OUR OPINION: Microhousing could ease Grand Forks' housing shortage
A 192-square-foot apartment? That's a single room measuring only about 14 feet on a side. Five steps would take you the whole length of one wall. Who would want to rent that at all, let alone for $822 a month? Well, lots of people, it turns out -...
A 192-square-foot apartment? That’s a single room measuring only about 14 feet on a side. Five steps would take you the whole length of one wall.
Who would want to rent that at all, let alone for $822 a month?
Well, lots of people, it turns out - especially when more typical apartments go for $1,500 or $2,000 a month and up. That’s what rents are like in Seattle, and it’s why the city’s stock of 3,000 “microhousing” units - tiny, dorm-room-sized apartments, like the one described above - now are 100 percent rented out. Their vacancy rate is zero.
North Dakota, take note. Including you, Grand Forks.
In North Dakota, rents in some cities have passed Seattle’s level and now famously rival Manhattan’s. In Williston, it’s not unusual for tenants to be paying $3,000 a month for apartments that cost $700 a month only a few years ago.
Even in Grand Forks, housing remains in short supply, forcing more people to pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent - the federal standard of affordability.
So, Seattle’s experience with microhousing has statewide relevance in North Dakota. A recent story in Politico.com gives the details:
“The country’s fastest growing city (population 640,500), Seattle is the pioneer of microhousing - 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,” the story reports.
“They are disruptors - real estate’s version of a high-tech innovator, literally altering the landscape of the city they occupy. … Some micro-unit buildings look like skinny, color-blocked townhouses, often towering over the squat cottages and bungalows that dot Seattle neighborhoods. Others resemble sleek, ultra-modern low-rise apartment buildings.
“Inside, they’re typically laid out dormitory style: groupings of eight private sleeping rooms, each with its own bath and kitchenette, that share a full-size common kitchen for anyone who cares to cook. …
“It’s not for the claustrophobic, but it does come with perks - including the chance for millennials and those with modest incomes to settle in vibrant urban neighborhoods. … Microhousing reflects a growing zeitgeist - to stop accruing, go minimalist and reduce one’s footprint. Indeed, the name of Seattle’s leading micro-housing development company is called Footprint.”
The story includes lots of other details, including neighbors’ sometimes-angry reactions to new microhousing units. As one critic declares, “I just don’t think [micro-apartments] belong in a low-rise zone where someone has invested half a million in a townhouse and then 56 people move in next door.”
But for North Dakota, the lesson is clear: When it comes to affordability, small is beautiful - and it sells.
In Grand Forks and elsewhere, critics say it makes no sense to build modest houses or small apartments because no one will buy or rent them. But as Seattle’s experience shows, that claim is 100 percent wrong. When “big” is expensive and “small” is relatively cheap, then “small” is a perfectly good alternative, as western North Dakota’s experience with crew camps also shows.
Cities around the state should consider changing their building codes to allow microhousing units. Supply and demand will take care of the rest, as developers recognize a grossly underserved segment of the market and respond to a real need.