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

Micro-Apartments Stir Not-so-Micro Controversy in Seattle

Lest we think all micro-apartments are high-end, high-tech, highfalutin, transforming thingamabobs, one should go to Seattle to see another, decidedly modest and analogue take on tiny living. That city has seen a great deal of development–and controversy–surrounding the spread of affordable micro-apartment developments. In particular, a couple companies, aPodment and Mini-Suite, have been making high-density apartments with shared amenities, with rents starting around $500.

One aPodment development, the Solana, has units that average 170 sq ft according to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who has expressed his support of the developments (some units in other building are as small as 100 sq ft). The units come furnished (with no murphy beds so far as we know) and have their own bathroom and shower. Instead of a proper kitchen, they feature a fridge and microwave, with available communal kitchens. All utilities including wifi are included.

There are 47 such developments currently permitted throughout Seattle and their popularity seems to be growing. And herein lies some of the controversy: Neighbors are complaining that because the buildings are so dense, they are bringing in more people than the neighborhoods can support. One oft-cited fear is that the influx will result in inadequate parking. There is also the complaint that the buildings are not subject to a “design review” which would entail greater bureaucratic and community scrutiny; developers only need a building permit to build these buildings.

Though not always explicit, critics seem to imply that the micro-apartment demographic–often young, low-to-moderate income singles–might not jive with some of the more family-oriented communities they’re infiltrating (note: the communities they’re moving into are zoned for multi-family development, but most buildings are far less dense than the micro-apartment buildings). One man trying to sell his home near an impending micro-apartment development was a bit more blunt, telling The Stranger:

Anyone who can scrape up enough money for month-to-month rent can live there…I don’t think most people want to live next to a boarding house with itinerant people living in it.

While we don’t live in these communities ourselves, the micro-apartment trend in Seattle has a tinge of NIMBY (not in my backyard), with threats seeming more imagined than real. The various articles we scanned reported of young Microsoft employees, recent college grads and divorcees on a fixed income occupying these apartments–not thugs looking for launchpads for heists. In terms of parking, Jim Potter, chair of Kauri Investments who owns Mini-Suites, says that only 10% of his tenants own cars. Most of the developments are located along transit lines, making cars less essential.

One commenter on The Stranger put it more starkly:

Either we embrace affordable housing close to downtown Seattle…or we embrace suburban flight, with the cultural and environmental ramifications thereof. I applaud Mulhair and Calhoun properties [aPodment] for providing private-sector solutions to public/governmental policies.

What do you think? Is this true? Can there be smart growth in our cities without major neighborhood demographic shifts? Do neighbors have legitimate complaints or a case of xenophobia that might inhibit a more affordable, sustainable city?

images by Mariana Kajlich for Seattle Magazine

  • ac pool

    We used to call this student housing. At one time (30 years ago), it was considered innovative to design and build housing like this in college towns.

  • SeattleResident

    I’d much rather see micro apartments as options in developments with mixed sizes, increasing the average density without concentrating low cost housing in specific projects. A building full of these types of apartments that is poorly maintained could have a devastating effect on a neighborhood over the long term. Let’s mix the housing stock so that no single demographic exercises too much influence on any given area.

    • madehiggins

      Well said. New York City spent decades trying to get Single Residency Occupancy (SROs) out of their neighborhoods. The SROs in NYC became dangerous, drug infested housing that most importantly CONCENTRATED people who really didn’t have their act together. These new microunits are identical to SROs but are marketed as housing for young professionals.

      I’m a huge fan of micro housing, small housing, urban infill and affordable housng but the key is integration. NYC learned long ago that 80/20 or similar mixing is the key.

      My question is what happens then 3, 4 or 5 of the hipsters in these microunits grow up and turn into 45 year old alcoholics… does the incoming batch of good looking, tech job holding, fixed gear riding 23 year olds skip the building at that point and then the owner is stuck with an entire building of problem tenants? That’s the story with the “projects” and SROs of yesteryear.

      • You won’t keep to many that long due to people settling down. Combined a couple would buy a small house, or a bigger shared apartment. So only a % would just remain indefinitely. It is not a SRO or a project, the latter are actually far more spacious, and require being approved for welfare benefits. Micro’s are for those who make way too much for either alternate, we’re still talking at least 500-600 bucks minimum.

  • Steve Stearns

    There is a definate need for micro-housing units. I think that there needs to be a smart balance in siting these developments that can be handled by communities through enlightened zoning regulations as simple as parking spaces per bedroom, open or green space, landscaping, setbacks, etc. These are usually typical zoning requirements for multi-unit buildings at least in my area. However, a special permit or enhanced community input should not be a requirement and/ or impediment to thoughtful design and development. Change happens even in established neighborhoods and some people don’t like change.

  • DianaBGKY

    “Either we embrace affordable housing close to downtown Seattle…or we
    embrace suburban flight, with the cultural and environmental
    ramifications thereof.”

    I saw the ramifications of urban flight in Nashville: sprawl, traffic nightmares, a downtown you feared going to at night, etc. That’s changing now. Some people will always want their square footage and acreage. Others prefer the time saved not commuting and being close to cultural events. The good news is now there are some options to live in and close to downtown that there were not in the days of urban flight.

  • I think these developments work best in downtown areas along mass transit lines with the requirement of a year lease to prevent them from becoming SRO. I lived in an SRO for a year and I understand the concern of those who own property next to them. Projects like these when done right can revitalize downtown areas that become dark and empty at night by turning them into vibrant urban communities. They also make great student housing near community colleges and Universities.

  • T0m0

    What about the noise?
    How long will it be before someone, driven crazy by their little space and noise that they cannot control, reaches out and hurts someone?

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  • tammy

    I don’t think anyone should complain about these types of developments unless they can propose a suitable and realistic alternative for the housing issue that these are solving.

  • Karl Bonner

    170 square feet is considered a “micro” apartment? I thought micro meant 300-500 range! What Seattle is building are better termed ‘nano-apartments.’

    I absolutely support more micro- and nano-apartments in big cities like Seattle and Portland and Vancouver and SF. We desperately need a way to escape the ‘Rent Squeeze’ that is choking off city life and slowly eroding cultural sustainability.

    And we need to call out CLASS xenophobia when we see it!

  • sugarntasty

    Micro-housing bureaucratic how, going increase rentals density is policy. Example Seattle,using San Francisco mention lender of micro policies. Ed Lee,Scott Wiener and
    London Breed they believe those residing. Accept meager interiors bias,criticism what about families and disable tenants opposite. BOMA and NAIOP building high market cap cities “America” gain influence destroy fair housing. Micro housing not answer it’s conveyed just accept dismal sq ft be adamant fight is among us. Fair housing is essential!