Tiny, affordable houses line some of Bremerton’s alleys. They’re called “war boxes,” remnants of the massive building boom that transformed Bremerton during World War II.
Studying that boom and the housing it left behind offers clues on what it would take to truly meet our region's current housing needs.
Bremerton’s building boom began after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Navy towed the damaged boats to Bremerton for repair.
All of a sudden, Bremerton had loads of work for people who had struggled to feed their families through the Great Depression.
That boom rivals Seattle’s current title as the fastest growing big city in the nation. During the war, Bremerton grew to 80,000 people from 15,000. Hundreds of people arrived in little Bremerton every day looking for work. Compare that to present-day Seattle, where 67 people arrive daily.
Want to learn more about Bremerton? KUOW's Region of Boom team is there all month. You can find their stories here.
Megan Churchwell, of the Puget Sound Navy Museum, says, “town residents made room in their basements and attics and garages. There were chicken coops made into houses.”
Some of those houses are still around.
Mark Lewis, a blind musician, lives in what may have been a garage before the war. He works there, too. “What I’ve done is taken the different rooms and made it into a functional recording studio," he says.
He sleeps on the floor, because there’s no room for a bed. His table and chairs are speakers. Umbrellas line the ceiling for better acoustics. Hats hang on the ceiling fan, because that’s a fine place to hang a hat.
Lewis pays $700 a month. He knows every inch of the 400-square-foot house, which he keeps meticulously organized so he can find things easily.
Sometimes, the small size drives him nuts, and he runs outside for gulps of air during recording sessions. But the affordability lets him put his life’s focus where he wants it.
“What I believe is important in my life is to concentrate and to use the most amount of energy that I have on music, not making money so that I can live in a normal situation,” Lewis says.
Lewis can live that way because Bremerton went boom, and then bust, after the war was over. The boom built the housing. The bust made it affordable.
Edith Hambrick, 82, grew up in Bremerton during the war and saw the whole cycle. Her family came for the boom: “My dad worked in the Navy yard. My mother did too; she worked in the cafeteria at night.” At that time, some war boxes rented out to three men at a time, who shared the same bed in eight-hour shifts.
Then came the bust. “They started laying off in the yard, and if you didn’t have a job, you went where you could find one,” Hambrick says.
Suddenly Bremerton had a housing surplus. Hambrick says, “it seemed like the whole town just changed overnight.” Buses stopped running as often, “and it seemed like not much was happening.”
Hambrick left Bremerton for California in 1955.
She returned to Bremerton half a century later and found a war box waiting for her. She lives there with her dog Banjo.
A lot changed in the years she was gone. Many of the war boxes are in rough shape these days.
Bremerton architect Steve Rice worries we could lose them. “If they’re not maintained better than they have been over the last three or four decades — little wood buildings — they deteriorate.”
Rice says the problem is that growth has been slow in Bremerton, so it hasn't made financial sense to renovate them. Rising property values help people recoup investments they might make in their homes. But things are changing.
The city of Bremerton is considering changes that would make it easier to renovate run down “war boxes” and easier to build new ones. Bremerton calls them “accessory dwelling units” and the hearing is 5 p.m. on June 21.
People are moving to Bremerton from Seattle and other parts of Kitsap County. They could help save war boxes. “I can see a lot of people thinking that they’re cute. I mean, there’s a little house movement, right?”
If that happens, they may not remain affordable. Neglect helped keep rents and home prices cheap here. And not just the war boxes. There are bigger houses and apartments that also need more than a coat of paint.
Sometimes it’s easier to tear old houses down and start fresh. The brand new Spyglass Hill apartments in Bremerton wiped out three old bungalows. “They were boarded up and abandoned for years,” says Victoria Luke, who works for the developer.
The new apartments rent for twice what Mark Lewis pays for his war box, but they’re much bigger, too. And these apartments come with amenities: an exercise room and a rooftop deck with a view that allegedly brings people to tears.
“A couple of people that we’ve leased to … actually started crying when we showed them this view,” Luke says.
The view includes Mount Rainier, the Olympic Mountains and the ferries that connect Bremerton with Seattle, a city whose growth drives people in search of undervalued places.
There’s a balance Bremerton is trying to hit. Too little growth, and houses deteriorate and collapse. Too much growth, and this town will see massive displacement, either through rising rents or demolition and replacement with fancier housing. Rising rent is one of the top causes of homelessness.
Bremerton architect Steve Rice is convinced that his city can open the door to growth just enough. The fast ferry starting in July is a game changer, but it only carries a few hundred people a day, so it can only change the game so much.
Unlike other cities burned by the fire-breathing dragon that is Seattle’s real estate market, Bremerton, all the way across Puget Sound, enjoys the protection of a moat.