January 3, 2015

I bought and moved into a condominium on Seattle’s Capitol Hill in the summer of 2012. At a time when most properties on the Hill sold within a week or two, my home was on the market for a month. I suspect that many buyers were scared off by the construction site next door where Alturra, an aPodment building, was under construction.

aPodments are a trade name for micro-apartments, a trend rooted in a loophole in Seattle’s housing code that lets eight bedrooms with small en-suite bathrooms share one kitchen and be, for permitting purposes, treated as one apartment. Planning documents for the Alturra treated it as a building of seven 8-bedroom apartments instead of as a 56-unit apartment building, so no public notice was required. The deception led to many Seattle residents, including some of my neighbors, fiercely opposing the buildings that popped up seemingly out of nowhere. Since then, micro-apartments have become newly regulated and continue to be built, but with more community awareness and involvement. (By “involvement,” I mostly mean “opposition.”)

I toured Alturra shortly before it opened in November 2012. The units ranged from extremely small (90 square feet) to small and inconvenient (a 200-square-foot, 4-story walkup). They were priced from $600 to $1,200 a month including utilities and Internet and they rented very quickly. The minimum lease of 3 months made them attractive for transplants and temporary residents. Many of my neighbors were skeptical that Alturra residents would be a good addition to my neighborhood.

After two years of being a neighbor of the Alturra, the complaints have largely died down. How have my space-constrained neighbors affected my community in the last two years?

Parking is still terrible. The Alturra has no parking spaces so residents with cars need to park on the local streets. A corner of my building’s parking lot has been turned into an impromptu aPodment loading zone, annoying some of my neighbors, although it’s rare that a car stays there long enough for a tow truck or a police officer to come by. It’s hard to say whether the street parking situation has worsened because of aPodments because it’s been very hard to park in the area for many years. Speaking as a non-car-owner, I like the area because of its ready access to buses, Zipcars, car2go cars, and soon a streetcar and light rail stop.

The rooftop decks are popular and noisy. There are six small rooftop decks for Alturra residents. The highest-price penthouses also have tiny balconies. During the hot summer months these are frequently used and often loud. Neither my building nor the Alturra have air conditioning so when the windows open up, the noise levels do too.

My neighborhood retains its class diversity. I don’t want to live in a monoculture. At the Seattle Night Out party my building hosted in August 2014, I met neighbors from around my block including several Alturra residents. I appreciate that my neighborhood can attract people young and old, rich and poor, with many different occupations. aPodments are one way to keep rents affordable for more people, and Alturra has attracted a surprisingly broad mix of students, full-time workers, and recent college grads saving up for their first real apartment.

In time I think we’ll look back on the micro-apartment trend and laugh at the worry it stirred up. These buildings are going up to cash in on a hunger for inexpensive housing at a time when market-rate buildings are in short supply. As of 2013 the city had added 15,000 jobs year-over-year while only 9,000 housing units were expected to become available for each of the next five years. With Amazon on pace to have enough office space for 71,500 Seattle employees by 2019, the math favors landlords and builders today. Ten years from now I expect that we’ll have a more resident-friendly housing market once all the construction is complete and companies have tapered off their hiring.

There’s a sense that rents can “never” go down in Seattle, but I’ve seen it firsthand in 2008–09 when Washington Mutual had collapsed and when tech companies put a hold on hiring. A rent drop can and will happen again. Maybe these micro-apartment buildings will eventually be pared down to have fewer apartments by knocking down some or all interior walls. With the most modification, aPodments can become groups of townhouses — the last housing innovation that caused outrage in Seattle’s residential neighborhoods. Alternatively, like so many residential buildings that have gone up here in the past 120 years, they can be sold, knocked down, and rebuilt in a new developer’s image. After all, this is Seattle, where we’ll get it right eventually.

The opinions expressed above are strictly my own and do not represent those of my employer or of my condominium’s homeowners association. I have no financial stake in any micro-apartment companies.

This article was adapted and published on CHS Capitol Hill Seattle as “Two years of being an aPodment building neighbor.”