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Living Tiny in the Big City

January 12, 2015 | By

In a city like New York or San Francisco, where space is at a premium and anything beyond 400 square feet could cost an arm and a leg, the concept of microscopic living may appear to be against the point: Why live small in a big city?

But the rise of micro-unit housing — apartments that are sometimes no bigger than 375 square feet— could provide an affordable option if you wish to live in a desirable, if not historically expensive, part of a city.

And at a time when household sizes are shrinking and the percentage of single people in major cities is rising, micro-unit housing is being championed as an effective alternative to more traditional types of apartments.

Micro-units “introduce a competitive product in a market, or in a neighborhood where the demand is huge and where supply is limited,” says Roger Valdez, the director of Smart Growth Seattle, a housing advocacy group based in Seattle.

As for the consumer, renting a micro-unit in a desirable location “allows a person to plug into that neighborhood and live there in a way that gives the advantages that everybody else has, but at a much lower price,” Valdez adds.

From Concept to Reality

In 2012, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development launched adAPT NYC, a call-to-arms of sorts for designers and architects to help create a new type of housing that would suit New York’s rapidly changing demographic. The winning team would then design, build, and operate a micro-unit housing building located on a city-owned site in Kips Bay, a neighborhood in Manhattan where studios can run as high as $2,741 a month, according to a report by MNS, a real estate brokerage firm.

Housing expenditures are already a huge burden on the average New Yorker — a majority of renters in the city spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent in 2010, according to a report by the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Planning. Such prices are pushing single people to the fringes of New York City.

“There is a huge number of skilled single people in New York City, and yet there aren’t that many options for them,” says Sarah Watson, the deputy director of the Citizens Housing And Planning Council, a non-profit research organization dedicated to housing and urban planning. Instead, people should “be able to make a choice of a good location with less space,” she adds.

To give the city a better idea of what micro-housing can look like, the Citizens Housing & Planning Council in 2013 co-sponsored an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers, that showcased model micro-units and their unique functionalities.

For instance, in one micro-unit model, the bedroom, living room, office, and dining room were all located within a living area measuring 181.75 square feet. A Murphy bed situated inside a wall seamlessly transformed into a sofa. Four stools that were designed to stack on top of one another could be assembled to turn into an ottoman. A rolling dinner table could be stored underneath the kitchen counter when not in use.

While that may seem cramped to some, higher ceilings, bigger windows, and transforming furniture all aim to make the apartment less suffocating to the tenant.

“We wanted to show people what 325 square feet looks like, because often people have a reactionary response to the idea of it,” says Watson. “But if you design it well and you use both the physical design and the interiors, it can feel pretty different.”

Ultimately, My Micro NY, a joint development by the team of nARCHITECTS, Monadonk Development, and the Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation, won the adAPT NYC competition and is in the process of developing 55 pre-built micro-units that range in size between 250 and 370 square feet apiece (the city had made an exception for the standard minimum size of 400 square feet for a new residential unit for the new development).

The city announced at the time that 40 percent of these units will be available for affordable rental rates ­— from $939 to $1,800 per month.

The City Is Your Living Room


A sample micro-unit at My Micro NY (Courtesy nARCHITECTS; image courtesy

Similar micro-unit developments have taken shape in cities elsewhere throughout the country. After the San Francisco Board of Supervisors dropped the minimum size requirement for a residential unit to 220 square feet in 2012, developer Panoramic Interests constructed a building of 23 apartments ­— each sized at 300 square feet — in the city’s South of Market neighborhood, according to the NYU Furman Center report.

In Boston, the city approved the construction of micro housing, which they define as “metro studios,” in its Innovation District. Thus far, only 23 of 200 planned micro-housing units have been built, although affordability at the Innovation District remains a problem — the Boston Globe reported that rents for these “metro studios” range between $1,699 and $3,019.

In Providence, RI, the Arcade, the nation’s oldest indoor shopping mall, is being converted into the Arcade Providence, a micro-unit development. A majority of the building’s apartments will be between 225 and 450 square feet and will rent for $550 a month. These units will not have stoves in the kitchens, as the developers believe their future tenants will be interested in making “microwavable meals” and patronizing Providence’s downtown restaurant scene, according to the building’s website.

The typical micro-unit tenant may not wish for huge amenities, argues Valdez, and is generally unburdened with cars, large pieces of furniture, or a pile of junk that would otherwise make micro-unit living too cramped. Having a thriving downtown scene serve as a veritable backyard for a micro-unit tenant makes up for the absence of apartment staples.

“You’re taking a much smaller space, but you’re close to everything that you could possibly want for a much lower monthly price,” he says.

In Seattle, which has the highest total of micro-units in the U.S. (3,000 in all), micro-housing has given single people the chance to live in the city’s hip Capitol Hill neighborhood. But the rise of micro-units in Seattle has prompted some city officials, including Mayor Ed Murray, to propose placing zoning restrictions on future micro-housing developments, spurred on by the rise in complaints from those living near the developments.

“There have been complaints of too much noise, of, ‘Who are these people moving into my neighborhood and blocking my view?’” says Valdez.

In the meantime, micro-housing remains a viable option for singles seeking single-person households, advocates argue, especially at a time when single-person households make up nearly half of the share of all households in most major American cities (32.6 percent in New York and 40.9 percent in Seattle).

Offering micro-unit housing may also prevent people from searching for housing with strange roommates on Craigslist, which Watson warns isn’t well regulated.

“We need all types of housing in all neighborhoods all over the place at all different levels,” says Valdez. “Micro-housing allows people who were low bidders to come away with a product they would be happy living in.”





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