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Originally published November 7, 2013 at 4:36 PM | Page modified November 8, 2013 at 4:48 PM

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Downsizing for the next generation

Is the trend toward smaller and smaller apartments a template for single-family home subdivisions of the future? The market might demand it.


Times editorial columnist

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The new vocabulary of urban multifamily housing is trending toward smaller and tiny. Are single-family homes next?

In a time of aPodments and micro-housing, is there a William J. Levitt for the 21st century, willing to build vast subdivisions with smaller houses on smaller lots?

Virtually all of the region’s apartment construction has focused on Seattle in recent years. As The Times reported in 2011, the boom was driven by foreclosed homeowners back in the rental market, young adults able to afford their own places and a general disillusionment with homeownership.

Young renters are less concerned about space than location. The term affordable housing morphed from shelter for low-income people to the frustrations of young city-dwellers priced out of Capitol Hill.

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development is in the throes of defining and accommodating micro-housing with up to eight residents in separate units that share a common kitchen. Another version, a congregate residence, is more like a dorm.

Their exterior profiles might fit the street scene, but they pack lots of people into a smaller footprint. Neighbors have understandable angst about the infusion of people. Parking is a huge issue.

Located downtown, and in desirable neighborhoods, smaller does not necessarily mean inexpensive, but cheaper than alternatives.

The trend brought to mind Levitt and his fame as the inventor of the American suburbs. He took post-World War II demand for housing and turned it into 17,000 homes in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Mocked in the early 1960s as “little boxes made of ticky tacky,” these two-bedroom, 800-square-foot houses were affordable places to live. They came in five exterior models, and were built with the speed of an automotive assembly line.

Rethinking home size was grist for EcoConsumer columnist Tom Watson in Saturday’s Times real estate section, NWhomes. He is project manager for King County’s Recycling and Environmental Services.

He cited federal census statistics that the average American home was 1,660 square feet in 1973 and 2,505 square feet by 2012. And, of course, many soared well beyond as bloated McMansions.

Given trends in apartment sizes, why not a variation on the theme for the next generation of single-family homes? I asked Watson that question.

He can imagine a younger homebuying demographic drawn to bungalow-style developments that use fewer resources to build, consume less energy, are easier to maintain and are situated so the lifestyle requires less driving.

Watson points to the zHome project in the Issaquah Highlands, whose sold-out town home design features everything from solar panels on the roofs, to parking spaces sized for small cars and equipped with charging stations.

My vision of a latter-day Levittown subdivision was put in perspective by professor Shishir Mathur in the Urban and Regional Planning Department at San Jose State University. He did a study on the impact of King County’s urban-growth boundary on housing and land prices.

He found that although the UGB doubled land prices, housing prices were affected by less than 2 percent. He explained in a Wednesday phone call that zoning and density requirements promoted more efficient uses of property for housing.

In past decades, Mathur said, the suburbs made way for big homes on big lots assuming they were needed to attract residents.

That footprint will exist for decades more, Mathur said, and it will attract some young families looking for space, and the expectations of better schools.

One cannot assume baby boomers will abandon their homes. Mathur said there is a trend toward “aging in place,” and suburban cities can expect pressures to improve neighborhoods with sidewalks and curb cuts.

He does not expect the UGB to budge without intense infilling and intense study of the need. Suburban cities will have to have the civic moxie to zone for smaller lots, and the amenities and services that create livable space for young families.

Mathur said compact neighborhoods and communities have to be ready and available to attract young homebuyers growing out of their inner-city rentals.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com




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