Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Should There Be Housing Size Minimums?

Last week, Seattle’s City Council was discussing micro-housing regulation–a discussion that’s been going on for a while. About a year ago, we looked at a proposal that sought to define a micro-apartment as a dwelling smaller than 285 sq ft; it had to have its own bathroom and a communal kitchen for every eight units along with a few other criteria. The discussion last week furthered this conversation, stating that eight micro-dwellings (effectively efficiency apartments), each with their own bathroom and kitchenette and one shared kitchen, would constitute one micro “unit”. There could be multiple units in a building.

One big unresolved issue for the council is dwelling size. One proposal promoted by Mike O’Brien, the city council’s land-use committee chairman, is that the average minimum size of all of the micro-housing units in a building be 220 sq ft; this number being in line with a number of other major cities like San Francisco’s minimum required area. Specifying that a buildings units’ average minimum–versus overall average–is a safeguard against developers putting one or two big units so they can build a bunch of tiny units.

The other proposal, came from council-member Nick Licata, who said “I don’t want to have the market determine the availability and affordability of units to the extent that we end up putting people in chicken coops.” He suggested an amendment to the 220 sq ft proposal, which would allow for units as small as 180 sq ft. The number was based on the fact that he knew people who live comfortably in apartments that size. It is also a number that is consistent with other parts of the city’s building code.

Whether Seattle lands on 220, 180 or 90 sq ft, there seems to be a bigger question on the table. Should cities even have minimum size requirements for dwellings?  If someone wants to live in a closet–and presumably pay a proportionately low rent–shouldn’t that be an option he or she should be able to exercise?

This is hardly a suggestion to abolish building regulation. Whether 8K or 80 sq ft, any dwelling should adhere to certain safety and livability standards. People shouldn’t live in chicken coops or cages. But if they want to live in a well-ventilated, sunny space with proper egress–one that happens to be the size of a chicken coop–who are government officials to say that they can’t?

One big problem in Seattle is the neighborhoods the micro-apartment building are moving into. Unlike places like San Francisco, many of Seattle’s micro-apartment buildings are being built in medium density neighborhoods with single-family houses with longtime–and vocal–residents who aren’t keen on micro-apartment dwellers (younger, more transient) and their impact on parking. Many of these folks think the city needs to be stricter about micro-housing regulation.

On the other hand, Seattle is unique in that its government has been overall quite supportive of micro-housing. The current proposals being discussed are a function of that. The city is trying to add the micro-housing typology into its architectural canon through these regulations. And why not? Micro-housing provides market-based, affordable housing for the city’s growing single populations (40% of residents in 2011 according to the Seattle Times).

The city’s advocacy is no doubt helped along by the fact that developers seem to be making money building micro-housing. Hell, there’s even a lobbying group called Smart Growth Seattle. In many ways, the controversy is arising from the parity of the two sides: entrenched and vocal Seattleites opposing micro-housing (or at least trying to curb its rate of expansion) versus flush and connected developers, who are providing a popular type of housing.

This issue reminds us of Felice Cohen’s 90 sq ft apartment. Because of its size, Cohen was able to afford a neighborhood and lifestyle she couldn’t have had she lived a larger apartment. She proudly showed the tiny space off to Fair Companies. When the video went viral, her landlord got busted because it was an illegal sublet. She was evicted shortly thereafter. When we last saw her, she did an awkward tour of her new 500 sq ft digs, whose space she hardly knew what to do with. Cohen’s first apartment, so far as we could see, was small, but not dangerous. Assuming a space is safe, who’s to say that someplace is too small to live in?

What do you think? Should the government regulate housing size? Or, assuming housing is safe and livable, should the market and citizens decide? Let us know what you think in our comments section.


  • I do think micro-housing is what is needed. However, I do think that there should be reasonable minimum standards set based upon square footage of living space; requirements for a self-contained kitchen and bathroom within the individual unit; laundry facilities in the unit or building; and parking requirements whether on a per unit basis or 1 per x number of units depending upon the location, so as not to overtax available street parking in a neighborhood. I do think micro-units should be appropriately zoned and regulated. While I think most professional developers will do a fine job and not overburden a neighborhood, there are always so-called developers who will cut corners get their money and disappear leaving the problems they created for someone else to deal with, and this is why establishing minimum standards are important for the success of micro-housing units, so everyone understands the requirements and abide by them. These requirements might be as different as NYC, San Francisco, Seattle, etc. are. Building Codes are the norm throughout the United States, as is zoning regulations, so any requirements should tie in for accessibility, safety, and living ability standards. It will be interesting to see how communities or states develop standards for micro-housing units and developments.

  • Mary

    Take a hint from the title of your newsletter. Read your first sentence. ” Refulation?”

    • David Friedlander

      ah man, the worst typos are the ones in the title or first sentence. thanks for pointing that out.

      • YoungSally

        Hey, at least we know a real person is doing the writing. When in doubt, blame the kid….or a pet. : )

  • George Sears

    This is mostly about rentals, and urban building is complicated by things like parking. I remember wanting to do something simple and cheap in a largely rural area. Tough to do. I mostly ran into subdivision requirements for a house to be at least, say, 2000 square feet. You certainly run into issues if you want to bring in a manufactured house. The county banned the narrow ‘single wide’ manufactured house. You can’t put it on a lot. They won’t issue a building permit. You can’t take a ‘travel trailer’ and keep it on a piece of land. You can’t build any house, or place any manufactured home, on a lot without extensive soil work, even though no one has demonstrated the costs and benefits very well. The costs can be very high. Simple houses that were built here in the 90’s are now impossible to build. You can’t find a lot or your cost structure will be outrageous.

