Peter Miller is searching for the number. Not the number of days he’s lived at Seattle’s Footprint Wallingford – he just moved in the previous Saturday. And not how much he’s paying in rent – that’s $950 a month.
Miller is searching for the size of his new apartment. After checking the classified ad and the lease, he realizes the square footage is nowhere to be found.
“I looked at a place in South Lake Union that was 319 square feet,” Miller says. “It was bigger than my place here.”
Miller is one of many renters from Seattle to New York choosing to live in less than 300 square feet – though it isn’t size that’s getting them in the door.
“My girlfriend lives on Queen Anne, so location was important,” Miller says.
Footprint Wallingford offers 40 micro-apartments, or aPodments, in one of Seattle’s most coveted neighborhoods with a slew of trendy restaurants and coffee shops a block away. It’s also on a main bus route, giving residents quick access to downtown.
Residents sign 90-day leases followed by month-to-month commitments, so it’s ideal for renters in transition.
“I travel 20 percent of the time for work, and I needed a place for 9 months,” Miller explains.
But property manager Wes Potter is the first to admit micro-apartment living isn’t for everyone.
“I have a guy that’s in Seattle for five nights every 15 days. For him, it’s cheaper than a hotel,” he says. “Then there’s the 67-year-old who comes in on his folding bike every day and sleeps in the middle of his room surrounded by potted plants.”
According to Sarah Lewontin, executive director of Bellwether, a not-for-profit organization committed to providing affordable housing solutions in Seattle, micro-apartments started as a way to address the gap between what people earn and the cost of living. However unlike low-income housing, micro-apartments aren’t subject to income restrictions.
“Many feel that our answer to affordability problems is micro-apartments,” she says. “They can be part of the solution, but for people to consider them the solution is disingenuous and misleading.”
Compared with Wallingford, where the median rent is $2,429, Miller is paying significantly less. But when looking at Seattle as a whole, neighborhoods such as Greenwood are renting much larger units for the same price, and they’re just a 30-minute bus ride from downtown.
“When people are writing that rent check every month, they’re looking at the pure dollar amount,” Lewontin explains, “not the price per square foot.”
Miller says a small loft unit suits him, though. “It’s expensive, but the living space is fine,” he says, showing how his bed is lofted above the living area.
“People have been living in smaller spaces in Europe for 2,000 years – it’s more efficient,” he continues. “Everything you need is here.”
According to Lewontin, younger urban dwellers consider their living quarters a place to sleep.”They have lives that keep them in public spaces rather than their apartments,” she says.
Much like a college dorm, Miller’s micro-apartment comes with a bookshelf, desk, wardrobe and mattress. Utilities, including Internet access, are also covered.
But aside from a mini-fridge and microwave, cooking is relegated to the building’s shared kitchen.
“It helps the residents build more community,” says Potter, who uses the kitchen table as a desk. “They have potluck dinners, and it’s cleaned twice a week.”
When micro-housing first started in Seattle, each residence had its own kitchen but a shared bathroom. Lewontin thinks the current model, with a private bathroom and a shared kitchen down the hall, makes more sense.
But, Miller has yet to cook a meal with his new neighbors. Instead, a loaf of bread and Starbucks cup sit on his counter, which also doubles as a bathroom vanity.
Overall, the response to Footprint Wallingford and Footprint’s newest project, Eleventh on Capitol Hill, has been positive. But just a few years ago, community reaction to micro-apartments was mixed.
“People were concerned about density, and they made assumptions about the types of people that live in affordable places,” Lewontin says. “I personally don’t agree with those arguments.”
For Lewontin, the bigger concern was the permitting process. Up until recently, developers would get permission to build seven or eight apartments because this limited the time needed for design reviews and was cheaper. But then the same developers would apply for multi-family tax exemption for 40 or 50 total aPodments they created in the space.
“That was a loophole that fortunately has been fixed,” she says.
Location, location, location
Miller’s only concerns are about the building itself.
“The building has five flights of stairs, and there is no elevator,” he explains.
But at the end of the day, he says location trumps everything.
“I have been visiting for a couple of years, and I love the neighborhood,” he says. “I would definitely recommend living here.”
Originally published October 14, 2013.
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