The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky famously wrote in The House of the Dead that the “degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I wonder what an ex-con freshly released from Norway’s Halden Prison might say about the “degree of civilization” in America upon entering my apartment.
He would no doubt find something familiar about this unadorned little rectangle with a bed, window-lit desk, shower, toilet and cheap IKEA fixtures. It’s slightly larger than his 110 square-foot prison cell—but not by much. Lying on the floor, I can almost reach from one wall to the other.
Of course, he might complain about the lack of a music studio, gym, rock-climbing wall or even a common area.
Seattle is leading a national trend toward smaller apartments. In 2018, it edged out New York as the city with the most compact rental units largely due to the breakneck expansion of no-frills microstudios, like the one where I currently reside.
City Hall’s response to the ongoing affordable housing crisis created a microstudio gold rush. Local officials are raising height restrictions across the city, allowing developers to build up rather than out.
Upzoning has its merits. It prevents urban sprawl while raising the housing supply in a relatively short amount of time, which (theoretically) should drive costs down. Still, Seattle remains one of the most expensive housing markets in the country.
This shift toward density sparked a construction boom. For several years running, Seattle has topped the country in terms of the sheer number of cranes cluttering up its skyline. In the metro area, the rental housing supply grew by 33 percent from 2017 to 2018.
On the surface, it seems like the bleeding has been stanched somewhat. Rents are now increasing at a slower rate relative to comparable markets, and in some parts of the greater Seattle area, they’re even going down.
However, the reality on the ground contradicts the rosy picture that the all this data paints, calling into question the ability of the market’s “hidden hand” to deliver a basic human need.
What’s profitable is not necessarily what people need and vice versa. Microstudios and lofts are cash cows. With their cookie-cutter designs, they’re easy to build, and developers cram as many units as they can on a tiny parcel.
When you look at the numbers as a whole, it appears to be a free market success story. Supply went up. Prices went down. That’s just basic economics, dummy.
But overall, people—families especially—are still hurting. From 2012 to 2017, 81 percent of all new rental housing had one bedroom or fewer. Studios accounted for nearly a third, whereas only 17.5 percent were two-bedroom and three-bedroom rentals comprised a little over 1 percent.
Seattle has a glut of barebones boxes to house computer programmers, divorced dads, angry loners— and broke journalists—but a serious dearth of places for the working poor to raise their kids. According to a study released last summer, only about one out of every four two-bedrooms meets affordability criteria.
Touting the victory of laissez-faire in the Seattle housing market, the libertarian site Reason argued affordable housing comes about when governments “let people build what they want, where they want.” But what does that look like in practice?
Earlier this year, the owners of Chateau Apartments announced they were planning to convert the 21-unit building in Capitol Hill into a complex of 73 small-efficiency dwellings, which have a minimum floor space of 150 square feet. On paper, that’s a 200 percent increase in the housing supply.
Seattle gains 73 Norwegian prison cells but loses 21 affordable Section 8 units that seniors, immigrants, the formerly homeless and persons with disabilities depend on.
It’s a classic crisis of overproduction. With low overhead and a huge return on investment, microstudios are a get-rich-quick scheme that upstart developers jump on in the hope of turning a tidy profit.
My first landlord in Seattle is a former realtor from Bellevue who goes around buying up foreclosed single-family homes on prime land and turning them into barely livable monstrosities with no parking, common areas, on-site laundry or other amenities.
His latest venture will wedge 66 units into this 4,500-square-foot lot:
The law of supply and demand doesn’t operate quite so well as some would have you to believe. Market actors operate with imperfect information. You have thousands of real estate brokers with dreams of cruising Puget Sound in their own private yachts reading the same trade publication that says this particular type of housing is hot right now.
Fast forward a few years, and they’re all simultaneously building the same shabby boxes made out of ticky-tacky. When they’re finished, they can’t fill them, so they offer free month’s rent and Amazon gift cards as incentives. (I was enticed into moving to my place by an offer of $740 rent for the first five months, after which it will be raised nearly $200.)
Some smug knob from the Mises Institute will point to these “facts” and infer from them using “logic” that affordability has been achieved—but it’s a mirage.
The point of the Dostoevsky quote that opened this post is that you can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats the lowest of the low. I and my aPodment™-dwelling neighbors are not that. We are, in fact, Seattle’s lower-middle give or take.
For all the talk of “Scandinavian socialism,” Norway’s economy is still predominantly in private hands, but at the very least its government operates on a philosophy that centers human need, with a recognition that everyone— including murderers and rapists—has a right to a minimum standard of living.
And this mentality is reflected on up the chain. On average, an 861-square-foot two-bedroom apartment in Oslo—one of the most expensive housing markets in Europe—rents for $1,950, which can be afforded on a minimum salary of $3,300 a month.
By contrast, a report by the city found that 60 percent of two-bedroom rentals in Seattle fell in the $1,500-$2,500 range while the 16 per hour minimum wage comes out to $2,560 before taxes.
Affordable housing is at the top of the city’s agenda, and nearly all of the candidate runnings in the upcoming election have made it the cornerstone of their platforms. Whether it actually materializes remains to be seen.
If not, there’s always my backup plan: Fly to Lilyhammer and unsuccessfully hijack a truck full of klippfisk.