Front Page News

As illustrated in the delectable graphic above, and reported on the front page of the Seatimes yesterday, and by The Stranger several weeks ago, there is an unusual housing project under construction near 23rd and John on Capitol Hill.  The project is unusual because it is designed on the rooming house model, with very small one room units.

The delectable thing about the graphic is that it so clearly exposes how much space we give over to the storage of cars, compared to how much space people need to live in.  In the case of this project, one person gets about the same as one car (not including access drive area).  Which means this would be a totally absurd building if it had to meet the parking ratios required by code  in most of Seattle’s residential areas—at least one parking stall per unit.  The project will provide 6 parking stalls for 46 units, and that low parking ratio makes perfect sense.  Because given the project location, along with the demographics of the likely tenants, it is reasonable to expect that a large fraction of the residents will not own cars.

This project is exactly the kind of housing Seattle needs more of to help address the growing lack of affordability in the City, and to reduce car-dependence.  But predictably, it has been controversial with some of the neighbors.  “All of their cars will probably get dumped on our street,” said one.  The project is “going to be a magnet for very sketchy people,” said another, who fears for the value of his nearby $875,000 single-family home.  These sentiments perfectly capture the key drivers of anti-density NIMBYism:  bigotry against people who don’t own a single-family house;  the obsessive association of all that is good in life with the appraised value your home; and the expectation of a God-given right to a free parking space provided by the City directly in front your house.

The thing is, it’s a good bet that the folks quoted above—as well as countless others who have expressed similar gripes about dense urban housing—would consider themselves environmentalists.  If so, it is also highly likely that one of the most significant contributions they could make toward helping to solve our multiple envirnomental crises would be to support the development of more housing solutions just like the one they’ve been whining about.

36 Responses to “Front Page News”

  1. Barman

    This is not ‘exactly the kind of housing Seattle needs’. These are some seriously low-quality apartments. Although I agree that Seattle needs more affordable housing, there are better options. Seattle Housing Group and Coho Apts come to mind, but there are many more. The rules for subsidised housing are strict, however, and full-time students don’t qualify. We need to change these rules or at least come up with other options for these people so they aren’t forced into apartments like these.

    And the neighbours opposed to this building are not NIMBY’s. They were all under the impression that it was to be a six-unit townhouse. Their concerns are perfectly legitimate.

    Frankly I’m starting to wonder what exactly this blog is pushing for. Do you want quality housing or is it really just about density at all costs?

  2. JoshMahar

    This is really cool. Perhaps a little bit different mindset then the guys who did Escala eh? This is a wonderful project and I hope it’s successful so that more developers realize that simple is sellable.

    I also love the parking spot comparison. I hope all those Times readers now think about the amount of people being displaced when they walk by the Macy’s garage.

    (Notice how the Times has a “neighborhood gripes” section but doesn’t mention any of the other neighbors who are excited and happy about this landmark project.)

  3. JoshMahar

    Aye, I stand corrected, the Times did mention one guy near the bottom who’s not upset. My bad SeaTimes.

  4. Des

    Question (1) and an observation (2):

    1- Is it still affordable if you have no kitchen and eat out all the time, or only buy microwaveables and ‘shop the aisles’ at your local grocery store and eat in ways that are more expensive than cooking from scratch? I like the idea of small spaces, but no kitchen, yikes…

    2- When I last lived in Montr̩al (2007), I could rent a ~750sqft apartment in a three unit row-house in a pretty desirable area near a huge park that had a bedroom, kitchen, dining area, large living room, in-suite laundry, and a backyard Рbut no private parking Рfor under $600US ($700US with all utilities). The west coast (Vancouver, too) really needs to give its head a shake when it comes to affordability. While I applaud the developer for this initiative, it still seems pricey for what you get. Are things really that tight/dismal in Seattle?

  5. David Sucher

    “But predictably, it has been controversial with some of the neighbors.”

    Uh…and Dan you can honestly say that if YOU had a house on the block you wouldn’t be concerned? Forty-six rooms? Maybe 30 cars at least?

    One thing you can say about it is that it will be very very profitable.

  6. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Meh. I’m not impressed with the location: halfway down the back of Capitol Hill and no retail nearby, though it does have bus lines. On the other hand, private bathrooms and food lockers are a big step up from the U-District rooming houses. (A lot of the new U-District townhomes are rented to groups of students too, but they only have 2.5 baths.)

    Neighbors all over the city also don’t like townhomes in their backyards, so I’m not have a lot of sympathy there. “Clever developer figures out what he can build cheaply without needing design review” isn’t exactly news. How did he get away with only 6 parking spaces, though?

    I actually like the shared kitchen. Another shared space example I like is Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjöstad: 600-1000 sq ft family housing units with a few small bedrooms and mini-kitchen, but each building has other community rooms such as laundry. It’s apparently been so popular that they’ve needed extra schools. Maybe not for everyone, but there’s plenty of suburbia out there for those that prefer it.

  7. Geiser

    I think this project nicely addresses the shifting assumptions about what a proper home, or life for that matter, needs to have. It also brings in the notion of full cost-of-living, of which rent is a component.

