New apartments in the US also getting smaller

As the median size of new homes in the United States drops, so does the size of new apartment units:

According to a recent analysis of apartment sizes by RentCafe, newly built apartments, in general, are 5 percent smaller than those built 10 years ago. The average U.S. unit built in 2018 boasts 941 square feet, down roughly 52 square feet. According to the study, Chicago ranks third in the nation for the smallest average apartment sizes (a tie with Manhattan at 733 square feet).

Census Bureau data from 2017 on the median square footage of multifamily units suggests something similar with a drop from a peak in 2007.

Three quick responses:

  1. While the square footage is dropping, I assume the rental price has not dropped at the same rate. Fewer square feet for the same or a higher price?
  2. According to the same Census data, more multifamily units were constructed in 2017 than in any year in the table (going back to 1999). Do smaller units mean builders and developers can now squeeze in more units?
  3. This data from RentCafe is connected to a rise in microapartments. The Census data suggests the percent of multifamily units under 1,000 square feet has not increased over 10 years between 2007 and 2017.

So is there a significant trend toward smaller rental units? Maybe a small one that could be worth watching but it could take quite a bit of change for microunits to really be built in large numbers.

Planning for more micro-apartments in NYC

New York City may change its regulations to allow more micro-apartments:

Planning officials are proposing to end a limit on how small apartments can be, opening the door for more “micro-apartments” that advocates see as affordable adaptations to a growing population of single people. Critics fear a turn back toward the city’s tenement past and question whether less space will really mean less expensive…

As an experimental project, Carmel Place got city land and a waiver from New York’s 400-square-foot minimum on new apartments, set in 1987. A proposed elimination of that minimum would allow smaller studios in buildings with a mix of apartment sizes, but entire micro-unit buildings would continue to need waivers...

Forty percent of the units have rents set by affordable-housing programs topping out at around $1,500 a month, but market-rate ones rent for $2,650 to $3,150, roughly on par with many studios in the nearby Murray Hill neighborhood. About 20 people have applied and hundreds requested information for eight market-rate units so far, while over 60,000 have entered a lottery for the affordable ones…

But critics see micro-units as a step backward in the city’s affordable housing crunch – still pricey, just smaller.

The demand for any new housing is high in New York City and a number of other major cities like San Francisco. It seems like the trick with the micro-apartments is that there needs to be thousands of them available in a relatively short amount of time to really address affordable housing otherwise. In contrast, if the units just trickle out (whether from regulatory issues or opposition from nearby residents or apathy from developers), the smaller units will barely make a dent and the prices will stay sky high. It is either all in for micro-apartments or they simply become a unique housing option in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Countering the negative responses to micro-apartments

As some city residents fight micro-apartments, here is a set of arguments countering the complaints:

Families often complain that there isn’t enough housing to suit their needs, especially for large families. They’re right. In Seattle, for example, just two percent of market-rate apartment units have three or more bedrooms, according to a 2014 report by the Seattle Planning Commission. The last thing that these families need—especially low-income families and larger families of color—is to compete with single, young professionals for that limited housing stock.

Yet zoning for approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land area is designated single-family, meaning that the options across much of the city are restricted to what’s already been built. That’s good news for incumbent homeowners, but bad news for people who want to move to Seattle. The city’s not an outlier in this regard, of course: Low-density zoning spurs young renters to rent group houses (or “stealth dorms” as the case may be) all over the nation. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but when single renters can’t find good options in a growing job market, chances are that renting families won’t find them, either…

Incidentally, making sure that housing is legal, affordable, regulated, and, well, available is one way to guarantee against any truly adverse health effects from shared living. The alleged increased health costs specifically associated with micro-housing … well, I don’t want to say that they’re not bad. But they can’t be any worse than the health costs of unaffordable housing. It’s arguable that the stress of unsafe, uncertain, or unsustainable living situations—housing insecurity, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it—outweighs the potential crowding-related stress of micro-apartment living…

It’s certainly the case that micro-housing looks trendy, in part because it is presented in savvy renderings by smart architectural firms such as nArchitects. But micro-apartments are also not a type of new housing we’ve never seen before. They’re apartments. Advances in technology and interior design make micro-housing possible without requiring that micro-apartments be tenements, boarding houses, or single-room-occupancy hotels. But the concept of multifamily living is preserved (even if the division of amenities changes).

