Micro-apartments: more trouble than they’re worth?

Original Reporting | By David Noriega |

“I think over time it would be a relationship killer,” Saegert wrote in an email. The problem would be severely compounded if a household included children, whose school performance and development suffer significantly with crowding, according to Saegert. “If you’re talking children, this would be highly inappropriate and developmentally not good,” she said.

Eric Bunge, one of the architects who designed the New York micro-apartment pilot, was aware of quality-of-life issues raised by very small spaces. In fact, his firm took steps to mitigate those issues: higher (9-foot) ceilings and large, plentiful windows. Bunge suggested that minimum size and maximum density regulations should not be relaxed without other controls being put in place. “If these two zoning codes are relaxed, other ones need to be implemented to ensure qualities like light and air,” he said.


Who will and will not be helped?

In the Bloomberg Administration’s telling of the story, a varied and extensive population of New Yorkers would benefit from relaxed zoning and the construction it spurs. “Ultimately, the housing choices that [our program] seeks to create will serve a wide spectrum of small households and small family sizes,” then-Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development Mathew M. Wambua said during the press conference announcing the competition. “Young professions, singles, couples, small families, artists, veterans, low- and moderate-income families, special needs populations — the list goes on and on.”

144,000 two-or-more-person households, comprising nearly 424,000 people, are waiting for public housing, according to the New York  City Housing Authority’s latest numbers.

But Sarah Watson, deputy director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC), a research and advocacy organization that played a key role in introducing the idea of micro-apartments to New York City, acknowledged that the pilot project in Kips Bay only addressed housing scarcity for a small, wealthy slice of the single-person market. “This is not in any way solving New York’s affordable housing issues,” she said. “You can’t solve these problems with just one project.” Instead, Watson said, the project helped fill a gap in the kinds of housing stock available to single people, especially those preoccupied with living in Manhattan.

Watson did say, however, that, for single individuals, the micro-apartment concept could be applied broadly — across the city and across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Others are more skeptical. “Single-person households are by far the poorest households in New York City,” Moses Gates of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), an affordable housing research and advocacy group, told Remapping Debate. One of the main drivers behind the growing number of singles in New York, Gates said, is the fact that the city is aging — and elderly singles tend to have extremely low incomes. “If you’re trying to house the growing single population of New York,” Gates said, “you also have to reflect who that growing single population is, which is poor and elderly.”

One group that seems clearly not to benefit from a push for micro-apartments is families with children. (No one is yet arguing that micro-apartments would work for such families.) In fact, Watson of CHPC said that a change in zoning laws to encourage small studios might supplant, rather than supplement, construction of larger units appropriate for families with children. Some amount of this replacement, she said, is needed to accommodate a growing population of single-person households.

Yet citywide statistics remind us that the scarcity of affordable housing in New York remains a crisis for families. The New York City Housing Authority’s waiting list for public housing illustrates the problem. While the need for housing for single individuals is substantial, with some 100,000 one-person households on the NYCHA waiting list, the demand for apartments from households of two or more is even larger: 144,000 such two-or-more households, comprising nearly 424,000 people, are waiting for apartments, according to NYCHA’s latest numbers. The list does not count a large number of families who can barely afford their homes but who do not qualify for public housing.

“The problem of affordability impacts a much wider population than just singles,” said Joan Byron, director of policy for the Pratt Center for Community Development. “Single-parent families with one or two or three kids have trouble affording housing. Conventional families with two parents have trouble affording housing.” And so on. 


Zoning failure or market failure?

A key to understanding the difference between those optimistic and those pessimistic about the potential of micro-apartments is that the former tend to believe that the market, left more to its own devices, would serve the interests of a wide range of New Yorkers. In this view, the principal reason that more single individuals are now living in informal sharing arrangements (often with several roommates) than used to be the case is that the market was not allowed to respond to a mismatch between demographics and housing supply: while the number of single individuals needing apartments increased, zoning regulations artificially restricted the number of studios and one-bedrooms that could be profitably built.

But micro-apartment skeptics say that increased sharing stemmed less from an overall lack of small apartments than from their rising cost: the small apartments that an already increasingly unregulated market did create demanded rents well beyond what most New Yorkers could afford. Increased sharing “has everything to do with the affordability of the housing stock, not the size and shape of it,” Byron said. This is reflected, she added, in the fact that the proportion of New Yorkers across the spectrum of household sizes that is “rent-burdened” (paying at least 30 percent of household income in rent) or “severely rent-burdened” (paying more than 50 percent) has grown rapidly and continues to do so.

More generally, critics of the Bloomberg Administration’s housing policies contend that a market-oriented approach chooses to ignore what profit-driven markets actually do. “If you don’t have any government subsidy or any government leverage,” ANHD’s Gates said, “the private market, no matter what neighborhood, does not build for anybody except the top of the market.” When developers have their druthers, Gates said, they do not build low- or middle-income housing. “Developers build to make the most profit.”

An area of agreement?

Watson said there were other ways to reform zoning codes to encourage the construction of studio and one-bedroom apartments without forgoing the minimum unit size requirement. For instance, she pointed out that new construction outside the Manhattan core mandates a certain number of parking spaces per unit, thus discouraging putting more units in a building. This requirement is itself a relic of a mid-20th-century prioritization of automobiles, part of the same historical context that Watson and CHPC criticize as outdated. “There are lots of different, indirect things that come together to stop a studio [apartment] from being encouraged,” Watson said. “So, if you wanted to, you could keep the minimum unit size, but you could have more flexibility on, say, density controls or parking requirements.”

As it happens, Housing First!, an affordable housing advocacy group that does not take a specific position on micro-units, also recently proposed eliminating or reducing parking requirements for affordable housing development.

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