SCARCITY BIAS

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Boy there is just a whole lot going on here

I spend a lot of time looking at apartments for rent in my area. The architecture interests me, and looking for listings that are in my price point is perversely satisfying. I have no intention of moving at the moment, but in a city where dumpy older buildings like mine are often sold out from under their tenants, it’s good to have my eye on a few exit strategies anyway.

However, there is an issue. Specifically, in the newer studio builds, something seems to be missing.

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I call this carpet design ‘the snail trail’

Where are all the fucking closets?

Look, I know this is a standard tradeoff of studio living, but when you look at the history of architecture in Seattle it’s pretty obvious that something has changed. The studios from the 1910s and 1920s have closets, some so big I know people who opt to use them as bedrooms. Builds from the 1930s-1960s have big, beautiful built-ins. I’m in a 1980s building right now, and while the storage is impractical (the water heater lives in my closet), it does exist. But from then on, the storage starts disappearing.

I was talking about this with someone at a party, and they told me that per most zoning ordinances, any room that is classified as a bedroom must have a closet. I haven’t really been able to corroborate this in Seattle’s zoning code, but it makes sense that since a studio apartment is more of an all-in-one deal, you don’t technically have to zone for a closet at all (I recently saw a studio listing with the one-room floor plan divided into areas labeled ‘rest’, ‘relaxation’ and ‘relief’ as opposed to the less abstract concepts of bedroom, living room and bathroom). A closetless apartment is also going to be a cheaper and more space-efficient build. So, if you’re a greedy developer, you can line up all of your identical one-room apartments like shoeboxes on a shelf, without having to worry about purchasing doors or altering the floor plan so the closet entrance sits flush with the wall. This is disappointing behavior from a developer, but lazy builds are not at all surprising in a rapidly gentrifying city with a housing shortage.

However, there is definitely a more insidious explanation than cost-cutting.

Seattle used to be a city built for families. Most of the land here is zoned for single-family homes. Then the tech boom happened, and the local economy became almost entirely dependent on young contract workers at the local tech companies, specifically Amazon. These workers are wooed into the city with competitive salaries and subsidized moving costs, spend a year or so at their positions, and then move out of Seattle when their contracts are up (this has also created a booming market for secondhand, barely used West Elm furniture – insert joke about trickle-down economics here). This influx of new residents has resulted in a construction boom in the areas surrounding Amazon’s downtown hub.

The working conditions at Amazon are, of course, not great. Morale is low and recidivism is high. In fact, the company relies on a high turnover rate to keep their spending in line. So, what is the easiest way of getting a large subsection of the population to continually leave their jobs? Make sure they’re never allowed to get comfortable, at work or at home. Make them feel like they are constantly struggling to eke out a stable existence, and they will go of their own volition.

Let’s create a hypothetical tech worker. Jason, 29, is a white college graduate who has recently moved to Seattle from Iowa for a dev gig. He works in one of the new office towers in South Lake Union, which has an open floor plan that requires hotdesking. Each day, Jason shows up early so he doesn’t have to jockey for space with the other devs. It is loud in the office, and someone is always glancing at your screen or eavesdropping on your phone calls. What looked like a breezy agora in the architectural renderings is more of a cattle pen, where cramped, impersonal conditions and sensory overload are the norm.

After a long day of work in the code mines of South Lake Union, Jason returns to his Capitol Hill studio. He only has a minifridge, and the stove is in a shared common area, so he’ll probably just order in. He would love to cook, but he doesn’t have enough space to store food or cookware (Facebook keeps pushing him ads for Soylent, suggesting that he can optimize eating out of his life altogether). In fact, he doesn’t have enough space to store much of anything. By necessity his wardrobe has become minimal, consisting of t-shirts and packable windbreakers. He had a dresser but it took up too much space in his kitchen area. He got rid of his car when he moved to the city, because his building does not offer parking, and street parking is near impossible to find. He got rid of a lot of his leisure items too, as things like snowboards or guitars just aren’t priorities when there is nowhere to put them. Jared would like to feel as if he has a life outside of his job, but there is nowhere to put a life outside of his job. His existence is optimized for staring at screens in tight, shared spaces and utilizing the gig economy to rush-deliver his few creature comforts. If he meets a girl before his contract is up, he dreams of splitting the lease on one of those stately brick one-bedrooms. He might even jump the gun on an imperfect relationship just to do it. Otherwise, he’s worried he’ll get stuck living in what is essentially the company dorm until he leaves the city altogether.

Yes, this is slightly dramatized. It’s also entirely likely.

The battle for fair housing in Seattle has been a long and brutal one. Outdated single-family zoning means that the majority of land in the city can’t be used for high-density builds. The areas that can accommodate new apartments are typically in commercial districts with transportation hubs, and many complain that all the new, cheaply-produced buildings have destroyed the historical character of their districts. In addition, many of these new buildings are financed by hedge funds and shadow investors (once even caught blackmailing the city council!), which has lead not only to the drudgery of identical, unergonomic microapartments that stifle the growth and security of their residents by design, but also to some legal corner cutting. The great irony is that many of these new units sit vacant because the rent is simply too high. This is how investments work in Seattle now – these buildings will be decent liquid assets, and in about 40  years when they have depreciated just enough to be worthless they will be sold, razed and redeveloped again. They are built just long enough to store money, not to provide stable housing on which to build the future of the city.

I’ve been thinking about the apartment a friend of mine once rented in a sparkling, much-lauded LEED-certified building. It was maybe 75 square feet at most, clearly not the legally required 150. There was enough room for two stools and a foam pad that would get leaned against the wall during the daytime. The floor plan was a series of tight, zigzagging corners that opened into a 5’x5′ room, which indicated that this unit was likely sandwiched into the negative space between two regular-sized, humane units. It was clearly illegal, and also a steal. And in 50 years it will probably be gone.