Here are some outtakes from last night's PubliCola ThinkTank at the JewelBox Theater in Belltown about aPodments, the micro-units that have angered some neighborhood activists who say the developments should have to go through the city's design review process.
aPodments are exempt from design review because each story in an aPodment building typically counts as a single apartment—so that, for example, eight tiny units surrounding a single communal kitchen count as a single residence. Apartments in low-rise—that is, multifamily—zones don't have to go through design review.
Our ThinkTank panel included: City council member Tom Rasmussen, who initially suggested a moratorium on microhousing—multistory buildings in which several tiny housing units surround a communal kitchen; aPodment supporter Roger Valdez, a density proponent with developer-baked Smart Growth Seattle; Seattle Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura; and Central District neighborhood activist Bill Bradburd, who's skeptical of the housing.
Best line: aPodment supporter Roger Valdez, responding to complaints that aPodments (which are typically about 250 square feet) are too small, quipped that carsharing services like the popular Car2Go, which operates a fleet of tiny, two-seat Smart4Two cars, offer cars that are "too small" for the typical Seattle driver.
Bradburd, recognizing Valdez got off a good line (it neatly echoed Valdez's substantive point, which he repeated all night, that aPodments are popular), goodnaturedly played along, and took up the role of crank, adding that Car2Go cars were inadequate because they lacked a spare wheel in the trunk.
Oddest exchange: Neighborhood activist Bradburd, to Valdez: "This is really affordable housing for a particular type of tenant, and I don’t know if it's necessarily for all ethnicities and all types of people"—a reference, Bradburd explained, to the fact that few microhousing residents are of East African descent, a group that tends to consist of families rather than single renters.
Valdez, in response: "Bill's comments about race are bizarre at best, and I’m not sure what they would be at worst. This is hardly squalor. … There's plenty of other choices. People choose to live in microhousing because it suits their needs. .... The day when people don’t want to live in these and the demand drops for them the price will go down, you’ll see the vacancy rates go up. Right now, they can't meet the demand."
Most obstructionist rhetoric: Rasmussen, who argued that even 120-square-foot apartments should have to have not one but two sinks, said: "We’re just asking the [city Department of Planning and Development] to tell us if a bathroom should have to have a sink. If a person wants to spend their life in [an aPodment], that's fine with me as long as it’s safe."
Oddest objection to aPodments, from Bradburd: "I know anecdotally that [aPodment renters are] just kind of locating there until they can find something better. Few of them are there are more than a year."
(Because short-term tenants aren't real residents?)
Clearest explanation of neighbohood objections to aPodments, again from Bradburd: "These units are coming in with a few characteristics that people don't like. One is the way the buildings are getting into their neighborhoods. The other is the sheer number of people. These multifamily projects have literally four times as many units as the neighbors would have have expected. And the third issue is that because the units are so small that ... the tenancy is more likely to be shorter-term. ... They're not really residences."
Reality check of the night (Douglas reading an audience question): "Your description of what it's like bears no resemblance to [a three-year aPodment resident's] experience at all. How do we know the average tenure of an aPodment resident?"
Bradburd: "We don't. We know the average tenure is 14 months. ... I bet the average tenure is more than a year."
Wonkiest (and perhaps most exciting) explanation, Sugimura, explaining the current makeup of Seattle residents:
"Seattle is mostly renters now, not homeowners—the young population and older population are growing, and there are different housing needs.
"Single-family [zoning makes up] about 65 percent of the city. If you take out institutional zones and industrial zones, where residential isn’t going to happen, we’re left with about 20 percent of the city" for renters to live.