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Downsizing

Arts & Culture | April 25, 2016

For $3,100, you can buy a used car, 1,330 slices of pizza, or pay the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Many students perceive New York City to be the reigning post-graduation destination. But with once-affordable neighborhoods rapidly gentrifying, the question is: how can the city halt the ever-worsening housing crisis at hand? Developers of Carmel Place, Manhattan’s first micro-unit development, think they may hold at least part of the answer.

Microapartments, small one-room but self-contained living spaces, may be a relatively new phenomenon in America, but are actually a concept decades in the making. As early as 1972, Japan responded to post-war demands for urban accommodations for traveling businessmen by constructing the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. One hundred square feet in size, each of tower’s 140 “capsule” rooms resemble something akin to a Stanley Kubrick set, boasting once futuristic circular windows, a built-in tube-television, and a multipurpose couch/bed as its numerous amenities. Today, the building now serves a different purpose as a multipurpose space for office staff, vacationers, and seekers of affordable housing. Still, Nakagin Tower continues to stand as a model for microapartment developments.

Inspired by existing models of small-scale living, developers at Carmel Place have designed a number of micro-studios ranging from 260-360 square feet. For reference, an average double in Carmichael Hall at Tufts University encompasses 206 square feet. But with the exorbitant number of crammed studio apartments that saturate the 200+ blocks of Manhattan, what exactly differentiates microapartments from other small spaces?

For one, they are half the size of a typical Manhattan studio, which averages about 500 square feet. To achieve this effect while retaining functionality, developers at Carmel have diverted all attention toward one objective: the meticulous manipulation of spatial design to create a sense of not merely adequacy, but spaciousness. In Carmel Place and similar developments, decorative sofas fold out into queen-sized beds. Spacious bathtubs are replaced by compact showers—and if bathtubs are installed, they can be covered when not in use to serve as additional seating. A living room may double as a bedroom, which may double as a dining room, with a pull-down bed from the wall and a folding table.

However, the question arises: who is benefiting from these spaces? Although one may assume that the primary incentive to live in such a compact space would be to save money, this is often not the case. While a select number of units at Carmel Place are priced at $1,000 per month, specifically allotted for low-income residents or displaced veterans, many of the other slightly larger units are actually priced up to $2,900, marginally—if at all—cheaper than the price of most larger studio apartments. When looking at the data, Community Planner Moses Gates to the New York Observer reveals that “On a per-square-foot basis, the rents are higher than the average free-market rents for the neighborhood”—Gates made this statement in 2013, back when rents were projected to be lower than they are now.

However, these larger units come luxuriously furnished, and with a number of additional amenities such as an app-based Butler service and weekly housekeeping. Considering these high starting prices, some skepticism may linger as to the extent to which these developments are truly helping those most affected by unaffordable city housing. This seems to conflict with the city government’s original intents of expanding affordable housing when they approved this project.

Though it may initially seem illogical that an urban dweller would willingly pay for a reduction in space, social trends may in part offer an explanation. Real estate developer Christopher Bledsoe explained to the New York Times, “The market has already decided that space is just one attribute that renters consider when they’re looking for housing.” From a generational standpoint, it could be argued that an overall attitude of “lighter living” prevails in the minds of many millennials. With the ability to fit a library of books on a Kindle, information has become exponentially lighter. In other words, small is chic so long as it is supplemented by elements of comfort and luxury that act as class markers to distinguish residents of these new “luxury” microapartments from inhabitants of austere small spaces. And microapartment living is clearly taking off. Nearly 60,000 people applied to live at Carmel, about 4,300 applicants per apartment.

Single-person accommodations also appeal to city residents who would otherwise share a tight space with roommates. So while limited space may at first appear to be a deterrent, it is in fact in some ways the opposite—occupants are paying a premium per square foot for a particular niche.

But are microapartments even that innovative? Decades ago, it was common practice for lower-income individuals, particularly single young men, to establish residence in single-room occupancy housing (SRO), sharing a communal kitchen and bathroom area with multiple other tenants. Though these residences have since largely been outlawed by city officials for safety concerns, SROs share numerous similarities with these small, supposedly innovative “microapartment” spaces. In fact, developer Adam Hengels suggested to Market Urbanism that “it seems reasonable to conclude that a micro-apartment could be considered an SRO” when it comes to zoning.

Likewise, entire low-income families in urban spaces have often been confined to studio-sized rooms for decades now. Recently, photographer Thomas Holton has attracted attention for his visual documentation in the New York Times of how the Lams, a Chinese working-class family, have lived and operated within their 350 square foot tenement on Ludlow Street in New York’s Chinatown. With their furniture arranged in a Tetris-like manner, beds double as desk chairs, while kitchen table tops double as desk tops. These compact living conditions illustrate the circumstances of countless working class families for decades within the city. Though these multipurpose arrangements stemmed from necessity, there are parallels between how the Lams use their space and how developers advertise the versatile implementation of microapartment design. Notably absent when examining the Lams’ living quarters, however, is the language of glamour and excitement that characterizes the rhetoric surrounding these new microapartment complexes. NYU Professor of Urban Policy Ingrid Gould Ellen told the New Yorker, “If micro-units become a form of low-income housing only, it becomes stigmatized,” meaning that without this romanticized idea of small living areas, this new strain of microapartments would lack the luster surrounding their appeal.

Microapartments may be in fashion in a number of cities including Boston and New York, but their viability as an alternative housing solution is still questionable. In fact, many talks are currently in place concerning the safety of such spaces, as environmental psychologist Dak Kopec noted to The Atlantic, “they can definitely be unhealthy for older people…who face different stress factors.”

Still, microapartments are chock-full of potential as an option for lower-income individuals to live in the city. Though microapartments are also on the rise as a trendier form of living for single millennials, it is important to consider the number of problematic implications that such trendiness may carry. The 23 square miles that comprise the borough of Manhattan contain some of the most highly cherished yet also densely populated neighborhoods in this nation—Carmel Place may not be a catch-all solution to this, but it is certainly an experiment that pays homage to the past and has potential to grow in the future.