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‘Scrunched’ on Capitol Hill

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 11.11.05 AMMaybe it’s a sign of fatigue in people’s interest level after years of debate — CHS’s first major examination of aPodment-related development came way back in the summer of 2012 — but this epic Politico examination of Seattle’s microhousing is worthy of more attention on Capitol Hill.

For one, you’ll learn more about the people behind the debate…

Like Jim Potter:

The roots of micro-housing in Seattle can be traced to a single developer named Jim Potter. At 6 foot 6, he was the movement’s Johnny Appleseed, an imposing presence with a booming voice, an aggressive businessman who owned properties up and down the state of Washington. But his true claim to fame, at least in the Seattle real estate world, was his compulsive study of the city’s zoning code.

Or Bill Bradburd:

“There’s nothing wrong with a boarding house,” protests Bradburd, a former Silicon Valley engineer turned artist who moved to Seattle four years ago and became a stay-at-home father and fulltime activist. “I just don’t think they belong in a low-rise zone where someone has invested half a million in a townhouse and then 56 people move in next door.”

And Roger Valdez:

There’s no question that the new restrictions will jack up the rent, according to Roger Valdez, speaking on behalf of Seattle’s micro-unit developers. Valdez is not a mere spokesman; he is a true believer who lives what he preaches—in a 209-square-foot luxury micro-unit featuring a loft, a balcony and a drop-dead view of the Seattle skyline. The price: $1,350.

And you’ll learn some history:

As recently as the early 1970s, Seattle counted more than 10,000 boarding rooms among its housing stock, most occupied by young men working in the city’s canning, fishing and metal extraction industries. After a series of fires, including a 1970 arson that killed 20 residents, the city effectively closed its boarding houses by regulating them out of existence.

And some context:

Seattle proved an ideal pioneer of micro-housing for a confluence of reasons: a permissive city code; a burgeoning population of millennials; a real estate boom fueled by the incursion of Amazon and other tech giants; and, not least, a visionary developer who early on discerned the pieces of this puzzle and put them all together.

But mostly, you’ll want to read it because it gets you ready for what comes next. The microhousing debate, innovation, and city-level political intrigue aren’t over in Seattle’s Inner City neighborhoods. The City Council supposedly left room for the “old school” densest type of microhousing to still be built on parts of Capitol Hill and in areas of the Central District and E Madison. We’ll be watching to see how it plays out.

 

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20 thoughts on “‘Scrunched’ on Capitol Hill

  1. Thanks for posting this article. I think a lot of renters on Capitol Hill are unaware just how much the homeowner community really controlled the debate on the new microhousing regulations. Sure, some compromises were made, but at the end of the day, restrictions were added that limit where and how microhousing can happen, creating economic forces that will bleed into the rest of the rental market, making rents just that much higher.

    • I for one am glad homeowners DID contribute to that debate. I agree with Bill Bradford’s quote, ““There’s nothing wrong with a boarding house…I just don’t think they belong in a low-rise zone where someone has invested half a million in a townhouse and then 56 people move in next door.” Take a look at all the early-60’s motels on Capitol Hill built for the World Fair, that are still here as often-dumpy apt bldgs. It’s only the last couple of years Seattle has supported the economics to cost-justify fairly presentable quality apodments we see now. If homeowners hadn’t contributed to that debate, who knows how many thousand shoddy quality boarding house style apodments Seattle and especially Capitol Hill would be stuck with for 50 years? Those would get dumpy fast and Seattle would be stuck with them.

      • These people think everything they can see from the window of their second floor bedroom is their kingdom, and anybody who wants to change any part of it should first ask for his approval. Seattle’s doing what cities do, it’s growing. I’d love to see some of these neighborhoods full of crusty single family homes inhabited by bitter, entitled hermits torn down and replaced with town homes, small apartment buildings parks and small neighborhood retail. Seattle needs real neighborhoods.

      • So a single family residential area cannot be a “real neighborhood”??? I love my street, which just happens to be zoned single family. And I can walk to small retail, parks, etc…, which is why I live in my Capitol Hill neighborhood. And I’m also glad that I don’t live next door to 56 people, though I’m happy that others choose that option by living in an area that is zoned differently.

