Micro-Housing, New York’s Newest Housing Option

By Genevieve Belmaker
Genevieve Belmaker
Genevieve Belmaker
Genevieve Belmaker is a former reporter and editor with The Epoch Times.
August 17, 2013 Updated: August 17, 2013

NEW YORK—Finding just the right place to live is a persistent problem for New Yorkers, and it’s likely to get worse. 

The city predicts that in the next 20 years, the population will reach 9 million people. Even today, the city’s 1.8 million one- and two-person households face a specific problem: there are only one million studios and one-bedroom apartments available.

The city’s answer was to launch adAPT NYC, a competition to create a new model of housing to deal with the explosion in growth. The winners, Monadnock Development, Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation, and nARCHITECTS will create a special building of 55 new micro-units at 335 East 27th St. in Manhattan. A full 40 percent of those will be affordable housing, the rest will be market rate. 

All of the apartments in the pilot project will be between 250 and 370 square feet. A law that prohibits apartments under 400 square feet was waived by the city to make way for the experiment. 

To help visualize what life in 325 square feet would look like, the Museum of the City of New York has been hosting an exhibition of a sample unit throughout the summer. The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 2, is now hosting a string of 24-hour residents from different walks of life in the space, which is equipped with a queen-sized bed, flat-screen TV, desk, couch, and kitchen table. Residents so far have included two bloggers, two museum interns, and a couple who hosted a dinner party for 8. 

“I really don’t feel like I need an abundance of space,” said Taylor Jones, one of the intern residents about her experience living in the micro-unit on Aug.16. She added that the economy of the design made it comfortable and convenient. “Everything has a place. It’s meant to work together.”

That includes a kitchen with a miniature dishwasher, a dining table that folds up into a slot under the counter, and a strategically placed closet that’s perfect for tucking a broom away. The living room/bedroom area transforms when the couch cushions are put aside so the queen-sized Murphy bed in the wall can be taken down. The only problem—it doesn’t look like a place an adult with a typical amount of personal possessions could fit, despite the ingenious pockets of storage space. But Jones said she sees it as a matter of discipline. 

“Staying organized is a lot like being on a diet,” said Jones. “It doesn’t feel normal at first but you have to get used to it.”

Resource Furniture, which voluntarily furnished the museum’s exhibit, created one lovely, environmentally-friendly touch after another to bring the space from concept to reality, including a biodegradable mattress. 

“While this micro-apartment is not a solution for everyone, it’s a solution for some people,” said Lisa Blecker, the company’s director of marketing, who was at the exhibit on Aug. 18. 

The museum exhibit is not related to what the pilot apartments in Manhattan will look like, which will be among the first multi-unit buildings in Manhattan to be built with modular construction. The modules for the building will be prefabricated in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. 

For the organization behind the museum exhibit, Citizens Housing Planning Council (CHPC), solutions like micro-apartments for New York City are part of its core mission. The independent, non-profit research organization’s Making Room Initiative is honed in on diversifying New York City’s housing stock and getting past the behemoth housing and zoning laws that they feel limit the possibilities. 

“Making Room is more about how our physical space should evolve,” said Sarah Watson, deputy director of CHPC, who added that New York City had the first housing policies in the country. That history brings with it a litany of laws and codes that have been layered over the years, instead of reformed, updated, or removed completely to make room for new policies. 

While other major cities like Seattle, Calgary, Canada; and Tokyo, Japan embrace innovative approaches as part of the solution to accommodating increasing populations in urban centers, New York City is often paralyzed by its history. 

“You’re faced with 1950’s laws,” said Watson. She said that one housing code that dictates no more than three unrelated adults can live in the same home is on the books four different times. 

Just to finalize the creation of the museum exhibit unit alone, CHPC went back and forth with the city seven times for approval over minor code violations that came down to things like mere inches of space for the window frame and bathroom dimensions. The only code that they didn’t comply with was the mandatory minimum 400 square feet. Watson said that such a heavy process of getting approvals for one unit multiplied by an entire building is part of the reason the city has seen the dominance of large developers swell over the years. 

“You can only get big developers to build things because they have the lawyers, expertise, and money,” said Watson. “Every dimension of an apartment in New York has a law.”

The city is expected to break ground on its pilot micro-apartment building by the end of the year, and be ready to take residents by early 2015 if all goes according to schedule. 

Genevieve Belmaker
Genevieve Belmaker
Genevieve Belmaker is a former reporter and editor with The Epoch Times.