Seattle’s apartments are as small, physically, as its housing supply. But while new units are entering the market, those units are continuing to shrink in size.
According to a study by RentCafe, Seattle boasts the tiniest apartments in the United States — an average apartment size of 711 square feet. That’s smaller than Manhattan, Los Angeles, and other major cities.
“We do see a trend toward smaller, and a couple reasons are driving it,” Doug Ressler, director of business intelligence with Yardi Matrix, told MyNorthwest. “In terms of larger cities like Seattle, LA, New York …. in order to meet the median income of renters, and also to hit number of units required in terms of supply, what we see is people building smaller units.”
RentCafe considered new apartments built in Seattle between 2008 and 2018. To put Seattle’s 711 square foot average into some perspective, Manhattan and Chicago both have average sizes of 733 square feet. We win by 22 feet!
If it’s space you want, try Tallahassee, Florida, where they boast the largest apartments in the nation — an average of 1,038 square feet.
But Ressler notes that there is always a market for affordable housing. Small apartments fit into this niche, especially in a city where service workers are being pushed out of town.
Seattle’s tiny apartments
Seattle’s apartment sizes did increase slightly over the past 10 years — by 4 percent. It just wasn’t enough to bring up the average. RentCafe notes that local rents shot up by 74 percent during that same time, from $1,186 in 2008, to $2,064 in 2018. The high rents and high demand for apartments has led to a unique dynamic.
Ressler says that developers can be anxious about conditions in a city like Seattle — permitting times, rising costs, etc. There is a motivation to get the most bang for your buck. In this case, cram the most apartments into a single project.
“There’s a propensity in larger gateway cities for zoning issues, longer lead times to get development done, so developers want to be able to get something built and fill it up,” Ressler said. “They are doing so with a lot of fringes or smaller units, especially on the fringes of urban cores and suburban areas.”
According to Ressler, even when buildings are repurposed from one use into a living space, those new spaces are being divided up into smaller units.
Another factor is that some developers have found a way around inclusionary zoning. The Puget Sound Business Journal reported that one Seattle developer has favored micro-apartments as a way of getting around Portland’s rules. Similar tactics have been used in Seattle. Basically, the company builds apartments without kitchens. Full kitchens are located in common areas. This allows for a lot more, smaller apartments to rent at lower prices.
“That’s a nuance, but if I can develop and not have inclusionary zoning policy affiliated with my development, I’m going to do that,” Ressler said.
Ressler explains that if a developer has 100 units and is required to make 20 of them affordable, they can take that 2o-unit space and make them 40 micro-units, thus getting around zoning rules.
Here’s some other quick facts from the assessment:
The average size of an apartment in the Northwest is 856 square feet, four square feet less than the Northeast. The most popular apartment unit in Seattle is a 1-bedroom; an average of 676 square feet. 2-bedroom apartments in Seattle are an average of 956 square feet. Seattle studios have an average of 461 square feet. Nationally, rents for new apartments have gone up by 28 percent since 2008, while their sizes shrank by 5 percent. The average apartment in the US dropped by 52 square feet since 2008 (currently 941 square feet).
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