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Micro Apartments: Utopia or Dystopia?

New York City just completed its first micro-unit development. Is the future of urban living too tight a squeeze?

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In the hierarchy of things New York City residents kvetch about, housing ranks near the top. A dearth of affordable apartments has the city in a stranglehold and there’s seemingly no end to escalating rents. (Good luck finding a studio in Manhattan for less than $2,300 per month, the average going rate in the borough.) To tackle this problem, former mayor Michael Bloomberg staged a competition in 2012 to design a micro-units development. In just three years, the experimental buildings have hit the market. But is it enough to alleviate the affordable housing crisis? Short answer: it opens the conversation about retooling the city’s supply of apartments, but it’s not exactly a panacea for NYC’s housing headaches.

Designed by the Brooklyn-based firm nArchitects, Carmel Place (formerly known as MyMicro) is located in Kips Bay, a neighborhood on Manhattan’s east side, familiar to many as "The place where that movie theater that isn't Union Square is" and "No, I do not live in Murray Hill." Like CitySpaces SOMA, in San Francisco, and Cubix, in Seattle, Carmel Place portends the migration of micro units into American cities.

"It really is one small tool in what needs to be a larger toolbox for addressing the rather homogeneous housing stock that we have inherited from the big building booms when nuclear families prevailed," Eric Bunge, a principal, along with Mimi Hoang, at nArchitects says. "Young people, old people, middle aged people—they all need small units. And it’s not correlated to any income level. Poor people need it, rich people want it."

Modular builder Capsys prefabricated the nine-story structure in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It's composed of 55 apartments ranging from 250 to 350 square feet with the average being around 300. To achieve this size, Bloomberg issued a mayoral override on the minimum area of an apartment—400 square feet—and density requirements; however, each apartment still adheres to ADA accessibility codes.

Though diminutive, the micro units are no single-room-occupancy hotel or tenement retread. Fitted with hardwood floors, stainless-steel kitchen appliances, storage lofts, large windows, and Juliet balconies, the apartments could be torn from the pages of any modern interiors magazine. The nine-foot-six-inch ceiling heights counterbalance the units’ compact footprint; ample communal space offers more room to lounge. Some apartments are furnished with space-saving Murphy beds and expanding tables. And for the resident who can’t be bothered to buy their own groceries or do their laundry, there’s a concierge service called Hello Alfred—included with market-rate rents and veterans' housing, priced separately for affordable units—that’ll take care of chores.

nArchitects

While the housing shortage sparked the competition, demographic change influenced the design. The composition of households has steadily morphed over the decades, but the housing stock hasn’t caught up. According to research from the Citizens Housing Planning Council—the nonprofit whose research informed Bloomberg’s AdAPT competition—there are 1.8 million one- and two-person households in New York City and just 1 million studios and one-bedroom apartments. Carmel Place’s 55 units are just a drop in the bucket, but pose a solution for denser living in a city where buildable land is at a premium.

Affordability is another driving force. Of the 55 units, 33 are market rate—going for $2,500 to $3,000 per month. Eight of the 22 affordable units are designated for formerly homeless veterans under Section 8 vouchers and the remaining 14 entered into the housing lottery. (60,000 people applied.) Prospective tenants earning up to $48,000 would pay $950 per month; those earning up to $78,650 would be charged $1,490.

"No one can predict how introduction of this new type of building will affect affordability because it will takes time and volume," Bunge says. "But the bigger framework is that there are so many different ways to measure affordability. The end user is the most important thing, but on the same level, also cost to the city will be a factor in considering [micro housing]."

Bunge argues that sprawl is costly to the city—which eventually trickles down to tax payers—in terms of the transportation infrastructure that comes along with it—which can amount to millions and millions of dollars—and allowing for denser development and affordable housing near existing transit—instead of on the fringes of the city—can also help keep costs in check.

Carmel Place seems like a uniquely New York solution, but the takeaways could be applied to other cities struggling with affordability and low vacancy rates. But is the only solution to housing affordability cramming a family of four into a shoebox? Will all city dwellers say sayonara to space?

"The lesson I think to be learned is looking at how to approach [the housing] problem," Bunge says. "This particular building is not the only outcome of looking closely at demographics. There are other things we need to do to adjust the housing stock moving forward, like, co-housing for instance. There’s a broader lesson in how city agencies are open to research-based decisions. I would say another lesson is to see how quickly the zoning laws can change through a process like this that’s tested with a prototype. A third takeaway for me, personally, is that these apartments can feel very livable if certain things are implemented, like tall ceilings. We’ve been saying that volume is underrated. Everybody focuses on floor area. An eight-foot-tall ceiling in a tiny apartment feels really horrible, but that same apartment with a taller ceiling feels like a loft."

nArchitects is currently working on a micro-unit building in Hong Kong—a city defined by dense development. Residents are expected to move in February 1. "They don’t call them [micro units]; they just call them apartments, but they’re even smaller," Bunge says. "The South China Morning Post published an article last spring with the title 'Hong Kong Style Microflats Arrive in New York' so the irony now is that New York architects like us are building a big 30-story tower in Hong Kong and those units are 200 square feet."

Mayor Bill De Blasio has pledged to build 80,000 affordable homes under his 10-year housing plan, which hinges on controversial large swathes of rezoned land in traditionally low-rent neighborhoods like East New York. A 2015 study from the Furman Center at NYU found that inclusionary zoning—relaxing laws on developers if they include at percentage of affordable units—is only financially viable in high-rent neighborhoods.

"In much of the city rents are not high enough to generate high-rise development, so additional density isn’t going to spur [developers to build]," Mark Willis, executive director at the Furman Center, told the Wall Street Journal.

Carmel Place was wedged into an extremely small footprint—just 45 by 105 feet—and in a centrally located neighborhood. If the city can identify more of these underutilized lots to construct dense developments where the split between affordable and market rate apartments is financially viable, the Carmel Place model could be repeated. Persuading local government and apartment hunters that this is a solution will take time. And positive word-of-mouth from residents—presuming it is indeed positive—will help.

"There needs to be a sort of culture shift before everyone is on board [with micro apartments], but I also think that no one expects everyone to be on board," Bunge says. "This is just one other choice in a lot of other choices."

Correction: An earlier version of the story stated that Hello Alfred, the concierge service, was priced separately from monthly rent; it's included with the market-rate rent and veterans' housing but priced as a separate service for the affordable units.

Slideshow Credits: 01 / Monadnock Development;

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