriced housing market.

Students and low-wage workers are snatching up the 200-square-foot units as fast as they are built. At $500 or $600 a month, aPodments cost half as much as a regular apartment, even if they are little more than a bed and a bathroom.

But it’s time for policymakers to take a breath and consider the impact of micro-housing.

Most of the 2,100-or-so aPodments built in Seattle since 2006 cropped up within a loophole in the city building code.

It counts kitchens, not beds, as housing units, and aPodment buildings usually have one kitchen for every eight units.

Buildings with fewer than nine kitchens aren’t subject to the same official review as traditional apartment buildings. That effectively allows aPodments to dodge design and environmental scrutiny.

A 56-unit building can pop up with no consideration for its fit in a neighborhood, or impact on sewers or parking, because the city’s Department of Planning and Development sees it as an eight-kitchen building.

Meanwhile, another arm of city government — the Office of Housing — was granting affordable-housing tax exemptions to aPodments based on the number of units, not the number of kitchens.

The two city agencies admitted last week they’d known for months that aPodment developers were gaming the system, but didn’t stop it. That’s a failure of Mayor Mike McGinn’s administration.

The Seattle City Council is now being asked for a moratorium on aPodments.

A better approach is to quickly institute short-term controls, including streamlined design reviews for all aPodments, and begin a larger assessment of Seattle’s growing need for affordable housing.

It’s worth remembering that the SROs of yore aged into poorly maintained fire traps. Today’s developers should heed history. Build, and maintain, for the future, not just the present.

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