      • It’s a quaint narrative youve built in your head with “crusty single-family homes full of bitter, entitled hermits”, but that’s about the only place it resides. Lots of these neighborhoods are populated with young couples and many have young children too. You want proof? Get up an hour or 2 earlier than you might otherwise and go try eating at somewhere like St Clouds early some Saturday or Sunday morning. See how many bitter entitled hermits you see. No fair counting bitter, entitled hermits that are 6 yrs old.

      • Bitter much yourself? A “real” neighborhodo involves a variety of people, including families with children (who need larger housing), and graybacks, such as myself, in addition to YOU. That’s what CHill looked like until these f’ing pods were thrown up.

        I’d like your crusty self out of a neighborhood that is too crowded already. Why aren’t they building these things in the SoDo district? Besides the whine that would erupt from the youngsters being so far from the hip places, it makes great sense – lots of room, only a bus ride/walk to everything needed, etc. But it’s just not awesome enough a hood for y’all.

      • Funny, I thought that quote from Bill Bradley was the most offensively elitist, classist thing I’d heard in a long time. I read it like this, “I paid a half a million dollars for this, so I deserve to have my personal kingdom uninfluenced by anybody that can’t afford to play.”

  2. This is a fascinating article. I was gobsmacked at the rents quoted for these broom closets, $800-$1200 for half the space I have now. There should be affordable housing, yes, but it doesn’t seem these places aren’t that much cheaper than normal sized apartments. A libertarian buddy of mine insists that prices for these micro-apartments will go down when supply finally meets demand…but y’know, I’m pretty skeptical about that. Just a gut feeling, not a rational economic conclusion. My gut is telling me that $1000 a month for 150 square feet is the new normal, and a modest-sized apartment will start inching towards $2000. Are we turning into San Francisco and New York? (with regards to rent). Lord, I hope not. I hope our free market libertarian friends are right. But you’ll have to pardon my skepticism.

    • Actually you can find cheaper rents in New York. You know why? New York doesn’t nickel and dime developers at every turn. My friend moved to New York recently and can’t believe how much cheaper it is than seattle. He’s renting a 1 bedroom for $1,300 a month.

      • $1,300 for now is a decent budget for a 1-bedroom in Capitol Hill, if you’re not looking for a ultra-luxurious place. It’s just my fear that these $1,000 micro apartments will ironically drive prices up for normal sized places. The apodments near my place advertise “starting at $650”, which is what I thought should be the going rate for these tiny flats (and I would say is still steep, but I get it…it’s all about location), but if this article is any indication, $650 is not the typical price.

        Look, for now I’m shelling out $860 (that’s after two rent hikes, btw) for about 400 sq. feet, which is Buckingham Palace compared to these places, but it’s small-ish by normal standards. I think my rent is too damn high, but I know most Cap Hill folks are paying far more. So, by my standards, these $1000 micros are a complete rip-off.

        So what’s a more likely scenario? Are these micros going down in price, or will my humble little 400 sq. footer go up? It doesn’t take Nostradamus to figure that one out. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

      • Also, to be clear, I am NOT opposed to micro apartments. In fact, I think they’re a great idea…IF they had reasonable rents that are significantly lower than a normal sized place.

      • aPodments ARE driving up rents of conventional apartments today. This is not an event that will happen in the future.

        Landlords often evaluate the market and price per sqft. aPodments often run around $4.50 while a normal apartment is around $2.50 per sqft. This changes the average and hurt those who rent in conventional apartments.

        What we need is housing that is truly affordable. If aPodements were really built to be affordable housing they would not cost nearly twice as much as a conventional apartment on a per foot basis.

      • Robert,
        You should thank your lucky stars that micros exist, otherwise the rent on your 400-footer might very well be up to $1,000 by now. Last year Seattle added 48,000 jobs, but only something like 6,000 new apartment units. Those newly employed people have to live somewhere – and in general, they have more money to bid up the rent on the places that they want to live.

