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

Original Reporting | By David Noriega |

Nov. 20, 2013 — How much of an impact could the construction of “micro-apartments” have on New York City’s housing shortage, and how serious are the dangers associated with proceeding down the micro-apartment road? Our reporting suggests that the benefits are likely to be limited and the perils significant. Central to the dispute between proponents and skeptics are differing premises about the historical development of the housing shortage, the appropriate role of zoning, and the path that a less regulated market would take.


The pilot project

In August of 2012, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced with great enthusiasm a competition for the creation of a pilot building composed entirely of so-called micro-apartments. These miniature dwellings, to be packed into a building on East 27th Street in the Kips Bay section of Manhattan, would have to be marvels of design: the task was to create livable and desirable residential spaces using just 250 to 350 square feet per unit.

“We are simply letting the market work.” — Mayor Michael Bloomberg

The competition was billed as an experiment in what could be gained if zoning regulations were relaxed: it obliged the City to waive the existing unit-size rule that would have been applicable to the project (a minimum of 400 square feet) as well as density rules that would have capped the maximum number of units in the building at a level substantially lower than what the City sought to create. The City was able to waive these zoning restrictions because the project would be built on public land.

At the heart of the project was a deep belief in the efficacy of market-based solutions. “These new units will allow us to create more affordable housing without any rent subsidy,” Bloomberg said at the press conference announcing the competition. “We are simply letting the market work.”

The winning vision was selected this past spring and is to be built by Monadnock Construction based on a design by the Brooklyn-based firm nARCHITECTS. Each unit is to be divided in two: a “toolbox” containing the bathroom, kitchen, and storage spaces; and a “canvas” for sleeping, eating, and everything else. How small are the smallest units? The canvas section, just 12 by 14 feet, is too small to fit a bed, table, and couch at the same time. Instead, the items are combined and hidden — most everything folds or tucks or spins to become something else. For example, for a Murphy bed stowed within a bookshelf to be moved into sleeping position, a dining table must be folded and hung on a wall.


Small is not always healthy

One reason that the relaxation of zoning standards raises alarm bells in some quarters is that very small apartments, densely packed together, come with potential risks to the health and well-being of the residents. “I wouldn’t say that it’s unhealthy for everyone,” said Dak Kopec, director of design for human health at Boston Architectural College. “But it is definitely unhealthy for some people.”

Kopec explained that the experiences of physical crowding (caused by confined space) and social crowding (caused by other people) could increase significantly in a building of micro-apartments. A resident is likely at times to feel trapped — forced to choose between a claustrophobic apartment on the one hand and social interaction in a heavily used common space on the other. “Crowding is a stressor,” Kopec said. “We all have the ability to cope with stressors in our lives, but we also have our thresholds” — the point at which stressors begin to interfere with our basic sense of stability.

The effects of crowding can include irritability, distraction, a reduction in problem-solving skills, and the like. In more severe cases, crowding, acting as an amplifier of stress, can trigger destructive behavior, whether it is focused inward or outward: Kopec cited research linking crowding-related stress to domestic violence, as well as to excessive drinking and other forms of self-medicating behavior.

Susan Saegert, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center who has studied housing from an interdisciplinary perspective that includes environmental psychology, said the negative consequences of living in a small space were directly linked to any given individual’s sense of freedom and choice in day-to-day existence. “The things people do when they’re trying to relieve stress often are to move around — to experience freedom,” Saegert said. “Small spaces obviously constrain that.”

What happens if a micro-apartment is shared by two people — a use supported by the Bloomberg administration? Little to no personal space and opportunity for privacy, dignity or retreat, characteristics often thought critical to the health of a relationship and the individuals in it. Saegert noted, for instance, the problem of “competing activity demands” — the inability to use the space simultaneously for separate activities that might conflict with each other, leading to a strong sense of loss of personal choice and agency.

Apartment as Swiss army knife

A Swiss army knife is quite a versatile gadget, and micro-apartments aspire to some of that versatility and cleverness. One example is the use of interchangeable furniture — Murphy beds and the like. But the additional daily maintenance required by such versatility has a downside. Dak Kopec of Boston Architectural College said the repetitive processes required to use such furniture can add to stress levels, and that the diligence with which people perform them is likely to degrade over time.

The effect is worsened by the fact that engaging in these processes does not feel like an option: it is necessary for the space to feel minimally livable. “We as humans don’t like to have a lot of processes,” Kopec said. “As time goes by, we stop engaging in some of those repetitive processes — putting the Murphy bed away or folding up the sofa or whatever — and all of a sudden our unit becomes more physically crowded.”

Send a letter to the editor