One Question

One Question for John Fox about aPodments

One question for Seattle Displacement Coalition founder John Fox about aPodments.

By Erica C. Barnett March 26, 2013



One Question

 We had Seattle Displacement Coalition founder John Fox wrong.

We assumed the low-income housing activist, whose advocacy work centers around preventing the destruction of existing housing, would probably oppose aPodments, the micro-sized apartments with shared kitchens that Fox's comrades-in-arms, neighborhood activists, have tended to oppose because they can displace single-family houses.

Even though aPodments cater to tenants in the 99 percent (the people Fox claims to fight for), we thought we might catch him in the contradiction that Jolt noted yesterday: Anti-development activists say they're against microhousing because they fear low-rent aPodments will ruin neighborhood character, but they're simultaneously against bigger development in places like South Lake Union because they fear it will ruin neighbhorhood character for the opposite reason—it will price out low-income tenants with yuppie development.

Fox's sometimes kneejerk fight against development, has, in fact, put him on a peculiar side of housing issues in the past. In addition to leading the fight against development in SLU in the mid-2000s, Fox derailed state legislation to provide low-income housing around light rail stations, joining with anti-development activists in Southeast Seattle who actually conjured up images of Mumbai slums to kill the proposal.

Fox isn't wild about aPodments, but his views are more nuanced than we expected—and informed by his support for low-income housing. (Fox himself lived in a small University District co-op for many years, and only recently bought a single-family house). He says he would be fine with a brief moratorium on the developments—maybe 90 days—but would like the city council to come up with a way to regulate and permit them that doesn't force them out of existence. Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen is considering a moratorium on aPodments.

"The price per square foot of these things is very high. So maybe you require that rents remain at an affordable rent level."—John Fox

We asked Fox what he thinks of micro-housing. Here's his response: 

I have very mixed feelings about them. They're reasonably affordable, albeit small, units serving kind of a niche population. If you weigh their impact on our low-income housing shortage, it has a very modest impact. On the other hand, where neighborhoods are just zealously opposed to them, I’m not so sure they should build in places like that. The U district has a number of them that seem to work.

If I were Solomon or someone who had real control or real authority to deal with them—and [the Displacement Coalition is] likely to keep our hands off and not get involved—but if I had to play role of Solomon or a council member getting pressure from both sides, I'd do what Michael Hildt did in the '80s: He’d sit both parties in a room, listen, and try to see if there’s a way of getting these built in neighborhoods without being encumbered by too many regulations, but where they wouldn’t generate so much opposition.

And I think in exchange for this, we want to be assured that they are and remain affordable. So I would look at some kind of rent restrictions.

Our followup: So should neighborhoods have veto power over developments they don't like? That seems not in keeping with the idea that affordable housing should be available throughout the city, not just in areas where it already exists, like the U District. 

Fox's response:

I’m not saying they should necessarily have veto power, but we should establish some reasonable rules and terms. I wouldn’t just allow a developer to take advantage of a code loophole or give them carte blance to develop in a way that is grossly out of scale [one argument from aPodment opponents is that because each floor technically constitutes a single "apartment" despite housing multiple unrelated residents,]

Maybe you set up some general terms but then also build in some case by case review. One thought is build in some kind of incentive zoning program, where they’d have to meet some conditions and terms, and also deciding when, at a certain density and scale, they’re too intrusive on the community.

The price per square foot of these things is very high, and many of them are getting multifamily housing tax breaks. So maybe you require that rents remain at an affordable rent level. You can build in a very broad set of conditions. The alternative is just to deny developers the opportunity to build above these base requirements unless they want to get a special benefit.

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