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Courtesy of adAPT NYC
Living in New York City can be affordable—if you’re thrifty and willing to break the law. For five years, professional organizer Felice Cohen paid a mere $700 per month for her 90-square-foot apartment. In 2010, the What Papa Told Me author posted a YouTube video showcasing her (literally) closet-sized living space and exceptional organizational abilities, garnering 5 million views and, sadly, an eviction notice. Turns out the video—and subsequent media attention—alerted Cohen’s landlord that she was illegally subletting the space.
While Cohen has since graduated to a relatively spacious 500-square-foot apartment, Manhattan as a whole is getting ready to downsize. Mayor Bloomberg recently unveiled the winning design of his adAPT NYC Competition, a pilot program aimed at developing a new micro-housing model for the city’s growing small household population—one that is currently in desperate need of shelter.
That New York City has a shortage of small-household dwellings is not exactly news. The city is currently home to 1.8 million one- and two-person households, while only 1 million one- or two-bedroom studio apartments are available.
Bloomberg’s micro-housing initiative looks to combat this problem. In September, 33 contestants proposed designs for a building composed primarily of micro-units, defined as apartments smaller than what is currently allowed under health and safety regulations, which currently mandate that apartments must be at least 400 square feet. According to a press release, Bloomberg’s micro-apartments will range from approximately 275 to 300 square feet, smaller than many Columbia doubles.
According to Columbia architecture and economics professor Moshe Adler, this downsizing is absolutely necessary. In fact, he argues in his book Economics for the Rest of Us that most of Manhattan’s housing problems could be solved by a reallocation of living space.
He says, “Some people live in 20,000 or 40,000 square feet [homes]... Rich people are managing to gobble up way, way too much space he says. And they take it from the rest of New York and this is wrong.”
Adler argues that if all Manhattan apartments were broken up and rearranged so that none exceeded 1,200 square feet, the number of apartments available would increase by 35 percent. Of course, Bloomberg’s initiative calls for even smaller units than this.
The mayor announced the competition’s winner on Jan. 22. Designed by a team consisting of Monadnock Development LLC, Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation, and nARCHITECTS, and dubbed "My Micro NY," the proposal is currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York.
The design will be implemented at 335 E. 27th St. in Kips Bay, and residents are expected to move in as early as September 2015. At least 75 percent of the apartments in the building will be micro-units fully furnished with kitchens, bathrooms, and Juliet balconies.
Jeff Lubell, executive director of the National Housing Conference and Center for Housing Policy, believes amenities such as shared lounges might make the micro-units more attractive.
“In this country we tend to atomize everything and everyone has to have their own individual living room” he says. But you could potentially all share a living room. It’s worth looking at, worth exploring.”
Lubell suspects that there will be at least some demand for the micro-units. “We have more older adults and more younger adults without kids ... Together these populations are really creating a lot of pressure on city urban housing markets,” he says.
But Mark Thomas, director of the nonprofit organization City Limits, thinks micro-living is not the right solution.
“I like Bloomberg’s ambition and innovation,” Thomas says. “But I don’t think this is a practical solution as far as urban planning. If people didn’t have other options outside of New York City, this would be great. But there are other great cities.”
For Thomas, a living space smaller than 450 square feet is too small. “I think anything smaller than that, you’re boxing people in a place they don’t want to be for too long,” he says.
Thomas likens the micro-units to dorm living. People might want to live in them temporarily, but not for more than a year or two.
“You don’t want people who only want to live in 300 square feet for 10 months and then be gone,” he says. "It’ll create neighborhoods that are really non-existent.”
And small size is not the only undesirable aspect of the micro-units. Sarah Polsky, editor of the real estate blog Curbed NY, points out that efficient design does not necessarily translate to affordability. The micro-units will likely cost around $2,000 a month.
But then again, Polsky believes affordability is not the main concern of the micro-unit initiative. Rather, the project is primarily aimed at addressing the growing number of single households in the city.
Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociology professor and author of Going Solo, agrees. In 1950, 22 percent of Americans were single. Now, that number is nearly 50 percent. According to Klinenberg, there are a number of reasons for the demographic shift. For one thing, norms about marriage have changed. Many divorced people would rather live alone than with roommates. Women are increasingly more economically independent, and people are living longer than ever before, outliving their spouses and aging alone.
Technological change has also made solitude more viable. Klinenberg says, “You can be home and alone and also on Skype and email and instant messaging. Cities are full of people who are going solo. And in certain neighborhoods, living alone can be a social experience.”
While living alone is becoming more popular, micro-living is not necessarily for everyone. Even Cohen, the queen of micro-living, can attest to that.
“I wouldn’t say that most people would be able to live in micro-units,” she says. “But for those whose priority it is to ‘make it’ in whatever their goal is, be it in theater, writing, finance, then yes, for those they can certainly live in a micro-unit.”
Will the average New Yorker take so easily to micro-living? We’ll just have to wait until September 2015 to find out. By then, we may even find ourselves looking to buy our own (micro) piece of NYC.
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