IN July, when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced his competition to create a building of residential “micro-units” in Manhattan, each ranging from 275 to 300 square feet, the plan ignited the imagination of countless architects and developers. ...
The allure of living in New York City, particularly for young singles, is as inexorable as the cruel math of making it happen. With rents heading in one direction only and more people wanting to live here, it’s a good bet that most people who move to the city will get considerably less space than they had hoped. But after they work through all the mental moves required to justify their choice to the dumbfounded — “You’re paying that much for this?”— comes the real adjustment: nesting in a space scarcely bigger than a bird’s nest.
You can already imagine the cries of classism if our City Hall encouraged developers to start building 150-square-foot apartments. The anti-density, lesser-Seattle howlers would line up to declare a competition like that a demeaning assault on the lower class, a threat to the dignity of renters everywhere, or evidence of gentrification! "Making our spaces smaller and our living conditions more congested and densely populated still smells like inequity," a commenter wrote when I advocated for smaller apartments a couple years back. And another scolded me, "Your perspective could use a level of class analysis and a little humility." Sorry, but I think that accommodating our growing population by shipping workers into the low-density sprawl of the exurbs is what reeks of inequity and classism. By shunting workers into areas poorly served by transit, they end up spending a giagntic chunk of their paycheck and time on car commuting. And a lot of those cries are insincere: Well-to-do residents of established neighborhoods oppose density in the name of legitimate-sounding concerns—like lack of parking, improper environmental reviews, and shadows from new buildings—while they mostly fear living near poor renters (Exhibit A). If you're actually interested accommodating houses and jobs for workers—which I am—then you also care about their right to live in the fucking city where they goddamn work. And, realistically, Seattle's trend of building 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartments means a single person needs to pay upwards of $1,300 to live in town. Lots of workers just can't afford that.
The smattering of subsidies, like the city's housing levy, will never add up to provide homes for even half of the workers who want to live here but can't afford it. But by encouraging small apartments—200 to 350 square feet—affordable rentals can be built without any incentives or assistance at all. They'll need the cultural blessing of the mayor, the council, the media, the neighborhoods. And yeah, some sanctimonious dicks will scream bloody murder. Fuck 'em. They don't have to live in 'em, right? With property values eternally rising and the affordable stock disappearing in places like Pike/Pine, lower Queen Anne, Belltown, and the U-District, the way to keep the city diverse, vibrant—and accommodating for regular workers—is to build affordable rentals close to the city, where the jobs are. Seattle shouldn't be an enclave for the wealthy.