Opinion: To fight climate change, Seattle must invest in micro-housing

Nicholas Nolin April 14, 2017 0

Small efficiency dwelling units (SEDUs) could help to alleviate the effects of displacement and climate change. • Photo by Nicholas Nolin

Coffee and gray skies are often the first images that come to people’s minds when they think of Seattle. The fact that we are home to many globally-recognized companies such as Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon also brings our city some attention and prestige. However, Seattle is quickly attracting attention for another reason; our exorbitantly high rents. While there are a number of factors that contribute to Seattle’s housing crisis, an often-overlooked contributor to our raising rents could be the weather itself. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced in the coming years and decades it will likely play a greater role in shaping the development of the Seattle housing market.

A recent report issued by Zillow (another one of those notable Seattle- based companies) attempts to gauge the effects that climate change will have on the American housing market in the years to come. The results are rather alarming. It projects that if sea level rise matches the predictions of climate scientists, “almost 300 U.S. cities would lose at least half their homes” and “36 U.S. cities would be completely lost.”

The same study notes that if sea levels were to increase by six feet, Seattle itself could see over two billion dollars worth of damage to homes by the end of the century. Lara Whitely Binder, an outreach specialist for the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, notes that many of the concerns already facing the Seattle area— such as storm surge damage, erosion, salt water corrosion and problems with drainage infrastructure—will continue to plague Seattle. And, she added, “climate change [only] increases the frequency, severity and/or intensity of these types of issues.”

With such potentially catastrophic developments looming over the horizon, it should come as no surprise that the City of Seattle is already making adjustments, including a series of measures to reduce the emission of harmful greenhouse gases. According to the City’s 2014 Greenhouse Gas Inventory, between 2008 and 2014 “total emissions are down 6% and per capita emissions are down 17%,” while “total emissions from the buildings sector are down 13%.” The City has also made effective use of programs such as the Community Power Works plan that has helped “upgrade over 3,000 homes since 2011” by “helping homeowners convert from oil to cleaner, more efficient heating fuels,” according to Sara Wysocki of the Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment.

Although retrofitting and upgrading currently-existing structures will help to reduce our ecological footprint, if Seattle is to reach its goal of being a carbon-neutral city by the year 2050 we must also be cautious about how we go about building new housing units. While there are many innovative solutions when it comes to building greener and more sustainable homes, the concept of micro-apartments or small efficiency dwelling units (SEDUs) has garnered nation-wide attention.

For a time it was also a prominent feature of Seattle’s housing strategy. A string of legislative acts beginning in 2013 curtailed the production of these apartments in part by placing restrictions on how tiny the units can actually be. A recent housing rule places the range of SEDU sizes between 220 and 320 square feet, with some exceptions. While proponents of even smaller housing units may be dismayed at these developments, the current structure still allows Seattle to provide housing units that are not only affordable, but also more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Jason Kelly, Director of Communications for the City of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development says it’s the City’s plan to focus SEDU development “in the heart of Seattle’s densest Urban Villages,” where its residents can take advantage of existing public transportation hubs and other nearby commodities.

By creating additional units that are more affordable in Urban Villages and other communities around Seattle, SEDUs could also help to alleviate the effects of displacement. Pursuing a housing strategy that encourages the development of SEDUs should be welcome news for low-income communities, as they are the ones most adversely affected by both climate change and displacement. Targeting areas like the Rainier Valley would be crucial for the long-term success of the City’s goals. A recent report by Got Green notes that cities get “the best transit ridership from ensuring low-earning workers can stay in transit rich neighborhoods.” The same report found that when it comes to displacement, “the areas with the highest risk are in Rainier Valley, and displacement risk is particularly high along the light rail corridors.” If a solution to lower the rents in Rainier Valley is not found, the rate of displacement will increase and the members of this low-income community will not only need to leave their community but will be placed at an even greater disadvantage as they will likely have to move even farther South and away from their place of employment. The result of this would be a greater dependency on personal vehicles, increasing the financial strain on Seattle’s less affluent as well as their ecological footprint.

Photo by Nicholas Nolin

One Seattle area resident who has embraced the micro-lifestyle of SEDUs is David Sekiguchi, a young professional who makes his living in our city’s thriving tech industry. David admits that there are a few pitfalls that accompany living in a SEDU such as having to live in sometimes uncomfortably close proximity to your neighbors or needing to judiciously allocate the scarce amount of living space that is available to you. However, the lifestyle does come with some considerable benefits. David says that in addition to paying a lower rent, he also saved on other expenses like his water and electric bills and was able to walk or ride a bike instead of driving a car due to his apartment’s convenient location. David’s experience serves as a confirmation of Wysocki’s statement that when it comes to housing, “if we are more spread out then there is a much greater potential to damage more habitat and create more climate pollution from driving.”

Utilizing smaller housing units may help young professionals like David to live closer to their work or desirable parts of town but it also has the potential to help a very different demographic group: suburban senior citizens. This group also stands to bene t from micro-housing. Bruce Parker, the owner of the Seattle-based company Microhouse said the backyard cottages his company builds—although not technically considered SEDUs—are popular choices for adults looking to provide housing for their aging parents. These units “create an opportunity for construction in close residential neighborhoods where vacant lots do not otherwise exist.” Not only do units like these condense our city, but they make use of a host of architectural designs and techniques that limit the amount of energy needed for amenities like lighting, ventilation and air conditioning.

When it comes to climate change, it’s clear that we must adapt to some degree. Because our current way of life is unsustainable, we need to reexamine our habits and look for new ways to live in a more environmentally-sound manner. While no one solution can entirely remedy the effects we expect to see in the coming decades, by making adjustments to the way we build our homes, we can begin to make a noticeable impact. By allowing cities to maximize coveted real-estate, condense our urban areas and limit the amount of energy needed for basic utilities, SEDUs warrant considerable attention and deserve to be prioritized as a means of reducing the effects of climate change in Seattle and also across the nation.

This story was written with support from the New America Media Climate Change in Communities of Color Fellowship Program.

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