Some tout the miniature housing as revolutionary, but critics say it’s not a legitimate solution to ever-escalating rent and tumbling quality.
SAN FRANCISCO — The first renters in San Francisco’s cutting-edge new apartments will be able to see their entire home from the living room sofa, and will likely be able to reach out and touch a good portion of it by standing and stretching their arms.
Thanks to a change in zoning law, the city is in the process of offering the smallest legal apartments in the nation — at 220 square feet, kitchen and bathroom included, the entire homes will be smaller than a typical hotel room.
But while such micro-housing is being touted from Vancouver to Seattle to New York City as the revolutionary new answer to the shortage of affordable housing, critics complain that the “home sweet shoebox” strategy will bring even more hardship to Americans already squeezed by the housing market and force urban residents to pay ever higher rates for tumbling quality.
“It’s insane,” said Tommi Aviocelli-Mecca, the director of counseling programs for the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. “We’re in the middle of a historic housing crisis, and what does the city do? Arrange to build micro-housing for tech workers. It’s more crappy high-priced housing, even crappier because it’s incredibly tiny. We’ll be living like rats.”
Touting the brave new world of a “scalable housing model that is safe, affordable and innovative” that meets the needs of singles and couples, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year launched a pilot program to test out micro-housing in Manhattan.
New York held a design contest for the small spaces aimed at the singles and couples housing market. The city has 1.8 million one-and two-person households, and only one million studio and one-bedroom apartments.
Monadnock Development LLC, Actors Fund Housing Development Corp. and Brooklyn-based nARCHITECTS won and are building the city’s first 55-unit, 10-story micro-complex on East 27th Street.
Design innovations include a single-drawer dishwasher, a rolling table that stores beneath a kitchen counter top, a bed that folds away and a nine-foot-wide sliding glass door that opens onto a small “Juliet” balcony to bring much needed light to the spaces.
Kitchens and baths are all wheelchair accessible. For the living “experiment,” Bloomberg waived existing zoning minimums that require any apartment to be at least 400 square feet. But the mini-units, at 250 to 375 square feet, are still larger than San Francisco’s new micro-housing standards.
Micro-sized but not micro-priced
The rents are hardly cheap — 60 percent of the New York apartments will go at market rate, likely up to $2,400 a month. Average studio rents in Manhattan were close to $2,100 last year, and 40 percent will be set aside as subsidized “affordable” units for tenants who meet lower income levels. Half of those will go for $1,800 a month.
That’s shockingly steep to most American renters, but “area median income” statistics in determining who gets access to below-market rents are skewed by high incomes in the city, and even more by the super rich in Manhattan and wealthy suburbs.
Ultimately, the micros will only offer a 15 to 20-percent discount over studios in the immediate Manhattan neighborhood, and they’ll be up to 50 percent smaller than the city’s standard recommendations for a studio apartment, according to statistics analyzed by the nonprofit Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development in New York.
The tiny homes are “not only not affordable compared to actual need, they are arguably not even below the market standards of the neighborhood,” notes the group.
“On a per-square-foot basis, the rents are higher than the average free-market rents for the neighborhood.”
New York Daily News real estate editor Matt Cohen “test-ran” one of the 325-square-foot versions earlier this year. “Nifty” design innovations aside, he found the apartment “so small that you need a bed that snaps back into the wall; anything bigger than a toy poodle is a monster, and dinner parties are like a game of Twister.”
Several readers responded that the $2,100 monthly rent was enough for a good-sized down payment on a larger apartment.
“Refuse to live like cockroaches and don’t rent these apartments,” urged one.
Another remarked: “See how something that should be both practical and financially positive and affordable is now turned into something chic and expensive?”
One reader added wistfully: “Ah, the good life. Where is it?”
San Francisco will likely rent its smaller micro-apartments for anywhere from $1,200 to $1,700 a month. Tables will fold down to become beds, and residents will essentially sleep in their kitchen. Some 120 of 375 planned apartments at 220 square feet are already in the pipeline since zoning minimums were changed last year.
A building of “larger” micro-apartments of 300 square feet was recently completed and will be rented out for student housing to a local art college.
“We need to think outside the box” in providing housing for San Francisco, said city Supervisor Scott Wiener when he sponsored the legislation.
An even larger portion of the population in San Francisco — 40 percent — lives alone than in New York, and the units will help meet that demand, Wiener believes.
Boost supply to make prices fall
Wiener had touted the zen-like pared-down lifestyle of small spaces that weans residents from gluttonous-consumption of both space and possessions — because there’s no room to store them.
Something they’re not likely to do without is a car, and critics worry about the traffic, pollution and other demands on infrastructure by large numbers of people packed into increasingly smaller spaces.
The impact can be tremendous on a neighborhood. The founder of Reasonable Density Seattle recently called the micro-apartment buildings “boarding houses on steroids,” and said he was “living a nightmare” with the scads of new residents stacked into his neighborhood.
Critics also complain that the housing strategy caters primarily to armies of young, professional workers with healthy salaries needed by Silicon Valley and related industries, and ignores swaths of other residents, most notably families, lower and middle-income workers, retired residents and the homeless.
But Wiener has argued that young workers may be lured from sharing larger homes with friends or colleague to living alone in micro-housing, leaving behind housing for families.
The young professionals, giddy on high-tech salaries, are willing to pay top dollar to live in trendy neighborhoods and will spend much of their time at work, restaurants and clubs rather than going slowly crazy in their over-priced “dorm rooms” – not a typical option for a single elderly person.
They’ll also tend to move “up” the housing ladder quickly, leaving neighborhoods unsettled by residents turning-over repeatedly in corporate “bedroom communities” in their midst.
The director of the San Francisco Tenants Union recently expressed a fear that the “crash pads for high-tech employees” could result in driving up rents even further and gentrifying neighborhoods.
“You don’t solve a housing crisis by building for the rich,” Avicolli-Mecca told Mint Press.
The extra units won’t end up reducing housing prices, demonstrated by the fact that thousands of apartments have been built in the city, yet rents continue to climb as people with deep pockets move to San Francisco, he points out.
Rising prices, in turn, provide even more incentive to landlords to boot tenants to hike rents. The spiraling housing costs are driving out long-time San Franciscans who create the city’s appealing character, adds Avicolli-Mecca, and threaten to decimate places like the Mission, Haight Ashbury and the Castro, transforming them into little more than “memories and an advertising gimmick.”
It’s going to take bolder moves than micro-housing to save San Francisco, he insists. “I get so worked up,” Avicolli-Mecca said. “We’re losing it.”