A Market-Driven Revolution

Out of necessity, though, that all has begun to change, with cities like New York, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco changing their codes to permit developers to build small, affordable apartments. It’s also important to remember that mere changes to city codes and regulations would not be sufficient to spur pod-building growth. The fact is that private developers can make money by constructing these densely packed apartment complexes; the amount they’re able to charge per square foot is high enough to earn a healthy return. This is also quite a different model — and one that is certainly appealing to many in this era of tight government budgets — for affordable housing, which long has been dependent on tax credits and other government incentives. “We don’t receive any subsidy at all,” Potter says. “It’s different from the past 20 or 30 years or more, when we had subsidized housing. We know the government has less and less money.”

To be sure, there has been some push-back by neighbors in places where these developments have gone in. Part of the concern is the stigma often attached to anything with the “affordable housing” label attached to it; for some, it brings to mind images of large, ugly and sometimes violent public housing projects. There is also a worry about these complexes becoming loud, post-college fraternity houses. But Potter says the reality of his developments around Seattle couldn’t be more different. “It’s a mix of everyone you can think of,” says Potter, who notes that the average annual income among his residents is $40,000 and that he has renters who range in age from their early 20s to their late 60s. “These are not party houses,” he says. “People are making a choice. They are looking for something between $600 and $800 in rent so they now have $500 or more in disposable income.”

While price is obviously a huge factor in the rise of pod apartments, the upsurge of interest would not be happening unless these small spaces also were appealing places to live. Which is why design is so important. “Great design is part of the equation,” says Thomas Brink, a vice president with RTKL Associates, a global architecture and design company that has worked on major projects such as the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and L.A. Live in Los Angeles. “Nobody wants to just reduce what we already have to a tiny size and call it a good solution.”

To guide its work on projects that include micro-apartments — RTKL has a number in development, including a completed complex in Arlington, Va. — the company has looked toward the sea. “The inspiration for us as designers for looking at small units started by looking at cruise-ship design, where we were struck by the efficiency of the spaces and how you’re literally looking at every millimeter of space,” says Brink, who works extensively in China, Latin America and the Middle East, places that are all seeing a similar move toward downsizing inner-city apartments. What RTKL has come up with are two basic concepts for ultrasmall units. “One is a transformer unit, where you can program the space in the day for daytime use and convert it at bedtime by folding up the bed,” says Marc Fairbrother, a vice president in RTKL’s Washington, D.C., office. The other concept, Fairbrother says, is more akin to a cruise ship’s cabin, where all the furniture is built in and modular and the importance of common kitchens and shared spaces is paramount.

No one would claim pod apartments are the solution for everyone, particularly families. But for William Esque in Seattle, the combination of a low price and a bustling neighborhood has been ideal — parties or no parties.

Frequent American Way contributor CHRIS WARREN wonders what it would be like to live in a pod apartment with his twin 3-year-old children. He has no plans to actually find out.