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Inside Seattle's Microhousing Boom

December 4, 2014

Investigating the pros and cons of the City’s ‘apodment’ craze through the eyes of a small community in North Seattle who are fighting a proposed microhousing unit.

Nils Cowan: As Seattle’s corporate-driven boom transforms the face of the city, and property values soar, tiny apartment units known as microhousing, or ‘apodments’, have sprung up throughout densely populated communities.

Ed Murray, Seattle Mayor: It’s easy to walk to work, there’s transit, there’s restaurants.  Just that whole urban experience has become the thing that folks want.

Cowan: But these tightly packed buildings are often accompanied by controversy.

Woman at Community Hearing: We like the way things have evolved, but this is not appropriate.  Please, please say no to both these ordinances!

Cowan: Yet the microhousing trend is showing no signs of slowing down.

Sally Clark, Seattle City Council: You’ve got such a demand for apartments that you have areas of the city developing new density where it hasn’t happened for decades.

Cowan: Up Aurora Avenue, in a residential area of North Greenwood, a group of local homeowners has been thrust onto the front lines of the microhousing debate.

Five year resident Susan Larrance and her neighbors discovered recently that their small urban community was about to change.

Susan Larrance and neighbors inspect a sign notifying them of a new microhousing unit being constructed next door.

Susan Larrance is concerned about how a new apodment building will affect her neighborhood.

Susan Larrance, Homeowner: When we first saw the sign go up, all the neighbors noticed and there were several of us who gathered that first day looking.  And it said that there’s this microhousing development with 36 units going up, and that’s really the first we knew of it.

Cowan: The specific type of microhousing is known as a congregate residence, a dorm-style layout where renters share cooking facilities – a particularly attractive option for developers.

Larrance: That only counted as four dwelling units because there were only four kitchens, and therefore it fell below the threshold for getting any sort of design review.

Cowan: And now the residents have little recourse to try and change the design.

Larrance: Microhousing in and of itself is not terrible but it’s a huge project. So the edge of the building is going to go right along where this retaining wall is now so that’s how close it’s going to be.  It will affect the light that we get here because it’s so close.

Cowan: Susan and her neighbors are just as worried about the effects the new building could have on the neighborhood as a whole.

Larrance: Everybody there is going to be a single person because you can only have one person per unit. So they’re not going to put down roots in the neighborhood so they may or may not be as involved in neighborhood activities, community things, stuff like that.

Cowan: But perhaps the biggest concern is the increased traffic.

Larrance: One of the things about microhousing is that there’s no parking required.  Now I understand there probably won’t be 36 cars, but even one car is going to add to the parking problem in the neighborhood. And of course the developer is not going to put in parking if he doesn’t have to.

Cowan: A few blocks north just off Aurora Avenue, the developer - Daniel Stoner  - has already put up a similar housing unit, the first of his new microhousing brand, Cubix.

Daniel Stoner, President of Parkstone Investments, shows a unit in his new microhousing brand, Cubix.

Daniel Stoner, President, Parkstone Investments: This is a typical Cubix apartment, it’s 225 square feet.  This rents for 725.  We’ve got a basic kitchenette here, a very efficient bathroom, a shower and toilet.  A large wardrobe closet with mirror, fridge, and a sleeping and living area.

People are coming whether we like it or not, so we have to put them somewhere.  Right now there’s a lot of construction going on but they’re primarily for affluent renters. There are very few apartment builders that are catering to renters that are making less than 35000 a year.  I love this type of housing because it gives me an opportunity to make a reasonable rate of return – not a killing – but a reasonable rate of return, by providing a useful and needed housing source.

Cowan: Microhousing is in high demand all over Seattle by many different kinds of residents. 

Max Murrell is an unemployed writer in Lake City who needed a short term solution close to family.

Max Murrell, Apodment Renter: Mainly, I just wanted something temporary when I was between contracts.  I haven’t even measured it because I just look at it like, it’s tiny, but it’s only 160 a month.  I’m thinking if I move it’s anywhere from 3 months to whenever it really works.