A more charitable interpretation of the complaints of residents is that lots of affordable housing is needed across sectors: for poor residents, for families, for the elderly, for recent college graduates, and so on. Certain residents may just want the kind of housing that helps them and people like them more than they want to help others groups. A less charitable take might emphasize property values: who wants to live near these cheaper units (people may complain about health or traffic or density but they are more worried about what will happen to the value of their own unit) and the people who might live there (which underlies concerns Americans have about apartments)?

One solution to all of this would be to pay less attention to the exciting new idea of micro-apartments and for cities to comprehensively address housing issues with a range of solutions. Many major cities are short tends of thousands of affordable housing units and a few trendy micro-apartments aren’t going to do much. But, a more comprehensive plan could threaten even more people with a range of locations and housing options…

Contrasting living in a McMansion and a micro-unit

Real-life tales of living in a McMansion and a micro-unit! First, the residents of the 7,500 square foot McMansion and then the 344 square foot micro-unit dweller:

The McColls lived in Arlington for years before deciding last fall that it had become too dense. “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Kim says, “was when I saw my kids playing in the back yard and I had to shush them because it was too loud for the neighbors.” Their five-bedroom in Loudoun County’s Willowsford development has two offices—key because they often work from home—and abundant entertaining space. Also: More than 20 miles of nearby trails means the kids have room to shriek all they want.

Williams sold most of her furniture and sacrificed proximity to family when she left her 1,100-square-foot condo in Olney for a micro-unit in a building on DC’s 14th Street, Northwest. And she has no regrets. Because she isn’t much of a cook, the sliver of a kitchen is no big deal, and she didn’t have to give up her one must-have, a bathtub. (It’s off the hallway.) Before, her closer-in friends didn’t like driving out to Olney; now she can socialize without leaving her floor. “When Scandal comes on, the neighbors down the hall cook and have people over. They have a junior one-bedroom—they have room for a couch.”

Quite the difference in housing units. This is fairly obvious from the floor plans. But, I suspect this goes deeper and Bourdieu’s theories about social class may provide some explanatory leverage. Would these two sets of residents ever cross paths? Or do their housing choices suggest such different tastes and lifestyle choices that they might never interact and if they did know each other, not spend time in the home of the other? One life revolves around work and friends close by while the other involves children and space. I would guess the decorating is different as are the leisure activities pursued by each group.

In other words, these housing choices may just be the tip of the iceberg of deeply-rooted social clusters. Would the micro-apartment dweller ever live in a McMansion, let alone even imagine it?

Converting the first shopping mall into micro-apartments

An indoor shopping mall/arcade built in 1828 in Providence, Rhode Island has recently been converted into micro-housing:

Known as Westminster Arcade when it opened in 1828, the building marked the debut of English indoor shopping concept in the United States. Designed by architects Russell Warren and James Bucklin, the Greek Revival stone structure more resembles a courthouse than a shopping mall, what with its stately Ionic columns and sunlight-filled atrium with its glass gable roof. Shoppers browsed three floors of shops—or at least that was the idea; they never seemed willing to trudge up the stairs to the second and third floors…

The mall was nearly razed in 1944, but preservationists intervened, and it was spared. In 1976, the arcade was designated a National Historic Landmark, though businesses struggled. Even its 1980 renovation didn’t help much, and it ultimately closed in 2008…

Work on the $7M project wrapped in October 2013. Granoff retained the retail spaces on the ground floor and rented them to retail busineses. These commercial spaces are enclosed by bay windows so sound doesn’t drift to the residences above. Inspired by ship construction, each of the 38 rental units—which measure from 225 to 300 square feet—includes a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and built-in storage. The homes on the second floor even have guest accommodations in the form of a twin Murphy bed. The Providence Arcade also contains eight larger apartments, a game room, storage spaces, and laundry machine…

Micro apartments are not for everyone—in fact, their clientele are “young kinds that just graduated.” They “are at the bottom-end of the totem pole and don’t have that dining room set that grandma gave them,” Abbott said. “They travel really light. They might have a bike and two suitcases.” The Providence Arcade’s dwellings have also attracted keepers of the shops downstairs as well as second homeowners seeking a place to stay when they’re in town. Rent starts at $550 a month, but future residents better get in line—there is already a waitlist.

