Monday, December 20, 2021

Arguing about a Building

It's weird when parts of your online world come together and start talking about each other. Worse when they start talking past each other, with one berating the other. I know I've seen other moments like this, but here's one from today.

This morning, I saw an image and information about this apartment building in South Minneapolis posted to Twitter by the small-time developer who helped build it: 

The details that accompanied his post pointed out that the building has 12 living units within it on what would usually be a single-family lot. It's located a few blocks from a major bus line that will sometime soon be a bus rapid transit line. The building has no parking (given Minneapolis's recent removal of parking minimums), which kept the cost of housing down, since required parking only houses cars, not people. (Parking spaces vary in cost from $5,000 to $25,000 per spot, depending on whether they're in an outdoor lot or structured underground. That cost is then added to the cost of each apartment.)

The 12 apartments in the building are all one-bedroom (or maybe they're studios? I'm not sure), and they're being rented at market rates, unsubsidized. I don't know if the builders could have instead made fewer units with some 2- or 3-bedroom apartments instead of all 1 bedrooms, but it's a privately owned building without any public funding or tax credits, so in our current system there's no way to require that to happen. Having fewer kitchens would have made it cheaper to build overall, sure, but each separate unit brings in more revenue than the marginally higher rent for a larger unit, so it's clear why a builder in this economic system would make the decision that they did.

As you can see in the image, the first floor is physically accessible. It's pointed out in the Twitter exchange that there is no elevator to reach the second or third floors, and right off the bat this morning, there was some discussion about that. 

I know from other people who do building renovation that the cost of putting in an elevator is at least $200,000, so if one had been included, it would have added almost $17,000 to the cost per unit of the 12 units, or $25,000 per unit if it was applied only to the ones on the upper floors, which would then have to be recovered, over time, in the rents charged. (And that doesn't include the cost of maintaining the elevator, which can also be substantial, I've heard.)

Of course, walk-up apartment buildings are not a new thing, having existed in cities for centuries.

Four of the apartments in this building are accessible. Normally, on a a "single-family" lot like this, that's more housing units than would have been built here in the first place.

The urbanist, pro-density people who saw the developer's initial post were almost all very positive about the building. The lack of an elevator was definitely mentioned as a negative, but the cost was recognized and seen in balance.

Later in the day, through the magic of Twitter, Chicago-based writer Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) saw the thread about this building and took it on, based on the disability aspect. And this is where I get sad, not just about my own cognitive dissonance because two parts of my world are arguing with each other, but because I hate it when someone I respect is mostly wrong.

Kendall throws all sorts of hypotheticals (sure, things happen to people so they can't manage stairs, but there are lots of other walk-ups all over Minneapolis, and will someone with children and a stroller really live in one of these apartments?) and disparages the idea that anyone rides bikes in Minnesota "because winter." It's pretty unnecessary, and so, so tired.

In a perfect or even better world, it would be good if this building had an elevator, but that elevator is not free. It would mean the building and all its units had cost at least $200,000 more to build, so therefore the rents would be higher unless someone subsidized it. Who's going to do that? 

Why is the perfect always the enemy of the good? Why is no one ever praised for trying to do something in the existing system? Why does every argument have to go to maximum negative right away?

These builders made 12 units of housing on a small piece of land that usually would house one well-off family. Even if the 12 units get rented by eight able-bodied, fairly well-paid young people who only live there for a year or two each and four people of varying abilities who maybe stay longer because they appreciate having an accessible apartment near a good bus line — I'm fine with that.

The developer who posted about his project said this in his own thread (not in response to Kendall's thread):

You can do most things right (a missing middle [building], accessible rents, 25% higher accessibility than average, no cars, good design, etc), but it doesn’t matter to some.

The comments are a microcosm of the housing crisis and an example of why it may always exist.


More photos of the building are here.

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