What Can Other Cities Teach New York About Micro-apartments?

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Over the past few weeks, Manhattanites have had the opportunity to view, tour, and argue over a tiny model apartment on exhibit at the City Museum of New York. Not much bigger than a display at IKEA, the winner of Mayor Bloomberg’s adApt micro-apartment design competition will soon house real, live New Yorkers in a development on East 27th Street. New York is not the first city to try to integrate micro units into an already crowded cityscape, nor is it the first city to fend off controversy over how many luxe features cash-strapped residents can afford. So what can New Yorkers learn from micro-unit developers and residents around the country? First lesson: Play music while you’re in the bathroom.

Images courtesy Bruce Carscadden

Vancouver

Building: 18 West Hastings Microlofts Price: $850/mo, heat and electric not included Size: Under 320 square feet

Kyle Thiessen moved into 18 West Hastings in April of last year to start working as the building’s manager. He thinks he was selected because, at age 26, he is about the same age as his tenants. The building is home to a mix of Vancouver film students and single people working in the area (many at community non-profit organizations). “People have compared it to dorms,” Thiessen says. Residents have barbecues on the roof deck, or congregate at the bar on the ground floor to socialize with friends. Since the apartment is miniscule in size, he says “it helps to be single.” Thiessen admits that many tenants (himself included) have moved into 18 West Hastings after a breakup. But before you get too excited about the micro-apartment singles scene — Kyle hasn’t heard of anyone hooking up, Melrose Place-style, yet. He does, however, joke that the building would make an excellent setting for a reality TV show.

Architect Bruce Carscadden designed the 18 West Hastings units with young singles in mind. He insisted on making sure that each unit had plenty of light. In looking at the plans for the New York micro units, he notes that those apartments are designed around a central corridor, while his have no hallways at all. The Vancouver apartments feature bathrooms with frosted glass walls to give tenants the feeling of being in a larger unit. I asked Thiessen whether it was awkward to have guests use his bathroom. He told me it’s no big deal — but it helps if you play music.

Thiessen’s stereo was the only major appliance he brought with him to 18 West Hastings. He was glad to save money by using all the built-in furniture — but insists that if he’s careful not to buy too much, he could still add new pieces over time. Thiessen says that he isn’t eager to add too many more objects to his home: “The things I’m interested in aren’t really in my apartment.”

Images courtesy Patrick Kennedy

San Francisco

Building: SMARTSPACE SoMa Price: Not publicly available Size: 300 square feet

At 300 square feet, architect Patrick Kennedy calls his SMARTSPACE SoMa apartments “supersize macros.” In San Francisco, as in Manhattan, space is at a premium. Studios can rent for upwards of $2500 a month. And yet, bemoans Kennedy, apartment size minimums are getting in the way of development. In November of last year, the city modified regulations so that apartments as small as 220 square feet could be built in San Francisco — but capped the number of micro-units at 375.

Kennedy didn’t disclose how much the 300-square-footers are renting for this year, but says that it is 25% less than a typical studio in the SoMa neighborhood. His reticence to give a hard number might be due to the controversy (a running theme with micro-units) that the project created with affordable housing advocates. Even so, demand for these apartments has been high. The first tenants will start moving in this week. Many of the units are being leased by California College of the Arts, presumably to house students or faculty.

Like the New York apartments, the SMARTSPACE units feature queen Murphy beds that convert to tables. Kennedy claims that the apartment can fit a dinner party of six (though he didn’t mention what people say instead of “just drop your coat on the bed”). Kennedy says that San Francisco’s thriving tech scene draws young people to the city who don’t have many possessions, and who spend most of their time at the office or networking in bars and coffee shops. Kennedy doesn’t live small himself, but says “If I were 29 and single, there’s no question I’d live in one.”

Images courtesy FLATS Chicago

Chicago

Building: FLATS Chicago, several potential locations Price: Starting at $800/mo Size: From just over 300 square feet to 420-square-foot one-bed units

Jay Michael never intended to build micro-housing. When Michael and his partners started working on plans to refurbish 7 North Side apartment buildings, they wanted to maintain the same number of units in each building. As a result, about half of the apartments in the new FLATS buildings will be tiny by Chicago standards (under 350 square feet), but others will be traditionally-sized studios and one-bedrooms. Michael also wants you to know that he is NOT building affordable housing. “We don’t say affordable, we say approachable.” For Michael and his team, that means taking existing inventory in neighborhoods like Uptown and Rogers Park, and updating layouts and amenities for the 21st century.

All FLATS buildings will feature shared bikes, roof decks, and in-unit washers and dryers. The target market for FLATS rentals are people who “will spend more to shop at Trader Joe’s, but not Whole Foods.” Inside the units, there are no “funny folding walls.” Instead of building furniture into each unit, FLATS offers discounts to CB2, where you can buy apartment-scale furniture. Michael sweetens the deal by allowing any renter in a FLATS unit to have access to amenities in any other FLATS building. If other micro-unit developers hope residents will use the city as their living room, FLATS turns the city into your personal VIP lounge.

Like the Vancouver Microlofts, FLATS saves on cost by rehabbing an old structure, instead of building from scratch like the micro-units in New York. Michael says that $800/month is a fair market value for the units, though he understands that many are concerned about residents who are displaced as a result of the renovation. He has pledged to work with local agencies to help find permanent housing for current residents, emphasizing, “We don’t want to have a bull-in-a-china-shop mentality.”

The first FLATS units will go onto the rental market in the next three months — but if you want one, get in line. Michael boasts that there is already a 300-person waiting list.

Images courtesy ADD Inc.

Boston

Building: Innovation Units, location TBD Price: Not yet determined Size: 250-350 sq feet

A year before Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the winning design for New York micro units, Boston’s Mayor Menino praised a 300-square-foot model apartment called an “Innovation Unit,” intended to bring more young residents to the up-and-coming waterfront district. Designed by ADD Inc, the units drew controversy almost immediately. Initial estimates priced the micro units at $1200-$1600 per month, out of range for many Bostonians. However, Quinton Kerns, designer at ADD, thinks that micro units can be an affordable and effective solution to housing a diversity of people in a dense city environment. He hopes to see a new crop of Innovation Units that are priced under $900/month, have access to public transit, and attract senior citizens and empty nesters in addition to young professionals.

Unlike many of the proposed micro-apartments in other cities, Kerns’ design doesn’t have fancy finishings that drive up the price. He has proposed concrete floors and ceilings, and rough finishes on cabinets. The new Innovation Units are strictly BYO furniture. Kerns says that Murphy beds are expensive to replace when broken, and that most prospective tenants don’t like them. His design offers “more flexibility” for the tenant than the proposed New York design.

To save even more space, Kerns has proposed that residents might have a common kitchen or even common bathrooms. For Boston’s 250,000 students, this could be “a stepping stone for the next part of life.” But for those of us who are over group showers? Kerns acknowledges that most people don’t want to give up their own bathrooms, so the current micro-unit design still has a tiny bathroom and kitchen. Kerns says that the focus shouldn’t be on the unit itself, but the community that is created when residents leave their individual apartments and interact “on hallways, in elevators.” As a Bostonian for the last 5 years, that seems like a tall order in a notoriously unfriendly city.

Of all the architects I spoke to, Kerns was the only one hoping to actually live in his own design. He likes having just enough space for “clothes and the essentials, close to where the action is.” Will anyone join him? “People are realizing space is limited,” Kerns says, and maybe the dream of living in an enormous home “isn’t everything we wanted it to be.”