If all micro-apartments looked like this, I imagine their popularity would grow. A number of demographics might want a relatively cheap yet newly constructed housing unit within an interesting historic building. Looking at the pictures, i wonder if there is a thriving “street-life” present within the arcade given the retail shops and residences; this would just be a bonus.

Quick tips for living in a microunit

Here are four tips for living in a micro-unit:

Those who live in Tweet-sized units know it takes certain adjustments, and they have advice to offer — wisdom that even McMansion dwellers might find beneficial.

Don’t eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in bed (even if it is in your “kitchen”).

Host only people you like. Really think about how you spend your time and with whom.

Take a zero-tolerance approach to clutter.

The truth is that “micro” — like virtually everything else in life — is relative.

An interesting mix of ideas. I think three and four are most helpful: less space means you simply can’t hold onto as much and living in a small space requires a different mindset that may not take some long to get used to. The first two are quirkier. If you have limited space, why not eat in bed? Is this about keeping some semblance of a “normal” life where people don’t eat all their meals in the bedroom? Didn’t the Romans often eat reclining? The second hints at some different social dynamics. Just like some commentary these days suggesting you really should pare down your friends list on Facebook, having a smaller unit means you have to be serious about who you invite over. And it may not just be about a numbers game of how many people you fit inside; it might also be about who can work with a small space. Imagine a really loud party person; they may not work well in little space.

While much of the interest in tiny houses has been about design or providing affordable housing (and perhaps these goals are mutually exclusive), there will likely be a growing commentary on what it takes to live in such spaces. How might tiny houses really change your whole mindset or won’t it matter so much as these smaller spaces spread?

Get rid of the bedroom and add a fancy Murphy bed

All the new micro-apartments would benefit from sleek and comfortable Murphy beds:

And a growing number of these projects are installing upscale wall beds that turn back into a sofa (or a dining table, or a desk, or a bookshelf, or a wall-storage unit) by day, giving the small-space dweller the equivalent of a secret room. The design leader of cleverly engineered, high-end, top quality transformable furniture is Clei, the family-owned, Brianza, Italy–based company that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and is available in the U.S. via Resource Furniture…

“The Murphy bed is a key part of the design,” Hill said. “But there are so many that are cheesy and low-quality, and look like crap. We’re trying to create something really compelling and sophisticated, that doesn’t feel like you’re sacrificing anything. These don’t feel gimmicky or cheap but like a great bed, and a great piece of machinery.”…

Clei beds are the closest thing I have ever seen to furniture performance art. Thanks to sophisticated engineering, they can be opened and closed in seconds with almost no effort, a huge part of their appeal…

The beds are made from quality materials and offer ultra-sleek contemporary Italian design. Much of the hardware is hidden and the units housing beds are only 12 inches deep. One detail they are working on is finding a way to hide the buckled straps that hold the mattress in place while the bed is being opened and stowed.

And the end of the article starts an interesting discussion about whether bedrooms are necessary. Of course, when space is very limited, furniture that is movable or that can serve multiple uses is very helpful. Some of these micro-apartments are very clever about storage, fold-down furniture, and even moving walls.

One feature not mentioned about the high-end Murphy bed: is it comfortable? Can you get a good night’s sleep? It may not matter if the bet design is here if the bed isn’t comfortable…

Another thought about micro-apartments: while they can be good for providing affordable housing and also encouraging people to live with less, could they fall prey to becoming status symbols all about the latest design? Given the price of some of the features needed to live comfortably with only a few hundred square feet, it may not be too cheap to have a comfortable apartment with only a few hundred square feet. For example, the IKEA store models of small apartments don’t have terribly expensive things but they aren’t necessarily trying to be trendy.

Are micro-apartments bad for your health?

Micro-apartments might be a popular idea these days but some experts suggest they might be bad for the health of certain groups:

“Sure, these micro-apartments may be fantastic for young professionals in their 20’s,” says Dak Kopec, director of design for human health at Boston Architectural College and author of Environmental Psychology for Design. “But they definitely can be unhealthy for older people , say in their 30’s and 40’s, who face different stress factors that can make tight living conditions a problem.”

