A Rush to Downsize

Neither Esque nor the other inhabitants of the Footprint Wallingford — a clientele that includes baristas, graduate students and taxi drivers, most of them in their 20s to mid-30s — are unusual in their choice of what many would consider cramped quarters. Jim Potter, a longtime developer and founder and managing member of Footprint Investments LLC, has finished eight buildings full of 150- to 300-square-foot apartments in Seattle alone. Potter has another 12 buildings chock-full of small units renting for between $600 and $900 per month underway in Seattle, as well as similar projects approved or being planned in cities such as Portland, Ore., and Oakland, Calif. Potter is not alone. Other developers have completed or are developing similar so-called micro- or pod-apartment complexes in Vancouver, British Columbia; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; and New York. “We do no advertising other than Craigslist,” Potter says. “We are 100 percent occupied everywhere. We had 12 vacancies in Wallingford a while back, and they were all rented in three days.”

Clearly, there is a thirst for housing options in increasingly sought-after center-city neighborhoods, even when it means living in tiny spaces that are at least partially inspired by Japanese capsule hotels, the inexpensive coffinlike dwellings not much larger than a bed. In part, the recent emergence of these ultrasmall apartments is proof that the decades-long efforts to reinvigorate the urban core in many metropolitan areas, hollowed out by a long-running flight to the suburbs, has succeeded. At the same time, it’s also a recognition that the living options available cater to niches on opposite ends of the income scale. “Our central-city areas used to be where the poor, working class and young people mixed,” says Alan Durning, author of Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Communities and executive director of Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank. “Now you have only very high-end housing or subsidized housing for poor people. You don’t get that rich mixing and diversity across class and age, that cross-fertilization that leads to innovation in the business world, which is also increasingly sought after as an experience of community.”

Micro-apartments of the sort Esque calls home appear set to begin addressing the vexing conundrum posed by so many people wanting to live in urban centers where there are cultural and employment options aplenty yet so few places people can afford. While this burst of interest in ultracompact apartments may seem entirely new, it actually has a long legacy. While Durning researched his book, which began as an investigation into rules and regulations — particularly around local land-use codes that have outlived their usefulness — he discovered that a century ago, there were lots of small-scale city-center housing options. “You start to realize how old forms of housing, like rooming houses, flop houses and boarding houses once served a large share of Americans, and we made it impossible to build them,” he says.

Durning argues that the move away from complexes with single rooms, in buildings that generally had common laundry and even cafeteria facilities, evaporated largely as the result of an unlikely alliance between property owners and advocates for better living conditions for the poor. The insistence from both groups that local building codes require each apartment to come equipped with such things as its own bathroom and kitchen ensured that developments that had once housed young and old and students and workers alike no longer could exist. “There was a collusion of the altruistic and the self-interested,” Durning says.