The C Is for Crank

About a dozen people showed up at the Central Area Senior Center for the Seattle Community Council Federation's monthly meeting last night at the Central Area Senior Center—a worse-for-wear cinderblock box that nonetheless boasts one of the best views of Lake Washington and the Cascades you'll ever enjoy from a public building—to talk about microhousing, AKA aPodments. 

Going in to the meeting, I was well aware that the community council's members are no fans of microhousing developments, which feature small, affordable units with shared kitchens, galley bathrooms, and loft beds. Nonetheless, I was struck by the purely emotional, rather than legal, tone of many of their arguments. 

The legal arguments are well known. Opponents have argued, among other things, that microhousing skirts the city's zoning guidelines (because each floor, which can include up to eight micros, counts as a single unit); that they're dangerous (because fire-safety guidelines don't require multiple exits); that they create noise, increase crime, and put an extra burden on the city's trash-collection system; and that they take up public parking that should go to neighborhood homeowners (because the city doesn't mandate that they include car parking). 

But what struck me last night was how much the most visceral arguments against microhousing were less about regulatory specifics, and more about how people ought to be required to live—an odd point of view coming, as it did, from homeowners who would presumably be furious if city government came in and told them they couldn't have guests in their house for more than a set number of days, or that the precise dimensions of their bedroom were too small. 

The city, remember, has fixed some of the problems with microhousing most frequently cited by opponents, such as a loophole that allowed developers to count a microhousing building with 48 micro-units, for example, as a 48-unit building for purposes of a city affordable housing tax-credit program while counting the same building as six units for the purpose of skirting design review. 

But that isn't enough for the micro opponents, who made clear last night that their real problem is the idea of people living in small spaces, sometimes with other people, and getting by with a mere two-burner stove or microwave and a stand-up shower instead of a "real" bathroom and kitchen.

They're also opposed to newcomers ("carpetbaggers," as Gary Friedman of the Roosevelt Neighbors Alliace put it) moving in to what they consider their territory."How many of you are native Seattleites? Born here—not some hat-wearing rabbi from New York."

Friedman, in fact, made that latter point explicit, asking the sparsely populated room: "How many of you are native Seattleites?" When someone asked what it took to be considered a "native," Friedman responded, "Born here. Not some hat-wearing rabbi from New York." (Friedman is a Jewish chaplain, but still. Whoa.) Then he compared microhousing to dangerous, fire-prone "tenements—except they're worse than tenements," he said.

"On a square footage basis, these people are paying two or three times more than what the rest of the people in the neighborhood are paying, for [apartments that are] 240 square feet or less [Ed. note: The city actually defines micro-apartments as apartments with less than 285 square feet of interior net floor area], no common areas ... a cubbyhole bathroom with a toilet and small shower stall and a tiny little sink.

"In our single family neighborhood, all the streets are just turning into canyons of these … rabbit hutches," Friedman continued. "They're not family friendly, they're not senior friendly, and they're not disabled friendly." 

In case you can't read between the lines of that coded language, let me translate: "These people are poor." And poor people, apparently, aren't capable of deciding that they're willing to live with less space, even space that's more expensive per square foot, if it means they can actually afford to pay their rent. That's something the government (aided by benevolent neighborhood activists who, of course, only want the best for their low-income neighbors) should mandate for them.

Such is the logic of the neighborhood activist blinded by an instinctive desire to keep newcomers (especially poor newcomers) out, lest they lower property values for those who own the place by virtue of having lived here longer. 

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