Home is supposed to be a safe haven, and a resident with a demanding job may feel trapped in a claustrophobic apartment at night—forced to choose between the physical crowding of furniture and belongings in his unit, and social crowding, caused by other residents, in the building’s common spaces. Research, Kopec says, has shown that crowding-related stress can increase rates of domestic violence and substance abuse…

Susan Saegert, professor of environmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center and director of the Housing Environments Research Group, agrees that the micro-apartments will likely be a welcome choice for young New Yorkers who would probably otherwise share cramped space with friends. But she warns that tiny living conditions can be terrible for other residents—particularly if a couple or a parent and child squeeze into 300 square feet for the long term, no matter how well a unit is designed…

“When we think about micro-living, we have a tendency to focus on functional things, like is there enough room for the fridge,” explained University of Texas psychology professor Samuel Gosling, who studies the connection between people and their possessions “But an apartment has to fill other psychological needs as well, such as self-expression and relaxation, that might not be as easily met in a highly cramped space.”

While this is largely framed in terms of negative consequences for mental health, it strikes me that a lot of these concerns are built around social expectations about private space. In modern America, people expect a certain amount of space, whether in public or at home. This reminds me of the findings in Going Solo where more and more Americans want home spaces where they can get away from relationships. But, just how much space do they need? Is the ability to handle small spaces proportional to the space in an average new house (around 2,500 square feet in the United States) or to the large living spaces usually portrayed on TV?

It seems like there should be comparative data from other countries. For examples, some European countries as well as Japan have had smaller spaces for decades. Do they have higher rates of stress and other negative outcomes?

Making a clear contrast: “Micro-apartments: The anti-McMansions”

CNN profiles micro-apartments and frames them as the opposite of McMansions:

Move over McMansions: These days, pint-sized, micro-apartments are all the rage.

Typically ranging between 180 and 300 square-feet, these tiny apartments are becoming increasingly popular among the young-and-single set and even some retirees, seeking affordable places to live in the nation’s costliest cities.

Nowhere is the micro trend hotter than in Seattle. More than 40 micro-apartment developments have been built in the city in the past three years, according to Jim Potter, chairman of Kauri Group, a Seattle-based developer. Many of these apartment buildings offer shared patios, roof decks and even communal kitchens. (Zoning laws in Seattle allow up to eight apartments to share one kitchen)…

The key selling point is affordability. In Seattle, 250-square-foot apartments rent for under $800 a month, almost half the average $1,400 people pay for newly built studios of 400 square feet or more in the city, according to Potter.

The first comparison is not surprising: as McMansions came to be the symbol of large houses, micro-apartments are just the opposite. The whole unit is the size of perhaps a smaller owner’s suite in a McMansion and often features space-saving designs.

The second comparison is less common: micro-apartments are also cheap compared to McMansions. Particularly in the cities cited in this article, places like Seattle or San Francisco, affordable housing is in short supply. Micro-apartments may be small but more importantly, they give people an opportunity to live closer to work and in or near places they couldn’t afford otherwise. McMansions were also known for their price, or at least for the mortgages that owners had to take on. The comparison is not perfect since McMansions are assumed to be in the suburbs and less of an issue in the big city.

It will be interesting to see how this comparison plays out down the road. McMansions are a powerful symbol while micro-apartments are on the rise and still could change quite a bit as they grow in number and spread to more places. The article hints at one change: the micro-apartments might be popular with retirees. Such a development could set up some interesting stories of

Micro-apartments in Seattle

Here is an overview of the growth in micro-apartments in Seattle:

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is on record in support of micro apartments, as is City Council member Richard Conlin.

“The private market is building affordable housing for people who want it,” Conlin said. “Fundamentally, this is a good thing.”

Young people starting out, service workers and retirees on limited incomes all need affordable housing, Conlin and other supporters said.

Forty-one micro housing projects have come through the Seattle Department of Planning and Development since 2006, spokeswoman Cyndi Wilder said. Of those, 28 received permits and 13 are under examination.

The planning department is aware of the debate over the review process for micro apartment buildings, she said, and the Seattle City Council “is going through an information-gathering process.”

It would be interesting to hear more about why Seattle and a few other cities are approving more micro-apartments while not as much is happening in other cities. This isn’t necessarily happening in the densest urban areas so is this more about regulation or the willingness to try new housing arrangements (perhaps in cities that are more “bohemian”)?

This article also presents an angle that I haven’t seen much thus far in news coverage: nearby residents who oppose large numbers of micro-apartments. I wonder if micro-apartments are encountering typical NIMBY concerns such as traffic and changes to the neighborhood or whether opposition is focused on unique attributes of the units like higher density and the type of people who might live in such units.