Countering the negative responses to micro-apartments

As some city residents fight micro-apartments, here is a set of arguments countering the complaints:

Families often complain that there isn’t enough housing to suit their needs, especially for large families. They’re right. In Seattle, for example, just two percent of market-rate apartment units have three or more bedrooms, according to a 2014 report by the Seattle Planning Commission. The last thing that these families need—especially low-income families and larger families of color—is to compete with single, young professionals for that limited housing stock.

Yet zoning for approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land area is designated single-family, meaning that the options across much of the city are restricted to what’s already been built. That’s good news for incumbent homeowners, but bad news for people who want to move to Seattle. The city’s not an outlier in this regard, of course: Low-density zoning spurs young renters to rent group houses (or “stealth dorms” as the case may be) all over the nation. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but when single renters can’t find good options in a growing job market, chances are that renting families won’t find them, either…

Incidentally, making sure that housing is legal, affordable, regulated, and, well, available is one way to guarantee against any truly adverse health effects from shared living. The alleged increased health costs specifically associated with micro-housing … well, I don’t want to say that they’re not bad. But they can’t be any worse than the health costs of unaffordable housing. It’s arguable that the stress of unsafe, uncertain, or unsustainable living situations—housing insecurity, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it—outweighs the potential crowding-related stress of micro-apartment living…

It’s certainly the case that micro-housing looks trendy, in part because it is presented in savvy renderings by smart architectural firms such as nArchitects. But micro-apartments are also not a type of new housing we’ve never seen before. They’re apartments. Advances in technology and interior design make micro-housing possible without requiring that micro-apartments be tenements, boarding houses, or single-room-occupancy hotels. But the concept of multifamily living is preserved (even if the division of amenities changes).

A more charitable interpretation of the complaints of residents is that lots of affordable housing is needed across sectors: for poor residents, for families, for the elderly, for recent college graduates, and so on. Certain residents may just want the kind of housing that helps them and people like them more than they want to help others groups. A less charitable take might emphasize property values: who wants to live near these cheaper units (people may complain about health or traffic or density but they are more worried about what will happen to the value of their own unit) and the people who might live there (which underlies concerns Americans have about apartments)?

One solution to all of this would be to pay less attention to the exciting new idea of micro-apartments and for cities to comprehensively address housing issues with a range of solutions. Many major cities are short tends of thousands of affordable housing units and a few trendy micro-apartments aren’t going to do much. But, a more comprehensive plan could threaten even more people with a range of locations and housing options…

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