        I understand why you think that micros might be a rip-off (to each his own), but the fact that they have essentially zero vacancy – at sky high rents – means that other people do value what they offer. Maybe it’s location, maybe they want to live in new construction, maybe they are taking into account the value of free utilities. Whatever the reason, that’s where they are choosing to spend their rent. If their $1,000/mo micro didn’t exist, where would they go? Chances are that more than a few of them might consider your 400-footer as an acceptable alternative. And we already know that they have at least $1,000 to spend.

        And the idea that new supply is somehow pushing rents up goes against just about every conceivable economic law. Can you name a more competitive business than rental housing? Within 5 blocks of my apartment there are about a dozen coffee shops, two dozen restaurants and about 3,000 apartment units. Why would you think that landlords are any different from any other business in having to compete for your business? The only reason that rents have gone up is because there has been a much bigger increase in the number of renters than apartments for them to rent. We’re not going to see rents go down until that imbalance is switched. Micros alone aren’t a solution to the problem, but they are definitely a part.

      • Well, I’m certainly thanking my lucky stars that I got into a normal sized apartment at what is fast becoming a below-market price. Square footage isn’t just some abstract concept or a luxury item. Size does matter. An experienced apartment dweller can tell you even 50 square feet makes a huge difference as far as storage, furniture, and livability.

        Yes, these new people need to find a place somewhere. You say these people value what micros offer, but I would hazard it’s more of a case that they don’t have much choice. I’d bet you dollars to doughnuts that most of ’em would beat a hasty exit to a normal sized apartment if it were affordable. Perhaps the crux of the issue is that developers need to work on building more normal sized places, but if you want to talk about pure profit, making 64 micros is helluva lot more profitable than making 64 normal sized places. And please stop with the “free utilities” gimmick. I pay about $35 every THREE months for power, and my CenturyLink connection runs me $48/month. So whoop-dee-dooh with that perk. Most places throw in gas/sewage/water in for free, or tack it on the rent (a gimmick to make their rent rate sound lower).

        I understand the laws of supply and demand, but laws are made to be broken. Just look at our health care system. There’s plenty of supply of health care facilities and workers, but prices remain astronomical. Supply and Demand isn’t some Holy Law that 100% dictates the price of an item. There are many other forces at work that free market crusaders often choose to ignore. S&D perhaps the biggest factor, but not the only one.

        But I digress. Perhaps my concern is more philosophical, and thus more abstract. My feeling is that we’re being primed to get used to being crammed into 150 square feet, and micros will eventually become the dominant form of housing, rather than an affordable alternative as it’s being touted. There’s just a weird disconnect with a newcomer thinking they got a swell deal for a $1000 micro, while another person looks on in puzzlement with their $800 normal sized place. Developers don’t give a hoot about Supply and Demand idealism. They’re in it for pure profit, and to be fair, no one can blame them for that. I’m not advocating for Rent Control or dictating apartment sizes. I’m just saying we need to take a step back and think about how we’re shaping the future of housing. I’m afraid I don’t have any pat answers.

    • You don’t need to just trust your gut – you can actually make an observation. If there was really simply so much inherent demand edging up prices, why are there so many vacancies in the new cap hill apartment blocks? Why would they rather staff leasing offices and leave units vacant for months than simply lower the rents?

      This isn’t some quaint high-school-textbook example of small-time investor-proprietors competing for renters. A small handful of big developers have a collective interest in changing what’s accepted as normal, and the micro-housing developers are a part of it.

  3. Multi-Family zoned neighbors were the revolt that overturned outrageous illegal lodging scam called “the aPodment”. Not Single Family neighbors. We WANT micro-housing. But we want sustainable housing, not predatory traps for desperate tenants expecting to move out quickly. City Council listened 9-0. The article was great for statistics, but entirely overlooked the crucial distinctions between lodging and housing. We aren’t NIMBYs. And the vote was 9-0.

    • EXACTLY! In EVERY other city pushing these aPodments, they’re pushing apartments that are at least 300sf. Here, the sleezeballs are building them half the size and renting them out for full size apartment rent.