NYC micro-apartments hold promise for urban poor

As cities grow and housing prices soar, living small becomes the new paradigm around the world

Challie Stillman, left, shows visitors storage space at the Museum of the City of New York's "Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers" exhibit on Saturday.
Mary Altaffer/AP

Can two people live together in a space of about 300 square feet? Two women from Brooklyn got a taste of small-space living by camping in a micro-home at the Museum of the City of New York on Saturday, drawing attention to the consequences of urbanization around the world.

At a time when more people are living alone than ever before -- one out of seven adults in the United States -- and housing prices are soaring, policymakers are experimenting with tiny solutions to a big problem.

The museum's micro-apartment, which measures some 325 square feet, is part of an exhibition called "Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers" and features space-saving furniture and under-counter appliances. The apartment's bed converts into a couch, the chair can become a stepladder, and the television moves sideways to reveal a bar.

Challie Stillman, design director of Resource Furniture, the distributor of the appliances, and her partner Lina Franco, a former real estate broker, arrived Friday evening for a 24-hour stay in the unit.

"A lot of people in NYC already live like this," Franco told Al Jazeera. "It was very much like being at home," she said, recounting the experience of having six friends over for a Mexican dinner in the mini-apartment Friday. "But I think it can be a bit too small for two people."

The apartment is similar to the micro-units that will be built by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration on Manhattan's lower east side to relieve a saturated housing market with prices many people are unable to afford.

New York City residents face average market-rate rents of $2,000 per month for a studio and $2,700 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. The micro-studios would rent for significantly less. The units range from 250 to 370 square feet, 40 percent of which will be available to an urban, cash-strapped populace.

The units would offer a suitable alternative to the many single households on the island -- nearly half its population, one of the highest rates in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. New York City has 1.8 million one- and two-person households but only 1 million studios and one-bedroom apartments.

If the designs prove successful, Bloomberg may overturn a 1987 city rule prohibiting apartments smaller than 400 square feet. Long ago, policymakers showed great foresight when they adopted the city's famous street grid in preparation for a mass influx of immigrants.  

"New York's ability to adapt with changing times is what made us the world’s greatest city, and it's going to be what keeps us strong in the 21st century," Bloomberg told reporters in January when he announced the winners of the city's pilot competition to test new housing models.

"The growth rate for one- and two-person households greatly exceeds that of households with three or more people, and addressing that housing challenge requires us to think creatively and beyond our current regulations," he said.

By the end of 2014, the city hopes to finance 165,000 units of affordable housing for half a million New Yorkers. San Francisco, another city known for exorbitant rental rates, approved a rule to build micro-apartments as small as 220 square feet in November last year, and Los Angeles is steadily adding units of similar size to its housing market to meet the demands of a growing lower-income population. In Madison, Wis., activists are building tiny houses for the city's homeless population.

Affordable housing

Housing advocates in New York generally support the idea. Neil Hetherington, a spokesman at Habitat for Humanity NYC, an organization that advocates for affordable housing, told Al Jazeera that the micro-apartments "increase supply" for those in need.

"It provides a solution," Hetherington said. "It's not the solution, because there is no one solution, but this generally provides one."

He said the micro-units provoked new questions about what it means to live sustainably and launched a discussion about the values people hold close. "[The units] also serve as a good reminder for all of us what we really need in life," he said. "Do we really need a 3,000- or 4,000-square-feet home for our family?"

As a next step, he wondered whether the micro-units could be used for three-to-five-person homes that grow over time, like oversize Lego constructions, to continue to serve the need of families as they expand. "I have no doubt that they will," he said.

In 1999, Avi Friedman, an architectural-studies professor at McGill University who studies affordable housing, received the United Nations World Habitat Award for his invention of the Grow Home and is a firm believer in the concept of expandable homes to make room for everyone.

"The idea of micro-units works well with the very fundamental demographic changes we are witnessing," he told Al Jazeera.

I predict that in the future, the micro-units are the only way many families will be able to start their life.

The size of North American families has decreased drastically -- 2.6 people on average -- so home sizes can follow suit, he said, "by taking out space that we don't commonly use and outsourcing them to other parts in the building," for example. "How often do people really use a dining room?" he asked, emphasizing the advantages of shared space in apartment buildings.

"Look at the design of places like Starbucks. They're designed like a living room."

Housing affordability in urban centers is declining. John Burns Real Estate Consulting found that houses in major U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Miami, Houston and Dallas are overpriced compared with earlier home prices, according to data going back to the 1980s.

"I predict that in the future, the micro-units are the only way many families will be able to start their life," Friedman said, "to get a foothold in the housing market." Living close to transportation routes to facilitate commuting to work will be important to save costs.

Although Friedman thinks micro-apartments might not be useful for traditional families, he pointed out skyscrapers in Shanghai and Tokyo where urban families have been living in small spaces for decades.

Global urban poor

Now that cities have overtaken rural living spaces for the first time in history -- more than half the world's population lives in cities -- the rapid urbanization of the developing world is calling for everyone’s attention.

One hundred years ago, 20 percent of people lived in cities; by 2030 that is projected to grow to 60 percent, primarily in developing countries, where innovative solutions for sustainable living are already helping alleviate the population boom.

Friedman referred to housing developments in South Africa, where the government and nonprofit organizations are building micro-houses, each about 540 square feet with a small yard, to accommodate lower-income families; they can later add rooms outside as they expand.

"[Micro-living] takes people from squalor settlements and connects them to the sewer [system] and water and gives them livable conditions," he said. "I believe it is here to stay."

Al Jazeera

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