Seattleites like Max Murrell need to be close to family and work but are being forced to make the trade off of living in tiny spaces, like this 90 square foot unit in Lake City.

Cowan: Stormi De Silva is a recent transplant from Arizona who wanted to live in Capitol Hill despite having a dog and a car.

Stormi DeSilva, Renter, Footprint Apartments, Capitol Hill: There’s a bunch of places to go to, like Broadway’s just down there.  It’s 875 a month for rent but then it’s 25 a month for the pet deposit, so it’s 900 dollars all together, and that includes water and electric and the heat and internet, and trash services. For me it’s fine but I can see how it’s kind of ridiculous to be paying 900 dollars for a room.

Stormi DeSilva, in her apodment on Capital Hill. Many microhousing units, like this 200 square foot apodment in Capitol Hill are more expensive than traditional apartments on a price per square foot basis.

Cowan: Denise Pedro is a customer service representative at Amazon who moved into Daniel Stoner’s Cubix property in North Greenwood.

Denise Pedro, Renter, Cubix Apartments, North Greenwood: I love my job but it’s not one of the higher payscales, so I have to look for something that’s a little more economy wise.  I saw this place and I don’t mind small spaces but I like new spaces, and so the fact that it was a new building was very attractive to me.  Bus line close by, I bus home every day, I’m just one person, I don’t need a whole lot of space, and I just have the few things I have with me and it works perfectly for me.

Cowan: With so many different types of tenants and units, the city council recently decided to establish sweeping new regulations on microhousing.

Sally Clark, Seattle City Council: Now there’s a minimum square footage.  You actually have requirements about the difference between a cooking area and a bathroom.  They’ll also have to go through design review, and I think we came out with actually a pretty good compromise.

New regulations on microhousing.

Cowan: But developers, and the mayor, aren’t convinced.

Murray: There was a series of regulations added onto it that I think sort of conflicted with this idea that microhousing could create an affordable option.

Roger Valdez, Director, Smart Growth Seattle: The thing that makes these projects work is that you’re able to get more people in a smaller footprint, and it’s more efficient and more affordable.  But when you start to increase the size of the unit and force other things onto that lot, your unit count starts to go down and the price goes up, and you might as well build one bedroom apartments.

Cowan: Back in North Greenwood, neighbors are once again gathering to discuss the imminent change in their community.  But this time the news is a bit more hopeful.

Larrance: Even though he’s grandfathered in under the old code he’s amending it anyway and from what I’ve heard he said it will be closer to the new code.

Cowan: Within a few weeks after the regulations take effect, Stoner will meet with residents and share a draft of the new design.

Concerned Greenwood residents Amanda Koster, Susan & Roberto Larrance are joined by other concerned neighbors at a local business to review the designs for a proposed microhousing unit to be built this year.

Stoner: We’re voluntarily meeting with the Greenwood community council to get the neighbors involved in understanding what it is we’re trying to accomplish.

Cowan: And although there’s still skepticism about the project, this level of communication may be just as significant as government regulation in making the microhousing model work.

Clark: Developers who are willing to go into a community and ask questions, and share plans and take feedback and really incorporate it, those are the projects that I see go really well.

Cowan: All sides agree that the apodment craze is just one part of Seattle’s affordable housing solution.

Murray: The other thing we’re seeing are young people choosing to get married, and raise children in this City and microhousing is not going to work in the long run.

Larrance: There must be another way to do this that the developers can still get their money’s worth but it’s not going to ruin the neighborhoods in the process.

Stoner: It’s got to be a creative solution and a lot of choices and this is one of those choices.

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Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

More stories by Nils Cowan

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$725 for 225 square feet?!

Mr. Max Morell, the gentleman interviewed in this piece who lives in microhousing said he pays $160/month. How is his situation a comparison?

Mr Ed Murray, who gains the most out of microhousing? Is there actually a lack of housing or affordable housing. If affordably, why not set a cap on rent per square footage vs increasing density, traffic, parking and blocked views?

I'd like to see developers P&L sheets of a microhousing project as compared to 1 BR units on the same footprint.

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