October 18, 2012

More than a dozen new buildings in my Seattle neighborhood of Capitol Hill have an uncommon trait in common: they're "microhousing" buildings. I stopped by for a tour of Alturra, an aPodment building going up right next door to my condominium. (That's not to be confused with Altura, a four-dollar-sign Italian restaurant a half-mile away.)

First, a little background: aPodments are the primary brand name for a microhousing style of building getting popular on Capitol Hill and near the University of Washington. The Capitol Hill Seattle blog's editor estimates that over 500 "pods" in 15 buildings are available or under construction in just this one neighborhood. Many buildings have replaced older single-family homes and have sprung up without conventional design reviews, much to the surprise of neighbors. Alturra is made up of seven buildings, one ground-level "tower" and six slender towers, none of which is large enough to require a design review on its own. None of the buildings have elevators or parking; again, they're not large enough to require either.

Each pod has about 150 square feet of living space and comes furnished with a twin bed, a desk, a kitchenette with mini-fridge and microwave, and a private bathroom with shower. Each tower has a single full kitchen the same size as a pod and a small rooftop deck. One laundry room serves the whole complex. The rents, as little as $600 a month including Internet access and utilities, are much lower than the asking prices for studio apartments. The top floor lofted unit at Altura, with a bit more room, goes for $1200, making it the only unit priced even close to market rates — the nearby Lyric apartment building charges more than that for an unfurnished studio without utilities or Internet. The lofted units have two areas accessible by ladders, one for sleeping and one for storage, but they're not "lofted" above anything useful: there's no space beneath.

Microhousing has polarized Seattle. Residents of one townhome complex have posted signs decrying microhousing as "out of scale for this area." (Townhomes, incidentally, were controversial when they surged last decade also due to a developer-friendly loophole.) Roger Valdez of the Seattle Transit Blog advocates a wait-and-see attitude: "If it's true that nobody wants to live there," he opines, "then … nobody will build them anymore." My in-building neighbor visited a tenement exhibit at Seattle's Wing Luke Asian Museum and told me that Chinatown's single-room occupancy past looked just like microhousing's present and future. Even Calhoun Properties, which built the Alturra, links to articles like this one which acknowledge the concerns that neighbors have had with microhousing since Calhoun started developing it in 2004.

Personally, I think microhousing resembles a college dorm but it could also be a big hit with Seattle's tech community. I've met many techies who rent sparsely-furnished studio apartments that look more like XKCD's "Home Organization" comic than like anything out of Dwell magazine's "small spaces" issue. For someone coming into the country or out of a college dorm with few personal possessions, a pod would be an ideal starter apartment. According to Jim, who gave me the tour, Alturra has been as popular with professionals as it has with students. All of these buildings are located near public transit stops and, optimistically, having even higher population density will encourage the city to maintain bus service to areas with plenty of microhousing. I'm also hoping that the lack of parking will encourage Zipcar, of which I'm a member, to offer more cars parked near microhousing buildings.

Time will tell how the building right outside my living room window will change my neighborhood. Calhoun Properties promises to be "responsive but not invasive" to the needs of its tenants; I'm looking forward to how the community responds to an invasion of very affordable housing.