The Microaggressions towards Micro-Apartments

Carmel Place in Kip's Bay (nARCHITECTS)

Carmel Place in Kip's Bay (nARCHITECTS)

Micro-apartments popped into the news this week in what appears to be a successful compromise with the City Council that might help pass Mayor de Blasio's ambitious housing plan.  The Mayor agreed to increase his proposed minimum size for micro-units back to 400 sq feet from as little as 260 sq feet and also limited the scope of his plan to convert parking lots to micro-housing. These actions delayed a planned protest by the group Real Affordability for All, which welcomed the moves.  

The Mayor has shown a willingness to embrace micro-apartments that was shared by his predecessor Mayor Bloomberg; on the surface it's not hard to see why.  Micro-apartments, which are generally defined as a full apartment with a kitchen, bathroom, and living space within a small, highly concentrated floor plan, have some notable upsides.  

For one, they increase the amount of units available in a single development, which is attractive in a city screaming for more housing. Second, micro-units are increasingly based on modular construction methods which means they can be built off-site and fabricated into final position, dramatically reducing their per unit costs and construction time. And third, they reflect an overdue correction in the available housing stock as only 7% of units in the city are studios, while nearly 50% of the population is single.

There are also some downsides, at least according to critics of micro-housing and of the mayor's housing plan.  The two main criticisms boil down to a lack of affordability and a lack of practical use for families.  

The second criticism seems to miss the point in my opinion.  Yes, you are not going to see a family of four in a micro-apartment, but that's not who they are being built for (at least not yet).  The argument is simple enough: if you build a critical mass of micro-apartments targeted at young, single professional types, you free up the larger multi-bedroom apartments that they are currently living in with roommates.  That stock of housing, which was intended for family living in the first place, now becomes available to families again. (I know this is certainly the case where I live in Stuyvesant Town and... in my specific apartment.)

The question of affordability is more complex, and I tend to agree with some of the criticisms, but I focus more on how micro-housing is being framed. It is not a cure-all and shouldn't be viewed as one by opponents or proponents. 

Carmel Place, which is the first and currently only micro-building available in NYC, is certainly designed with the types of flashy amenities to attract those young single professional types and is priced accordingly. The complex, located in Kips Bay, includes 55 apartments no larger than 360 sq feet. (In 2012, Mayor Bloomberg agreed to waive the 400 ft requirement that has been law since 1987).  According to this article from the Daily News, 32 of the units will be priced between $2600 and $3200, which, woof, isn't cheap. However, the other 23 units will be below market (as little as $950 for housing lottery winners) and assigned to rent burdened residents, including 8 homeless veterans.  

I didn't know West Elm made a Murphy Bed (fastcodesign)

I didn't know West Elm made a Murphy Bed (fastcodesign)

Though this last point is obviously cool, it's also good PR for the developers and boosters of micro-apartments (and was presumably mandatory for the project to go forward). It also goes towards the claim that it's a model for affordability. But, is it?

I don't think it is, per se. First, the amount of affordable units created would be a drop in the bucket relative to the need (60,000 people applied for the lottery!) the type of need (the majority of people who need housing assistance are poor with children or old) and where the need exists the most (not in lower Manhattan).  

Second, as we've already seen with the Poor Door issue in other partially subsidized buildings, it's easy to picture how potential resentments and conflicts could arise between residents sharing such small spaces (which probably doesn't justify my click-bait title, but it is a real issue to consider). This could hurt their appeal and support in the long run.

Finally, though I was unable to find much information on the financing of Carmel Place, I can imagine that there were significant subsidies put in place to get the project through (I've already mentioned how Mayor Bloomberg pushed a waiver through on the size of the apartments) that make establishing it as a model prohibitively expensive and dubious when weighed against the opportunity cost. Though modular construction represents a chance to lower costs, it's probably not a huge impact on this project since the system isn't well established in the states yet.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't encourage the construction of micro-units; we should. But we need to think of them as one part of a larger liberalization of housing options in the city.  One of the frustrating trends with housing issues in NYC is that each development, or type of development, or type of policy tool is viewed as a microcosm of the problem of affordability that must address all needs at once.

The truth is, luxury towers like 432 Park can't help subsidize affordable housing with or without 421a, the "80/20" rule can't possibly create enough affordable housing; micro-apartments can be part of the solution of providing more affordable housing in general, but that doesn't mean each individual development should provide affordable housing units.

Going back to a point I made earlier, what would be better is to create a critical mass of micro-housing that is attractive to young single professionals (who can afford them) that in turn frees up a significant portion of other housing stock for families, older residents, and other housing-burdened New Yorkers.  Carmel Place's principal designer Eric Bunge agrees with this idea as well and sees the need/opportunity for micro-housing tailor designed for different ages and family sizes.

This type of housing diversity would be a much needed realignment of priorities and methods in NYC, but surprisingly there is a large resistance to having such discussions from a wide variety of actors. Even Mayor de Blasio's compromised micro-housing plan reflects a disappointing resistance to a potentially transformative idea. The lack of diversity has warped the market to such an extent that developers are only building luxury high rises while 60,000 people are applying for a handful of units in a single micro-building.  

I am encouraged to see micro-apartments in NYC, even if the current limited amount of units are on the top end of the market.  If they can create a framework to consider more housing diversity (and encourage a growing call for housing resiliency) that goes beyond even micro-apartments, then we should all welcome them.  Rather than trying to force a percentage of affordable units into every project, if we expand the types of projects at a developer's disposal, and expand the housing options for tenants across age and income groups, we can finally start adding a truly impactful amount of units to the market that will lower the costs for everyone.