Who's That Neighbor In The Box House?
When four townhomes went up at the end of an old street in Ballard, the neighbors called the new residents “townies.” It wasn’t meant as an insult. But it wasn’t something you’d say to their faces, either.
“It’s like, ugh, what kind of neighbors are we going to get?” said Cathy Hutchison, one of those neighbors. “They have more money, and so they’re going to be different.”
One of those new residents was Johanna Wang, a single mom and doctor of internal medicine who has lived in the Seattle area for about 20 years.
“I will hear those comments and feel, 'Oh, they’re talking about people like me,'” Wang said.
It’s a dynamic unfolding throughout Seattle. Modest bungalows built more than a century ago are being torn down, and box houses are popping up in their place.
It makes neighbors nervous, partly because it’s yet another signal that our growing city is becoming more expensive, and also because there is a fear that these new residents will stick out – much like their houses.
Many of Seattle’s houses were built a century ago, when Seattle was undergoing its first major population boom. At the time, modest bungalows and cottages built from kits were going up in new neighborhoods.
Now, as Seattle undergoes another boom, many of those houses are being torn down and replaced. Real estate agent Kelley Meister said that 90 percent of homes being built are boxy. The boxy shape makes it easier to pack more living space on less land, she said.
Meister said most clients start out looking for older homes. But over time, their view shifts.
“Even though those people love those older charming homes – they want to open up the floor plans just like a newer construction home,” Meister said.
“We go in there, ‘Well, is that wall structural? Can we take that down? Can we open up the living room, dining room?’" she said. "It’s like, ‘Wait a second. You’re going to come in here and do a $200,000 remodel? Peeling lead paint, scraping asbestos popcorn ceilings?'”
When Meister shows them around a big boxy townhome, they see the modern kitchen open to the living and dining room. They see walk-in closets and tall ceilings. Maybe they give up a little in terms of old-world charm, but inside, it’s just how they like it, and the only nail they’ll have to drive is for a picture on the wall.
“Their eyes light up. They’re like, ‘Wait a second. We can live a very different lifestyle here,'" Meister said. "'We can spend our weekends having fun. We can go to the park instead of having a yard to take care of.’”
Cathy Hutchison in Ballard isn’t a fan of these new townhomes. They tower over her little house. They’ve been there a couple years now.
“They’re big. I mean, there’s no getting around that,” she said.
Hutchison likes living small. “We don’t have any fancy furniture, fancy cars. We’ve just tried to live within our means,” she said.
It hasn’t always been easy. They didn’t have much privacy from each other.
“Our daughter’s bedroom was right off the kitchen, which is not ideal,” Hutchison said. “But sometimes she’d leave her door open, and just, you know, tell us a lot of stuff.”
Living in tight quarters forced her family into the community. Hutchison knows her neighbors well because of that. But when these new big box townhomes emerged, Hutchison wondered about who would live in that kind of place.
When Johanna Wang and her daughter moved in, Hutchison took a deep breath and went to greet her new neighbor.
Hutchison walked over and introduced herself to Wang and the other townies.
“It was apparent fairly quickly that they were just like us,” Hutchison said.
Hutchison’s doubts disappeared and in time, Wang shared her story.
Wang and Lily, 4 years old at the time, had just come out of a divorce. They needed something that was move-in ready. They didn’t need an older home with problems to take care of.
But the process of searching for a home wore Wang down. Every house she and Lily reached for disappeared in a cloud of competing bids.
This townhome wasn’t their first choice. But its seller was the first to accept Wang and Lily.
In the last two years, they've grown accustomed to their home's idiosyncrasies. “We get our exercise going up and down, up and down,” Wang said of her townhome’s stairs.
Lily, now 6, has a playroom halfway up these stairs. Recently she sat on the floor, building homes for stuffed animals out of recycled cardboard. Outside her playroom window, contractors cranked out another townhome project.
Wang knows the neighbors are nostalgic for the old lot. Some have said the townhomes obscure sunlight in their yards, and that they miss trees that were cut down to make way for the new construction.
Wang listens and even feels a little guilty, but she doesn’t apologize, because she too has a story about why she’s here.
Today, Wang and Hutchison are friends. They attend a neighborhood book club together.
Hutchison and others no longer call the townhome residents “townies.”
And Lily has joined the gang of young children on her block. There’s no yard to play in at the townhomes, so they play in Hutchison’s yard.
“A horde. A herd of 6, 7 and 8 year olds running and screaming through her yard,” Wang said.
One time, Wang worried the kids were disturbing Hutchison’s dinner. But then, Wang recalled, Hutchison walked out onto her porch, smiling.
“She just said, ‘This is great, we love hearing these sounds.’”