    What happened where I live is that the housing boom of the 2000’s created the idea that everyone could have a nice house, a big house, a house that was a piggy bank and a surefire investment. Anyone who applied traditional ideas, like living within a budget, or being able to buy a house that was all you needed, not more, well, those people were idiots and malcontents. And look how well it has turned out?

    I hate all the subdivision rules and all the governmental regs, and that’s unreasonable and irrational. But my bottom line would be that people should have housing, that any form of housing is better than nothing. The standards have to make sense, not for builders and real estate values, but for people. I like aesthetics as much as the next guy. I think you can build a decent house, even in a factory, and make a community of houses with some design and landscaping.

    The problem with the rules applied to subdivisions of land is that the real purpose is to create wealth, investment concerns. This is no longer reasonable, though it may work for some people. Around here it would help if the county, which regulates building, would roll back the ‘standards’ to what existed in the 90’s.

    Overall, my vision would be extremely well laid out subdivisions with 300 -800 square foot (probably detached) houses on maybe 2,000 sq ft lots. I’d honestly like to know what these would cost, and whether they would sell. The houses might have to be built in a factory. That’s the whole free markets idea, trying to provide something that people want, or would at least buy as the best option for them.

  • Marrena

    The government absolutely should regulate housing size.

    • Joe

      If the property is zoned for a single family home the government should not regulate housing size.

      If it is for a multi-family development project the government should have a say.

      The reasoning here is simple, the government should protect the occupants from the developers.

      However the government should not protect you from yourself, simply because someone in the government is under the impression that you should have a higher standard of living.

  • SubZERO23

    I think there should be regulations on housing. I completely agree with Steve Stearns: There should be requirements for a kitchen and bathroom within each unit, parking, and laundry facilities in the building or in the unit. However, other than that, I believe there should be no size requirements.

  • Maggie

    I think we need fewer people.

    • Richard Montena

      yay maggie….. and why do we need parking?

    • elizabeth31

      That’s so bogus. Less people so that Egotistical Grubblets can waste even MORE? That’s capitalism for you. Don’t live wisely, live like a jackass. Wow.

      • Saralyn Ogden

        How about both? Cut back consumerism and our self-destructive population growth. They both stem from our inherent selfishness.

  • clarkbennett

    I think all units should at minimum be handicap adaptable. I don’t know off the top of my head what that sqft would be as it really is a design issue and not a minimum sqft issue. It would provide enough floor space for people with mobility issues to live comfortably. I also think every unit should be sized at minimum for double occupancy. I think in the push to create micro units the concepts of aging in place, adaptability, and the need for interpersonal relationships are completely ignored. The main motivation seems to be profiteering not providing suitable, sustainable (life cycle costs) and affordable housing.

  • experiencedgrandmother

    Without regulation, somebody is going to take advantage of somebody else. That’s the inevitable. If a developer can get buy with building closets and calling them a studio apartment, he’ll (or she’ll) do it. Funny about the mention of chicken coops: I live in a community that was once home to a military base. The number of men going through for training dramatically increased with World War II and there was a resulting shortage of housing. They lived in any kind of container available, including airplane crates. Residents were urged to turn unused buildings into apartments. Numerous chicken coops were pressed into housing that way. Most of them are gone now, due to the city’s effort to make them disappear. That’s in part because of the glut of rentals; also because they weren’t necessarily safe or well maintained. A woman died when the tiny house she was living in burned to the ground. Still, when a rental inspection program was put into place in the last five or so years, landlords complained loudly. It was sorely needed. I still don’t understand why anyone would rent to someone else a space they aren’t willing to live in themselves.

    • Jill

      That is one of the reasons the regulations went in the first place look at the tenements of the Victorian era in New York, Boston, Philadelphia etc. They were tiny boxes built one on top of another and had several health and safety hazards.

  • baruchatta

    I just came across this article. My comments.
    1. You would be suprised how little space one needs. Examples: live aboard sailboats, RV trailers, Jail. Yes, jail. Respectively, the per-person area is (average) 200, 150, 40 square feet.. I sooo do not recommend jail, but millions of inmates can’t be wrong. (irony)
    2. I just measured the office that I am now in. there are 60 cubicles, and the total area is 2400 square feet. That is 40 sf per cube. That area includes rest rooms for both sexes, and “break room”. Conceiveably, each cubicle could be someones live in room (with some slight modifications, showers in the rest rooms, better cooking in the break rooms.) Am I saying that 60 people could live in the area of one average house? Yes.

    • landshark123

      That situation sort of exist now on thousands of college campuses, its called a dorm.

  • Joe

    A practical solution to this situation is prevented by the very thing that created the problem.

    Micro housing is a popular idea because the zoning and regulation costs involved with regular single family development have either priced people out of the market, or heavily burdened them.

    In Colorado we have multiple counties with no building codes. Guess what, houses are not falling on peoples heads.

    Building a house, even a micro house is a large investment, and only a complete idiot isn’t going to show their plans to an engineer to make sure it won’t collapse on them.

    In these areas their are two requirements, an electrical inspection to make sure you won’t burn down the forest, and a septic inspection to make sure you down contaminate the ground water.

    I think we forget that if you have a roof over your head, a pot to piss in, and access to clean water you are going much better than millions of people on the planet.

  • sugarntasty

    Insult to public policies “Scott Wiener” D. San Francisco, sold this ideal. Not resolve housing imbalance statement…accept gentrified terms sq ft or shoe box? Oppose developers gain high density never reduce sq ft it’s failure what about families? A joke!