    By living in a walkable neighborhood connected with good transit (mine is 15th/Hilltop), I really don’t need a lot of space at home, because I don’t really spend much time at home. Cafes are my living rooms, parks are my backyard, grocery stores are my fridge, bars are my get together spots. All of this hinges on bus/bike use and not needing a car.

    This set-up won’t work for everyone, and it’s certainly not the housing norm, but that’s the point. For minimum-wage earners, people just out of college, folks transitioning out of homelessness, a $500/mo furnished room can go a long way to improving quality of life. Not having a private kitchen would suck, but so would having to move to Burien and commute into work.

    What’s important for a lot of people is having a roof over their head at night. By building smaller units without parking spaces, we can get at a better mix of housing affordability. I have a feeling we’ll see a lot more congregate and single-occupancy housing options crop up in the near future as cities continue to rightfully densify.

    @David, in the article the developer mentions that of his properties only 10 of 64 residents have cars. For this type of housing, that’s a pretty good ratio to expect.

  8. Geiser

    And just on a side note, I’m personally miffed by the notion that somehow single-family owner=good neighbor while multi-family renter=safety and noise concern. It’s a really frustrating double-standard that I hope fades away.

  9. Gomez

    “This project is exactly the kind of housing Seattle needs more of to help address the growing lack of affordability in the City”

    Uh, by getting people to live in rooms the size of parking spaces? And you wonder why there’s a backlash to this sort of housing.

    People who endorse housing systems like this tend to have one characteristic in common: They think they’re better than people who ought to live in these units. “Someone ought to live in these units… but not me.” This is how caste systems develop in 3rd world countries, and what strengthens polarizing class division in ours. You wouldn’t willingly live in a place like this, ever. And yet you deem it fit for others below your tax bracket.

  10. Matt the Engineer

    [Gomez] I strongly support this kind of housing, and certainly would have lived there at a point in my life. In fact, I have – my dorm room was around 150sf and I had a room mate. When my wife moved to San Francisco for law school, she moved into a 190sf apartment. My uncle has lived for 30 years in his 150sf New York apartment and loves it.

    We aren’t saying you have to live there. It’s just that there are few affordable options in Seattle right now. Keep building only 1000sf condos and there never will be, and we’ll keep forcing those with less money for housing to commute from the far suburbs. We need exactly the kind of person that needs affordable housing in our city to keep it vibrant – struggling artists, college students, and people willing to work for passion rather than high salaries are a few groups that come to mind.

  11. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    I should clarify what I meant by “maybe not for everyone” by saying that I personally do want to live in the city in a small apartment designed for a family, and we have in fact looked for one without success in SLU. For example, Alley24 has 2bd places that are 1200 sq ft! Even if we could afford the $2600/mo those cost, one reason we prefer the walkable urban lifestyle is less room that gets filled with stuff.

  12. tom

    I have enjoyed the conversation in this comment thread. Here are two thoughts that may seem unrelated but I think they are related.

    1. Cafes were historically a refuges from cramped quarters, nosy landladies and funky toilets. Cafe culture spawned great literature and art of the late 19th and early 20th century, Hemingway, Picaso, Henry Miller, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Guy Debord and loads of other writers and artists lived in tiny apartments and frequented the cafes of London, Paris and New York.

    2. Government needs to devise a way to make a yearly payment to adults who do not own a car. Give people a monetary incentive to stop guzzling gasoline, filling our streets and fouling our air. Society needs to endorse “carless” living, and back that endorsement up with cash.

  13. Stephen Lamphear

    I’m thinking there are lots of comments from folks too young to be acquainted with the rooming house era of American housing. If you watch old movies, you’ll see that many single people, first time workers, etc. lived in rooming houses — my mother lived in them back east when she was starting her independent life. Meals were often communal (roomers were allowed maybe a hot plate), and so was socializing (card games, listening to the radio). Many such rooming houses focused on young, single women in the new workforce; others on laborers (usually single men).

    I’m not sure anyone was harmed by living in or near a rooming house, per se.

  14. dan bertolet

    Hi again, David@5: is there some reason I should be concerned about 46 more people living near me? Are they more likely to rob me if they live in a rooming house? Please explain.

    Regarding, cars, if you want to get personal, no, I wouldn’t care about 30 cars. My family of four owns one car I live in a single family house that city code requires to have one off street parking space. Maybe visitors would have a harder time finding parking. But in my view that would be a small price to pay for the increase in neighborhood vitality along with progress toward a more sustainable city overall. I’m surprised to hear that you seem to think the accommodation of cars takes precedence over urban form.

