On Microapartments
Brad Hargreaves

Hey Brad,

This is a thoughtful piece and one that makes a ton of sense.

My two cents: Once all the smoke and mirrors are taken out of the equation, the promise of micro-apartments is a lower (absolute, not relative) rent in central locations.

Yes, there’s advertorial rhetoric bandied by developers and media — imposed simplicity pitched as minimalism, transforming furniture making otherwise unusably small spaces pitched as state of the art living — but at the end of the day, the hope is to get more people into the cities at a price point that’s aligned with economic realities. And the rhetorical talking points, though valid in many respects, can also be seen as subterfuge for advancing developer interest — i.e. getting those units built while yielding higher $/sf.

The two places that have made the the micro-apartment model work are Seattle and Chicago. The former’s micros, before NIMBY-fueled regulation effectively destroyed the model, had all-inclusive rents starting at ~$500, giving people making <$15/hr a transit friendly place to lay their heads down. I’ve spoken to a few residents of these developments and their experiences were positive. Some of the buildings probably sucked, but when the choice is living in a substandard building and commuting an extra hour, the choice is simple.

The other place if FLATS Chicago. Again, I haven’t been there to say how the buildings actually function, but they seem to take pains to create community, both in their spaces (events and such) and online. Their value prop, once again, is low absolute price (even though I think they’re charging pretty high $/sf for their neighborhoods) for a clean, fairly well located apartment. It should be noted that many of their buildings are former SROs — a model that tended to have large street floor commons rather than the cells you mentioned.

But the promise of the micro-apartment in NYC and SF has yet to be fulfilled. If developers are to charge more per sf in these places (a fair premium considering upgraded FF&E and other factors), the entry rent is too damn high to achieve real affordability. You end up with a product that could be seen as just small and expensive — albeit it’s small, attractive, usable and expensive; this often represents an improvement to the alternative, which is often a slightly larger, rickety pre-war walkup. I’d say the same economics apply to DC, Boston, Seattle and LA, though to lesser extents.

So what’s the answer: People storage! We need more places that are truly affordable in central locations. And I don’t think we’ve gone micro or minimal enough. I don’t think many people want more than a clean place to live in a nice location and making them ultra-minimal creates a reasonable ROI for developers (assuming banks and regulators can get out of their heads). In other words, we need to bring back the SRO — something I outlined the other day in this piece.

Can we build SROs with the design interventions you outline here? Absolutely. In fact, we have to make them a lot better than we did in the past, so they don’t become what they became — and many of your suggestions would go a long way of doing that.

But again, if the choice is between affordability and an attractive living environment with a vibrant community, I’d take affordability (the city can be your community space if need be). After all, what good is a great living environment if you can’t afford to live there? This is the decision too many people face nowadays.