Let’s Get Small: The Micro-apartment Trend is Taking Off

PLAY OF THE LAND

Is bigger always better? Maybe not, if the burgeoning trend toward tiny apartments is any indication.

In recent years, high-density, high-priced locales like San Francisco and New York City have loosened zoning restrictions to allow for the construction of so-called “micro-apartments,” units of typically less than 300 square feet that are intended as relatively inexpensive alternatives to those cities’ traditional, and increasingly unaffordable, housing stock.

For instance, in 2012, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a ruling that allowed for the construction of apartments as small as 220 square feet. And earlier this year, New York City approved legislation that lifted a city ban on apartments smaller than 400 square feet.

That latter ruling came some two years after New York announced a micro-apartment pilot program under which builder Monadnock Development constructed Carmel Place, a 55-unit project in the city’s Murray Hill neighborhood featuring studio apartments ranging from 260 to 360 square feet and priced from $2,570 to $2,995 per month. A lottery held last year for the building’s 14 designated affordable units (most of which rent for $950 a month) drew applications from around 60,000 people.

Now, granted, $2,570 a month for a pint-sized studio certainly isn’t pocket change, but given that full-sized studios in the area can run well above the $3,000 mark, the micro-approach makes having your own place a bit more doable—no small feat in a housing market like Manhattan.

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Rendering of Carmel Place, courtesy of Monadnock.

“There are a lot of one- and two-person households in New York City that are ‘under-housed,’ in that [the occupants] can’t afford their own place and so they are doubling up and tripling up [with roommates],” says Monadnock project developer Frank Dubinsky. “There are a lot of people out there who would love to live on their own, but they can’t afford one-bedroom Manhattan rents.”

The city’s 1987 zoning code outlawed apartments smaller than 400 square feet, but, Dubinsky notes, people simply created smaller apartments by subdividing existing spaces—carving, for instance, large lofts into multiple bedroom units, or installing pressurized walls to partition apartments.

“So what we are really doing is just following how people actually use housing,” he says.

This is likewise the case in spots like San Francisco, where housing affordability and inventory have become major challenges in recent years. Another micro-housing leader is Seattle, which has seen a rise in suite-style micro-units consisting of a number of individual bedrooms all sharing a single kitchen.

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Interior of a Carmel Place model unit.

Indeed, Dubinksy says he expects such suite-style development to eventually gain a foothold in New York City’s outer boroughs, as well.

“Co-housingbuilding, for instance, small three-bedrooms with no living room or very little living roomI think that is going to become more prevalent in outer borough developments,” he says.

Careful design is crucial to making these small spaces livable, he says, noting that some of Carmel Place’s apartments measure as little as 10 feet across.

“The key is furnishing them well and making them multifunctional,” he says. “You take a living room that is also a bedroom that is also an office and maybe your dining room—how do you design it in a way that people can easily do all of those things in one space?”

Multifunctional furniture is one essential, and, in fact, a number of Carmel Place units come already furnished. High ceilings and large windows also help make a small space feel bigger than it is, Dubinsky notes.

In the end, it’s not the size of the space that’s important, it’s how you use it.

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