Honey, The Market Shrunk Our House: The Journey of Micro-Apartments in Seattle

While visiting my boyfriend a few weeks ago at Seattle University, a shocking facet of the city’s housing crunch was brought to my attention. As we walked through Capitol Hill’s bustling streets, looking for a place to eat dinner, he pointed out a building just a few blocks from his school, where he had heard the studio apartments were built with no wall separating the toilet and shower from the main room. How horrible, I thought. The demand for affordable housing has left Seattle’s low-income residents living in prison cells. Some investigation into this issue has shown that Seattle is definitely not alone in their advent of tiny housing to accommodate the huge demand for urban living. In some places, as we’ll see, it is even more extreme. Some posit that excessive and restrictive regulations in Seattle is what has eventually led to these apartment units with free-standing toilets. This is contrary to my previous conception of micro-apartments, which is that of the greedy real estate developer squeezing as much living space out of a building as possible. Rather, these developers now seem to be the well-intentioned agents of affordability and access, whose micro-apartment plans are being thwarted by restrictive NIMBY-motivated housing regulations (Not In My Backyard). The rise of micro-apartments is a result of either the former or the latter, depending on who you ask.

Micro-apartments saw a rise in popularity in the late 2000s and early 2010s. One Seattle architect and developer called Seattle the “modern birthplace” of micro-housing in North America. They are a result of steep housing prices and a high demand for afforable living in urban areas. Buildings like the one I saw in Seattle have popped up in big cities all over the country, like New York and Boston, and they provide opportunities for those who can’t afford larger living spaces in the city. In the context of the uniquely American need for space, these apartment units aren’t very small. When the bathroom becomes a part of the living room, however, the question is complicated. But there are examples of micro-housing in other countries that are much more a cause for concern as cities and populations continue to grow. In cities like Hong Kong and Seoul, living spaces are as small as 60, 35, and 21 square feet. The most alarming incidences of micro-housing for me, however, were the “coffin” and “cage” homes of Hong Kong. Mostly elderly populations rent these boxes–or cages, depending on the building–that are about two to four foot by six foot and stacked atop one another. An owner of one of these buildings has defended the housing as one of the few options for older low-income people in Hong Kong that aims to provide a “better living quality”. However, other sources report that conditions in these boxes are “squalid”, and, as a result of the Hong Kong government’s indifference, many residents have no choice but to “live out their remaining years” in the cages. 

Once compared to ultra-micro housing in other places, Seattle’s toilet studios don’t seem too bad. But the issue that still remains is the actual affordability of these buildings. The conventional definition of affordable housing is a rent that costs 30% of your income or less. Even with a studio apartment with a free-standing toilet that rents for $750/month, at a $15 minimum wage, that’s not affordable housing. Whether it’s the regulations imposed by NIMBYers, the malevolence of the affordable housing developers, or a broader and more complex issue of growing housing inequality and a minimum wage that’s too low, micro-housing hasn’t solved the problem yet.

For some very cool data on minimum wage and affordable housing, check out this page from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

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