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Micro-unit apartments: Tiny and booming

A microunit prototype being built in Brooklyn's Navy Yard.

Having roommates gets old. And having roommates is cramped, says New Yorker Marcos Sanchez.

“Nine people, five cats, and a number of regulars who are guests,” Sanchez describes the residents of his Bushwick loft as he gives a tour. “This building used to be a warehouse.” 

The metal stairwell is dark, but brightened by some impressive graffiti featuring yellow jellyfish. An old bucket of sand holds legions of cigarette butts, and rust has eaten through one of the steps. 

Inside the apartment, the ceilings are high. Art supplies fill one communal room, an old film crane frames the couches in another.

In many ways, this loft realizes a romanticized ideal of youth and resourcefulness. The roommates host salons and potlucks, artist exhibitions and game nights. They sip beer on the roof in view of the Manhattan skyline. There’s a dilapidated water tower atop the building that offers entertainment for the adventurous and tetanus-resistant. Many of the roommates wouldn’t have it any other way.

Perhaps best of all, the rent is around $900  about as cheap as it gets in New York City.

There is an additional price to be paid, however.

“You hear sex through the walls,” Sanchez says with a laugh. “You hear some bathroom noises. There are frequently dirty dishes in the sink. The cats are really nice but I think they’re gross. They’re the nicest creatures. It weighs on my conscience when I speak ill of them.”

But he does anyway. And he’s right, they smell.

“When I have my lotto fantasies, one of the first things I do is I get a place of my own near my job," he says.

The Desire To Live Alone

Marcos Sanchez is not alone.

“More people are living alone than at any time in the history of our species," says Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at NYU and author of "Going Solo". “Contemporary people, given the option, would rather go solo, which is why we see such incredible demand in the real estate market."

The key phrase there is “given the option.” Many people aren’t given any option at all, he notes.

"The problem is that real estate has become so expensive in the central urban areas that many people are priced out of the rental market,” Klinenberg says.

A one-bedroom in Manhattan easily goes for $3,000 a month or more. Rents are higher than before the recession and renters' incomes are lower. Mass migrations to urban centers have continued, pushing rents up even more.  

Compounding the simple imbalance of supply and demand, there is a mismatch across the U.S. between the type of housing desired and the type of housing available. 

“The population of singles and couples far exceeds the number of studios and one bedrooms,” says John Infranca, research affiliate at NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. He is coauthor of a report examining this mismatch. In many cities, the available housing is 50-70 years-old on average, and thus designed for a different era. In his words, it was “a time when we had more large families [and] people weren’t living alone until they start[ed] their own family.”

Infranca says this means families today are paying a price for the lack of housing for singles.

“The demand for housing of this population is currently being met instead by our stock of two- and three-bedroom units...pricing families out of those units because they have to compete with two or three single individuals.”

Finding Answers in Tiny Places

One possible solution is the micro-unit. It’s a small – sometimes very small – single-person apartment. Inside of an immense factory space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Tom O'Hara, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Capsys Corp., stands over the emerging skeleton of one such unit.

“This is the combined living-dining area. [The] kitchen goes back in this corner. This is about 300 square feet.”

Capsys builds modular residences – pre-fabricated, stackable, movable homes or apartments or hotels. 

The apartment he shows me is being made for the MyMicro project, an experiment launched under Michael Bloomberg when he was mayor of New York City. 

It’s small, concedes O'Hara, but that is the point.

“I don’t know that anyone would live in a space this small in Peoria, but in New York City, you have a place like this because you live in the city, and this is where you take a shower and sleep.”

The kitchen island will fold down from the wall; the bed will be either a Murphy bed or a convertible sofa. 

The 55 units being built in Brooklyn will include 22 rent-restricted units, which will run from $939 to $1,873 a month depending on the income of the renter. The remaining 33 will be market rate, which means they could go for higher.

In dense cities, people live their lives outside – the coffee shop down the street, the bar around the corner. At least, that is the bet that a lot of cities are beginning to make as they allow developers to experiment with building micro-units, from Austin to Denver to Washington, DC. In most cities, minimum apartment size requirements and zoning codes make micro-units either impossible or cost prohibitive without express sanction from local authorities. 

So far, the experimentation has confirmed a deep need.

“These units are renting out very quickly, if not fully rented the moment construction is finished,” says Infranca.

In that sense, it has been a success: the city is meeting demand for housing with new supply.

Then there's the question of whether this kind of apartment represents good urban planning. In Seattle, micro-units as small as 120 square feet have been built in not-very-dense parts of the city. Some residents worry about parking problems and other issues created by a sudden increase in population that could come from the creation of this kind of housing.

Those irks may be the lesser of two evils. If young people or single people can’t move to a city because there’s nowhere affordable to live the way they want, they'll just go somewhere else. And that's a far greater existential threat.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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