  15. Joel

    Personally I’d have no problem here all I do at home is sleep and watch t.v. So why do I need 800 square feet. I’ve never understood Americas fascination with wasted space. All I really need to cook is a steamer/rice cooker. Just because you don’t cook doesn’t mean you can’t eat cheap. Go to the Asian markets yesterday at Mekong rainier I got enough food to prepare 10 meals and it cost less then $20. Yes I realize the “weird Asian stuff” isn’t easy for most Americans to eat but to me it tastes better then a cheese burger and it’s way healthier. Most of the people living in this place aren’t going to have cars. I read in another article that of the 64 residents 10 of them have cars. So with 6 available parking spaces this puts 4 cars on the street. I really don’t feel sorry for the single guy living in his 2500 square foot home by himself if this project means he might now have to park a block away from his house

  16. Steve

    Rooming houses work. Many residents might prefer a full-size unit, but a full-size unit at $500/month is a unit that would need to be subsidized. Nobody seems to have noticed this is the only form of unsubsidized low-income housing being built in the city.

    That said, I sympathize with the neighbor on having frustration at the developer having worked around the intent of the codes. Even if the codes were badly designed (requiring too much parking, etc.), they were designed with community input, and I understand how it’s an affront to the community when someone exploits the letter of the law to bypass the intent.

    One last thought: from an affordable housing perspective, building new housing is almost always more expensive than converting existing housing. I presume rooming houses aren’t allowed in single-family zones at the moment. Maybe they should be.

  17. happy neighbor

    I’m a single-family-home owner within four blocks of this project, and I’m happy it’s coming to the neighborhood. Seattle needs more of this sort of thing. These tenants are welcome as far as I’m concerned.

    My wife and I share a 1000sf house on a half-lot, one car, street parking. I don’t see how more space in our yard or home would make us any happier.

  18. ktstine

    just an fyi, it is nearly impossible to build publicly subsidized rooming houses, the federal low-income housing tax credit does not allow it and all the local funders follow suit. while i celebrate the creativity of this project as well as living in small spaces, it would strike me as offensive if we started saying that poor people (in need of affordable housing) should all live in tiny spaces (hence the regulations banning it).

  19. Joel

    There are people like me who make too much to qualify for low income housing. My roommate and I share 850 square feet and sometimes that feels too big. Believe it or not there are people who would prefer to live in a tiny space in the city with interesting restaurants and shops all around then a larger place in the burbs where after 9 your dining options are fast food. Even during the day suburban dining options are pretty boring. I would take 150 square feet on capital hill over 900 square feet in Redmond any day

  20. dan cortland

    Good to see that no one is suggesting that preserving SF rental houses for this purpose is a good compromise.

  21. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    DanC, I think in some cases it’s a good compromise. The problem is that current owners want their God-given right to sell to developers. Personally I’m hoping that the end of the ponzi economy will fix most of the problem.

  22. Steve

    @21: Wouldn’t current owners be just as happy to sell to remodelers?

    That said, I’ve been thinking about this some more and remembered the Sisley vs. everybody fights in Roosevelt. Was Sisley particularly bad at running rooming houses? Or is the rooming house model prone to issues?

  23. dan cortland

    That was a facetious comment @20.

    Sisley didn’t want to do the minimum upkeep, iirc. Lots of other owners rented out their houses to mostly young people of limited means and it worked very well, with no remodeling necessary (so everyone shared the kitchen).

  24. Paul de Manuel

    Anyone know the average sized of a jail cell?

  25. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    @22: Maybe remodels would be enough. I think NIMBYs are just as concerned about being able to cash in eventually as about parking and so on. For neighborhoods like Maple Leaf that have mediocre transit access, I’d rather trade full protection of SF (for example, full design review on all projects) for upzones around arterial streets that already have some commercial activity. My hope would be that it would become possible to bike/walk for most trips.

  26. Gordonthestudent

    I’m living in a dorm room of roughly equivalent size this upcoming year. All you people arguing that this is forcing people to live in cramped spaces: maybe you should consider that no one will be forced to live here and for a lot of people its much better than nothing.

  27. Gordonthestudent


  28. David in Burien

    “Not having a private kitchen would suck, but so would having to move to Burien and commute into work.”

    Really? I hadn’t noticed. FWIW, Link Light Rail.

  29. Finishtag

    Clever zoning aside, this *type* of housing fits an important niche. I lived in a similar project at a time in my life when I needed autonomy, a lock on my door, a clean bathroom of my own and but didn’t make enough $$ for a studio apartment.

  30. Joe G

    I tend to agree with the point of view that for some people this would be plenty of space. I make a reasonable income and live in a 348 studio in downtown. I pay more than I would like for it, but I love the building that I am in. Growing up in the suburbs I dreamed of owning a 3400sf Victorian mansion and soon after moving to Seattle I realized that my life is great in just 348sf. Now I dream of just being able to come up with the $150K in cash I will need to put down on a condo of probably only 600sf. Space is a relative thing and very personal. I now live a life where every time I buy a new pair of shows I have to get rid of a pair. It’s fun and challenging and just the life that I love!

  31. Bill

    This looks like a fabulous housing type for a pied-à-terre/crash pad. I visit Seattle occasionally, and if I were regularly in town more than 4 or 5 nights a month this would make way more sense than shelling out for a hotel room.

    If they had something like this in Portland I would be all over it.

  32. Geiser

    Touche, David in Burien. I should have used somewhere really awful, like Lynnwood, for my example.

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