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Living Micro: Single Residents Embrace Tiny Apartments

September 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As more people across the country are living alone, the costs of rent and real estate are soaring in many urban areas. Cities like New York and Vancouver are trying to get the most out of available apartment space by creating "micro" apartments. Many of these apartments are smaller than what was previously allowed under the law.
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SHAWN GROFF: It’s about 260 square feet… and everything is really compact, it’s gotta be multifunctional…

MONA ISKANDER: Shawn Groff is a 26-year-old employee at Whole Foods, who lives in a building that consists solely of what are known as micro-apartments.

SHAWN GROFF:  We’re standing in every room, we’re standing in my kitchen, living room, dining room and my bathroom is just around the corner.

The table comes up….

MONA ISKANDER: His dining room table is also… his bed. For about $950 a month, he learns to make do with his 260 square foot space.

SHAWN GROFF: If I have company and I need another chair, I can use my coffee table again and maybe even pat it down and they can enjoy as well.

SHAWN GROFF: This is a solution for people like myself, perhaps in the stage of my life where I don’t have that many things and don’t need that much space. I’m not really home that often. You ask yourself what you really need and if you’re honest about that, a lot of things become unnecessary.

MONA ISKANDER: He happens to live in Vancouver, Canada one of the first North American cities to embrace the tiny living concept. But the idea is catching on in a number of cities in the United States as well… like Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington DC, Providence and Cleveland… they’ve all been pursuing projects to develop this new model.   It’s an idea may be new to North America but countries like Japan have for years looked to micro apartments as a solution to high urban density.

SARAH WATSON:  There’s very little– housing restrictions in Tokyo.  So, the housing really does correspond with the population need.

MONA ISKANDER: Sarah Watson is the deputy director of a non-profit research group in New York: the Citizens Housing and Planning Council. For the last five years, the organization has been studying new concepts in housing. Watson says the number of people living by themselves in the United States has increased dramatically — In the 40s and 50s it was less than 10%. Today, that population is closer to 30%. …people are getting married later, getting divorced at higher rates than they once did and are living longer.  And Watson says the supply of housing for single people hasn’t kept up with this changing demographic.

SARAH WATSON: If the population changes but there’s not housing supply to follow, what happens is people start going underground and living informally. And that’s why you see this huge growth in the Craigslist market, people trying to make room in housing stock that’s not designed for it.

MONA ISKANDER:  And the problem is only going to get worse. For instance, New York’s population is expected to rise by approximately 600,000 people by the year 2030. That’s about an eight percent increase.

SARAH WATSON:  We can’t just keep building taller buildings. So, there has to be some new ways to accommodate these people within it.

So this whole space is 325 square feet…

MONA ISKANDER:  So her organization lobbied to convince Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to consider new types of housing in New York, including micro-apartments, like this one on display at a recent exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: This is for big cities—particularly cities that attract young people—going to be a very big problem coming down the road, and this is the first step that we’re taking to try to find a solution.

MONA ISKANDER: In a city where space is at a premium, Mayor Bloomberg launched a pilot project to be developed on city-owned land on Manhattan’s east side. Each of the 55 prefab units will be housed in a single building. And each will be less than 400-square-feet. In order to do that, Mayor Bloomberg said he would waive zoning regulations put in place in the 1980s to protect against overcrowding. Construction is set to begin this December or January.

MONA ISKANDER: So, it’s basically an experiment.

SARAH WATSON: Right.  It’s an experiment.  And the city’s using it to– to properly test what happens if you just relieve a few elements, a few controls, really to see what– the options could be.

MONA ISKANDER: New York’s micro-unit building will require that 40% of the units are rented at an “affordable” rate… This being New York, the word “affordable” is relative. The rent for those tiny subsidized apartments will be between 940 and 1800 dollars a month. That’s actually quite low for the neighborhood.

JOHN INFRANCA: This for many cities this is actually a selling point.

MONA ISKANDER: John Infranca is a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston who studies affordable housing and land use policy.

JOHN INFRANCA: I think it’s good for cities in terms of being able to retain– young professionals, recent college graduates who might otherwise be priced out of the city.  You know, that’ll add a certain, you know, dynamism to the city.  Boston, for instance, is really pushing that front, that they want to retain their recent graduates who otherwise can’t afford to live there.  And– and those graduates are gonna be important for the city’s– broader economy to grow.

MONA ISKANDER: But there has been backlash. In Seattle, community groups have voiced concerns that these units crowd too many people together and that they make neighborhoods less stable as young people come and go. In Vancouver, critics worry that micro-apartments will replace housing for the poor. For example, the apartment building where Shawn Groff lives, used to be a single room occupancy building. Locals complained its residents were being forced onto the street.

MONA ISKANDER: I mean, critics say that these are really geared towards young– high-income people who are moving to the city for the first time.  It’s not really addressing the needs of– lower-middle-income, workers who also need the housing–

SARAH WATSON: A lot of these pilots that are happening in cities are definitely on the higher end– because they’re happening in high value areas, but– but we believe if you could really think through the design concepts of these small spaces and situate them in other locations, you know, you can– you’re really changing the price point for that.  And you can target different populations.

SARAH WATSON: We have a small one drawer dishwasher…

MONA ISKANDER: And Watson believes micro-units make sense for the way many people live today.

SARAH WATSON: There’s a reason why this is catching on in the country because, you know, you can live quite comfortably now with your music collection and your– you know, your books all on– a very tiny laptop. I mean, it’s actually transformed our need for space in the last five years, technology.  So, you couple that with new transformable furniture and you can really maximize a small space in a positive way.

Credits: Renderings of New York micro-apartments courtesy of nARCHITECTS.