Peace in a pod: How tiny apartments could reshape the big city
A few weeks ago, a series of mishaps hit Molly, 24, all at once: a roach-infested apartment, a sudden breakup, and she found herself sleeping in a friend’s basement, searching desperately for an affordable place she could move into with little notice. Easier said than done, as she lives in Seattle.
At the bus stop one day, Molly noticed a building of “aPodments” — a trademarked brand of microhousing that has sprung up in Seattle over the last year like mushrooms after a rainstorm. (One local blog counts at least 15 projects constructed or in the works in just one neighborhood.) She called to inquire on a Friday and moved in on Monday. She has a three-month lease and pays $595 per month (utilities and internet included) for a furnished, dorm-sized room with a private bathroom, refrigerator, and access to a full-sized common kitchen.
Microhousing — a catch-all term for ultra-compact apartments that sometimes share common spaces — offers a way to reconcile rising urban housing prices with a financially struggling generation’s preference for city living. It’s proliferating in cities where the tension between those contradictory trends is most acute: Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Vancouver. San Francisco updated its city code to allow developers to build smaller individual units (a minimum of 150 square feet), and New York is reviewing design proposals for a pilot microhousing project of apartments around 275 to 300 square feet. Seattle’s approach has been a bit messier.
In the Emerald City, where housing prices are a constant lament (thought nowhere near as bad — yet — as D.C. or San Francisco), developers have found ways to work around city codes, creating structures that house dozens of people on what were once single-family lots. So far, the city is turning a blind eye. The result is that, for all city-dwellers’ disgust with McMansions and three-car garages, this tiniest kind of housing is now prompting passionate debate over the best approach to urban infill.
Supporters of microhousing paint critics as a bunch of wealthy homeowners who don’t want younger, poorer folks flooding their neighborhood, competing for parking spaces, blocking their views, destroying local character, and depreciating neighboring property values. And you can see where that impression comes from. “Anyone who can scrape up enough money for month-to-month rent can live there,” one neighbor of an under-construction microapartment building told Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger in 2009. “I don’t think most people want to live next to a boarding house with itinerant people living in it.” He worried the development would be “a magnet for very sketchy people.”
Molly is not sketchy — she has a college degree and now manages an art studio in addition to her job as a barista. (Molly is not her real name.) And she suspects that “most people who live here … are in a similar situation to myself, in that they didn’t find what they were looking for but this works.” She plans to wait until her three-month lease is up, then take the time to look for a more normal-sized place in her price range.
The problem, according to microhousing critics, is not the idea of density itself or the types of new neighbors it could bring, but the backhanded way Seattle developers have gone about capitalizing on the trend. Local projects can bypass standard design and environmental reviews required for buildings with at least nine units by counting multiple microapartments that share a common space as one unit, even if the individual dwellings have locks on their doors and separate leases.
Carl Winter, a representative of a neighborhood group called Reasonable Density Seattle, says he has a friend who was told by a developer that a demolished single-family home on the block would be replaced with six units. “The neighbors were like, ‘OK, we’re used to that kind of density,’” Winter says. “That’s density we can accommodate, and it’s not going to change the neighborhood.” But the finished product turned out to be not six townhomes but 42 microapartments.
“The biggest problem is they’re not being called what they are, which is apartments,” says Jeffrey Cook, a member of the Capitol Hill Community Council, which submitted a resolution to the Seattle City Council asking for a moratorium on new microapartments until the design-review loophole is closed. “Calling them anything else is disingenuous and unfair to the neighbors living next to them all of a sudden.”
Skirting design review could have negative consequences beyond bad feelings among neighbors. “If aPodments start showing up on every block,” Winter says, “that’s an incredible increase in density, and they’re never going to study what that density would do.”
One thing it will do, critics say, is strain the neighborhood’s already severely limited supply of street parking. Molly’s building, outside the dense core of Capitol Hill, comes with six dedicated parking spaces, but she says she’s never seen more than two cars parked there — a sign that those fears may be overblown. After all, she points out, for young urban folks, “the cost of owning and operating a car is more prohibitive than the lack of parking.”
So far, it doesn’t sound like the city is seriously considering a moratorium on microapartments. Mike Podowski, land use policy manager for the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said, “We’re observing them and intend to do a little more study.” He added that microhousing is “an important source of affordable housing provided by the market.”
Increased urban density is the way of the future; it has to be if we want our cities to lead the way in addressing the climate crisis. And if we want to keep them from becoming islands of wealth surrounded by suburban slums, we’ll need a radical increase in density.
That doesn’t mean that 10 years from now we’ll all be crowding into aPodments. But microhousing will no doubt be part of the picture. For people like Molly, that’s good news. She moved into her aPodment less than two weeks ago, and says she feels like she “lucked out.” The aPodment is quiet, secure, a haven after the roaches: “To have affordable housing that’s new and clean is a really nice thing.”