By Meghan Hall
Seattle’s economic boom has come with many positives, but the city’s growth has also had its drawbacks. As the region has grown, development has struggled to keep pace, and the cost of housing continues to rise rapidly. Historically, the City of Seattle has frowned upon the creation of co-living-type projects, passing legislation to limit the construction of such projects. However, the tides are turning, and two projects in Ballard–dubbed Karsti and Freya–are examples of how co-living projects can be successfully designed.
Both developments were spearheaded by Neiman Taber Architects, with financing and management from Hamilton Urban Partners. According to Neimann Taber’s David Neiman, the goal is to build momentum for co-living housing types as an affordable option for residents.
“We have a special focus on livability, affordability, community and access to housing for all,” explained Neiman. “…We saw some of the early work that was done in microhousing, and we thought that those early projects had a really interesting core to them.”
Over the past year, microunits in Seattle rented for about $1,026 per month, while small efficiency dwelling units rented for $1,267 per month, according to a report released by Kidder Mathews. By comparison, the average retinal rate for a studio in Seattle was $1,544 per month. Across Seattle, microhousing developments had occupancy rates of between 91 and 99 percent.
However, these projects are typically few and far between; legislation was passed in 2014 that originally limited the development of such projects, and the new 2018 energy code further made microhousing development difficult, as it raised the price-per-unit cost of development.
“Housing has gotten exponentially more expensive; the need for this type of housing has grown,” stated Neiman. “We want people to see this is a really valuable tool to have in the kit. Why is this the one form of multifamily housing that we’ve restricted to the extent that we’ve barely developed any of it?”
Many of the renters priced out of the market, emphasized Neiman, are women, individuals in their mid-30s and BIPOC.
Despite these challenges, Neiman Taber moved forward with Karsti and Freya. The Freya, located at 8311 15th Ave NW totals 26,501 square feet and 78 units. On average, units are smaller–just 220 square feet–but the development also offers 2,438 square feet of common areas and 1,000 square feet of retail. Apartments are small and simple, and its location outside of the urban core is meant to invoke a sense of calm.
Karsti, according to Neiman, is more vibrant and builds on its more urban location. Located at 1501 NW 59th Street, the project totals 52 units and 18,338 square feet. The project’s exterior design helps the neighbrohood transition from single-family housing to commercial and mixed-use buildings, while the interior has a more “punk-rock” vibe complete with a PacMan machine.
For both projects, it was important that units would not rent burden tenants, but were also thoughtfully designed. The project’s layouts were also designed to allow residents to congregate naturally.
“The fundamental goal is that we wanted to find a balance between the affordability component and the livability component,” said Neiman. “Those are always the intention. Nicer is more expensive. But if you make it too simple or too basic, you sacrifice a lot.”
Neiman added, “We really focus on creating common areas that are well-designed and well-appointed. [We want] people to know they are valued; they are honored, and they are dignified.”
Both communities are operated by Open Door, who expanded their presence from the Bay Area to Seattle for the primary purpose of working with Neiman Taber and Hamilton Urban Partners.
The development team hopes that both projects pave the way for similar development. While some may see microhousing units as “radical,” Neiman Taber believes they are critical for maintaining affordability and densification.
“Every city needs these projects, and lots of them,” said Neiman. “Co-living allows people to live in places that they’d otherwise be priced out of.”