Micro-Apartments Aren’t New, They’re Just Usually Illegal And Awful

Tiny apartments are suddenly being hailed as a solution to skyrocketing urban housing prices. But they’re not new–SRO’s have been around for decades, and they’re historically so bad that they’re banned.

Micro-Apartments Aren’t New, They’re Just Usually Illegal And Awful
Dollhouse via Shutterstock

Tiny, dorm-like micro-apartments are officially a “hot trend in U.S. real estate” according to a Reuters story that profiles civil engineer Aaron McConnell, who sleeps in a twin bed with eight roommates in Seattle. From the story:


Tiny apartments like McConnell’s are cropping up in major cities around the country to meet the demand of people who are short on cash but determined to live in areas with otherwise pricey rents.

Micros, also known as “hostel-style” apartments, usually offer less than 200 square feet (18.5 square meters) including private bathrooms, and they typically come furnished, sometimes with built-in beds and other amenities to save space.

It’s the logical extension of a school of thought that sees density as the solution to American cities’ persistent shortage of affordable housing. How else, without government subsidies, can you build housing on the cheap while still letting people live in desirable locations with manageable commutes?

But there’s an inconvenient reality underlying this hope. Micro-apartments aren’t actually new; they have just historically been illegal–and pretty terrible to live in.

As the Next American City reminds us, the micro-apartment has a longer history as the SRO, or single room occupancy unit. Even as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg commissioned architects to build a “new housing model” of sub-300-square-foot micro-units, the city had an estimated 100,000 illegal SROs. They were outlawed by the city back in 1955 when people started viewing them as substandard and inhumane. Standards on minimum apartment size have since emerged in other major cities. The Next American City explains:

Since then, the number of legal SROs in New York City has dwindled dramatically, with some 175,000 units disappearing between the 1950s and today. Single-room dwellings also fell out of favor in other urban centers across the country, which led in the loss of nearly 1 million SRO units nationwide. Between 1960 and 1980, Chicago lost 80 percent of its 38,845 SROs, while Seattle saw 15,000 units disappear. In San Francisco, more than 10,000 units were converted or demolished between 1960 and 2000.

What’s new about the “micro-apartment” isn’t its existence, but its legality. That legality will likely mean better, safer conditions for inhabitants. But competing with the illegal SROs will take a commitment to affordability that even the most efficient private developer is unlikely to meet without help. The main character in the Next American City story, Boubacar Balde, lives in a 60-square-foot room in an apartment with blocked fire escapes and windows that don’t open–but for a price of only $80 a week. “I don’t have another choice,” Balde says. “That’s why I’m here.”

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.