For new urbanites in hard times, small is beautiful

Seattle leads the way to a rooming-house renaissance. But what about the parking?

Seattle leads the way to a rooming-house renaissance. But what about the parking?

Housing, like other fashions, runs in cycles. What young folks starting out need is the exact opposite of the iconic ranch house in the suburbs of 50 years ago, two members of Seattle LMN architects, Crosscut contributor Mark Hinshaw and Brianna Holan, argue in a new article in Planning, the magazine of the American Planning Association. (It’s posted here, but you’ll need an APA membership to read it.) What they need, and want, is affordable, super-compact urban housing affording privacy with shared amenities — in other words, the rooming houses of 100 years ago, with updates.

Hinshaw’s and Holan’s idea struck one influential chord: Urbanism guru Neal Peirce saluted it in a syndicated column appearing in the Nov. 13 Seattle Times.  Hinshaw and Holan laud the mini-apartments built and operated by Seattle developer Jim Potter, which range from 90 to a few hundred square feet and cost around $500, less than half as much as conventional one-bedrooms. And they propose their own design for 21st-century "rooming houses" with high ceilings and sleeping lofts as space extenders. These actually seem more comparable to studio apartments than old-style rooming-house or single-room occupancy units. For underpaid Gen-Y Millennials, Hinshaw and Holan argue, such compact units aren’t just affordable, they’re desirable: “Their lifestyle is radically different from that of other households: they spend time at coffee bars, in clubs, in parks and plazas, and at jobs (often long hours). They are basically looking for a safe place to sleep that has a private bath and is located reasonably close to all the other places they go.” Most important, they don’t need or want cars, and want to locate where they don't need them.

Trouble is, zoning codes around the country require that developers provide parking spaces, driving up costs and making “people without cars [subsidize] those who have them.” Potter gets around this by exploiting a neglected “rooming house” provision in Seattle’s code and pushing the envelope with mini-kitchens in each unit plus a big community kitchen and common area.

Hinshaw and Holan propose rewriting codes to "disaggregate" — i.e., liberate — housing from parking requirements. Trouble is, this creates parking free-for-alls on the streets, and provokes bitter resistance from established residents. But here’s suggestion: Steal a page from Tokyo and other crowded Japanese cities, which require that residents show they own or rent parking spaces in order to register their automobiles. That would transfer one of the many costs of cars that are now externalized back where it belongs, to their owners. Landlords and developers could include or eliminate stalls according to demand.

Like most good ideas, this one seems to be forgotten, not novel; Hinshaw tells me that till the post-war boom, U.S. cities did require that car owners either have or rent parking space: "That way, the cost premium was very clear. It wasn’t seen as an entitlement."

Japan has traditionally allowed an exemption from this rule for mini kei-class cars. But these aren’t as mini as they used to be: They’ve grown from a maximum 9 feet, with 150 cc engines, post-war to nearly 11 feet and 660 cc. Maybe they should only give a pass to Smart-size cars that can park facing the curb, which also take much less room in traffic.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.