Opinion

Apodment: The new word in real estate | OPINION

The Snohomish City Council is turning thumbs-down on a proposal to develop compact housing units in an existing building. The units would be “apodments,” mimicking a trend toward minimum size rentals in Seattle and elsewhere. The Snohomish proposal calls for 20 units of 200 square feet each.

With 15 proposals for new apodments in just one district of Seattle, the affordable little havens might pop up in suburbs — like Marysville and Arlington. What’s an acceptable definition for apodments? San Francisco set a limit of 150 square feet per unit while New York is toying with 275 square feet. Which means there’s plenty of latitude to play with when defining what local apodments might be.

Why the fuss over apodments? People live in hotel rooms and studio apartments that aren’t much bigger. Aging motels cater to long-term residents so apodments are nothing new. What is new is that a growing need for affordable number is offsetting much of the discomfort of cramped quarters.

In case you haven’t noticed, housing is trending away from McMansions. According to the Wall Street Journal, the 2007 average home of 2,500 square feet is expected to shrink to 2,152 by the year 2015. Scarcity of land is forcing homes into lots so small that lawns can be mowed with kitchen scissors and tenants can reach from windows to knock on neighbor’s walls. The rise of apodments is one more sign of 21st Century real estate minification. Here are a few reasons:

  • Parents wanting grown children out from under their roofs.
  • Minimum wage-earners unable to afford $1,000 per month apartments.
  • Off-campus housing for students.
  • Cheap bases for business people in other cities.
  • Anyone suffering crippling financial reverses.
  • Anyone attempting to live on Social Security.
  • People opting for minimal consumption as a lifestyle.
  • People who can’t care for larger dwellings.
  • Temporary or transient workers.

The definition of an apodment is still pretty fluid. Some have little more than a bed, a toilet and a sink and shower. Cooking and laundry may be in the unit or consigned to common areas. Storage and parking will remain the big issues.

Apodments are much the same as what were known as efficiency units. Floor plans and amenities can be similar to what’s found in Seattle’s posh Hearthstone retirement community. Some are just well-equipped motel rooms. While they work well for single residents, couples would need storage lockers for bikes, golf clubs, seasonal clothing and miscellaneous sports and hobby stuff. High ceilings would encourage overhead storage.

This trend toward minimal housing is a timely movement that serves economic realities of a growing segment of society. With the bottom 50 percent in America’s economy holding only 2.5 percent of the nation’s wealth, most can’t afford traditional homes. If apodments can provide the basics while keeping them from sinking further into debt, then so be it.

Unlike their parents’ generation, most young families don’t see five-acre suburban estates as attractive. Prevailing wages fail to qualify many as buyers or renters of traditional housing. With so much of the nation’s income tied up by so few, a large part of working America must have lower-cost housing options.

Mobility figures into this. When Boeing cuts 800 jobs in Everett, as it has announced it will, a few in that 800 will find work in other cities while families remain behind. Where will the travelers live? How might families afford two homes if not for something like an apodment?

The trend poses a task for city planners. They need to develop minimal guidelines for dwelling units. Hopefully, municipal codes will lean hard on safety and community issues and tread lightly on size. Need for square-footage varies. While society’s recluses might find life complete within 100 square feet, socially inclined people could feel cramped in 250 square feet. Different strokes for different folks. Again, the sticky issue is parking.

Parking is an issue where neighbors to the Snohomish project might have a legitimate gripe. The proposal would have 25 living units in a property that wasn’t designed to host 25 or more cars, creating a prescription for overnight parkers clogging street-sides.

For some decades, low income workers employed in city cores found affordable housing in the hinterland. Cheap gas and a slot in a trailer park in Sultan or Fall City made it work. Trouble is, gas got expensive and trailer parks were sold to become suburban estates. And now, certain downtown properties lacking that high-rollers’ need for image pizzazz lie vacant, creating an opportunity for developers of low-income rentals.

Until our economy gets straightened out, this could be a win-win situation. Workers could swap far-flung cheap housing for cheap housing near their jobs, cutting the number of commuters. Homelessness might be reduced. Abandoned buildings would find a new use—if only the problem of parking could be solved.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.

 

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