Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.
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Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.
Seattle, as seen from the top of the Space Needle. (Photo: Tanya/Flickr)

Seattle, as seen from the top of the Space Needle. (Photo: Tanya/Flickr)

Consider me a proponent of the micro-housing movement in Seattle. I support the anti-materialist aesthetic. Live where you want to live. Be willing to give up square footage to accomplish that goal. Shrink your footprint.

Unintentionally, this emergent residential pattern is commensal with the shifting economic geography of tech firms. The talent-starved crave cheaper labor, indicative of an economic epoch converging. The wants and needs of residents align well with the wants and needs of Big Tech:

The country’s fastest growing city (population 640,500), Seattle is the pioneer of micro-housing—tiny, one-room dwellings that are in turn hailed as an affordable, sustainable alternative to the high cost of city living, and disparaged as an inhuman experiment in downsizing. They are disruptors—real estate’s version of a high-tech innovator, literally altering the landscape of the city they occupy. But are they are a force for good or ill? Seattle is still figuring that out. ...

... Seattle proved an ideal pioneer of micro-housing for a confluence of reasons: a permissive city code; a burgeoning population of millennials; a real estate boom fueled by the incursion of Amazon and other tech giants; and, not least, a visionary developer who early on discerned the pieces of this puzzle and put them all together.

The model—which took off in 2009—also happened to coincide with state and city goals to increase urban density and leave rural and agricultural lands untouched. In doing so, it triggered an unlikely coalition of developers and environmentalists, while turning some longtime progressives into wary NIMBYs, outraged that their residential neighborhoods are being transformed by what many perceive as the rebirth of seedy early 20th century boarding houses. Now, after five years of assuming a hands-off approach, the city is pushing back against micro-housing, putting the future of these tiny dwellings in limbo.

Apropos of gentrification, high-tech innovation serves as a metaphor for the real estate innovation of micro-housing in Seattle. For tech (e.g. Amazon) to thrive in the city, the service class must be willing to pack it in like the economy class on a discount airline. At least you get to fly.

Instead of greater salaries underwriting closer proximity to the sacred urban core, labor must be willing to embrace radically different living conditions. The shape of housing innovation in real estate expensive Northern Virginia:

"I don't mind an Hispanic neighborhood," said Gault, 73. "But they've turned a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home into a nine-room boarding house."

Long a source of tension in the suburbs, where high prices force many immigrants to pool financial resources and share housing, residential crowding has generated a surge of complaints in Fairfax, a county where one in four residents is foreign-born.

I see the micro-housing trend in the same light. Even the NIMBY complaints have the same ring as they do in Seattle: “I went from thinking that the lot next to me would hold eight apartments and instead it will hold 75 people." I don't mind the millennials, but ... “They’re messing with what I thought was a commitment when I bought into this neighborhood."

The greater the tenure of a resident, the greater the entitlement to spell out what the neighborhood character should be. You just live here. This neighborhood is my home. Xenophobia rears its ugly head once again.