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

Original Reporting | By David Noriega |

If proponents are correct that building 250-square-foot apartments at a greater density than is currently allowed would be more profitable for developers, then CUNY’s Saegert points to another market consequence. If property is seen to be able to yield more profit per square foot in the micro-apartment model, then the price of developable property will rise to reflect that potential use. Once it does, less profitable uses (the 400-square-foot studio, or small one-bedroom apartment) would become less economically feasible to build.

For these reasons, critics dispute the notion put forth by the Bloomberg administration and micro-apartment proponents that relaxing regulations is a matter of adding “choice” to the types of apartments available to New Yorkers. Should the size and density requirements be broadly relaxed, landlords could decide to substitute very small units for “regular sized” studios and one-bedrooms.  In that scenario, the only choice for many people would then not be between renting a micro-apartment and renting a larger apartment, but between renting a micro-apartment and not renting anything at all. Given continuing demand-side pressures, a micro-apartment, could, Saegert said, come to cost the same as a one-bedroom used to cost in the same neighborhood. “Once it becomes a standard,” asked Saegert, “will it become the thing you have to settle for?”


Settling for less

Proponents of micro-apartments, many of whom argue that current zoning laws were overly influenced by an idealization of the nuclear family of the 1950s, suggest that it is not practical to expect a solution to the housing crisis without relaxation of housing standards.

But such a relaxation would represent a significant break from the historical trajectory of New York City’s building laws. At the turn of the 20th century, the Tenement House Act mandated minimum room sizes, air and light requirements, functional plumbing, and so forth — not just for new construction but also for all existing tenements.

From then on, said Richard Plunz, director of the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University and author of “A History of Housing in New York City ,” housing standards continued to improve. “These laws have been adjusted many times over the years,” Plunz said, “but never downward.” (Plunz was a member of the panel of experts put together by the Bloomberg administration to select the winner for the micro-apartments pilot. He helped choose the design in spite of his wariness at the premise of loosening zoning restrictions.)

The two specific zoning regulations waived for the micro-apartments pilot originated with the Quality Housing Program, a 1987 overhaul of New York’s previous zoning code, which had existed since 1961. These amendments established the 400-square-foot minimum size for apartments, although only for certain districts, and strengthened the density regulations established in the previous zoning code by more directly limiting the number of units that could go in any given building.

“If you don’t have any government subsidy or any government leverage,” Moses Gates said, “the private market, no matter what neighborhood, does not build for anybody except the top of the market.”

As with housing reforms before them, these amendments were driven by a complicated set of goals and interests. They aimed to increase development but also to maintain the character of certain neighborhoods — so-called contextual districts — by allowing for lower, bulkier buildings, as opposed to the towers promoted by the 1961 zoning code.

However, both the 1961 zoning code and the 1987 amendments also expressly stated their goals as improving the living conditions of New Yorkers — a goal that was sometimes explicitly tied back to the tenement reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Explaining the 1987 amendments to The New York Times in a contemporaneous letter to the editor, an official at the Department of City Planning named Sandy Hornick wrote: “If production were the only goal, the non-fireproof, walk-up tenement, with rooms without windows and bathrooms in the hall, would be an appropriate model. Our objective has always been to balance production and quality.”

To Andrew S. Dolkart, an architecture historian and director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, relaxing minimum size standards would signify a step backwards. “We seem to be regressing,” Dolkart said. “We seem to be arguing that now people deserve less than they did in the past.”

Bunge, of nARCHITECTS, argued that a turn toward micro-apartments is, in fact, progressive: it is part of a push for more sustainable cities that use fewer resources. “The context for us,” he said, “is to maintain viable, sustainable cities, to combat sprawl, and to relax the burden on our transportation infrastructure.”

But one of the things that the incoming de Blasio Administration will need to consider is the wisdom of squeezing the size of already small apartments in the densest part of the city, especially when there are alternatives such as moderately up-zoning low-density areas and discouraging what The Wall Street Journal recently described as the trend toward “colossal condos” that are New York City’s “answer to the suburban McMansion.”

To those doubtful of the micro-apartments approach, the idea that studios — not exactly palaces to begin with — should become smaller in order to adapt to a market signal is difficult to swallow. It requires a willingness to do away with standards that, like the early tenement laws, go on to determine people’s living conditions for decades or centuries. Rather than asking what these standards should be and how best to achieve and preserve them, the micro-apartments approach asks how we can best adjust our standards to the behaviors of the market.

Dolkart said a similar debate surrounded the tenement laws at the turn of the 19th century, with the central argument against the reforms being that an unrestrained market would resolve the housing problems of the slums. By choosing standards over markets, New York laid the ground for continued reform and improvement.

“Standards can change,” Dolkart said. “But one hopes – at least I hope – that standards get better.”


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