Real Estate Investor

Micro apartments: New but not new

Small units are one way to deal with a popular and dense city
A tiny apartment in Montreal. Photo: Shadiac

When I moved to Chicago as a twentysomething, I knew the neighborhood I wanted to be in: the obviously titled Lakeview a few miles north of downtown. Friends of mine already lived there, so I had a realistic idea of what I would be able to afford. I knew it would be a small space, but the location would make up for it. I ended up with a studio apartment, and I loved it.

It was in a vintage building — and those of you from the upper Midwest or East Coast know that “vintage” means nicely aged brick walls and old wooden floors; probably a noisy old radiator that pumped out so much heat that in the middle of Chicago’s worst winters I still had to crack open a window (because there was no way to turn down the heat); and all of the grand old wooden trim was buried under many layers of paint. But it was one building away from Lake Shore Drive, where I could catch any of several buses downtown for work and play, and there was a fantastic lakeside park perfect for running or walking or people-watching.

Today, when we talk about small starter apartments, the au courant term is “micro apartments,” but it’s much the same thing. You can see (and maybe even touch) the stove and refrigerator while sitting on your bed; your bathroom has barely enough space to turn around; and there’s absolutely not enough space to dance a tango. Critics hate them. But if I were a twentysomething new to the city, I’d love it. It’s that or finding a roommate — a dicey proposition when you have to play roommate roulette.

I lucked out when I moved to New York and had a roommate. He and his family had had the apartment for decades, and with rent control I’m sure the amount I paid him in rent for my bedroom was more than the entire unit’s rent, but I was fine with that because I knew it was competitive with other roommate deals in the city.

Micro apartments have a bad rap. They are sometimes talked about as if they were a sign of downsizing. For people who grew up in small cities and towns across the country, coming to a big city like San Francisco, Chicago, or New York often has culture shocks of many kinds, but housing is usually the most visible.

Some of the criticism comes from people wanting to express surprise at the transformations they see in San Francisco. The city is changing, even without the current influx of tech people. It’s no longer the place where Mary Ann Singleton can move here, rent a room in a dramatic old Victorian from a dramatic old pot-growing landlady Anna Madrigal. Today’s newbies to the city are likely sharing with other newbies, perhaps as many as four or six roommates, in the Marina or in SoMa, or they are getting a micro apartment.

Curbed San Francisco recently noted a 240-square-foot apartment in SoMa that rents for $2,250 a month. It is (judging from the photos) one big room with a kitchenette along a wall, behind which is the bathroom. There is no separate dining room, bedroom, or office. But it does look like a new or recent build.

Or, who knows, you might find people interested in a new plan by “Professor Dumpster,” Jeff Wilson, who designed a transferable home that is like a decked-out modernized shipping container that can be moved — literally — and slotted into another building in another city. It’s an unusual way to avoid roommate roulette, but it could work. (Wilson’s nickname comes from an experiment he conducted of living in a dumpster-sized space.) The obvious rejoinder is that these small units are generally not what one envisions as long-term homes; they are your first places, where you get your feet on the ground and then start building your career and your life.

In 1972, Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower was completed. It had 140 housing pods that could be removed without affecting the other units. It was targeted at what the Japanese call bachelor “salarymen,” professional people needing a place to live but who spent most of their time elsewhere. It was an admittedly extreme example of the micro unit, but it was an interesting attempt to design something aesthetically interesting while addressing the high costs of housing and Tokyo’s density.

San Francisco doesn’t need to get to that point, though if you think about it, San Francisco is even more densely populated (18,451 versus 16,000 people per square mile in San Francisco and Tokyo, respectively), so if we don’t build up, we’ll shrink the living spaces we have.

Micro apartments are nothing new. They are how we get people into the city, give them a space to sleep and hang their hats, and let them become a part of the fabric of a changing town. We called them efficiencies or studios; now they’re micro apartments.

As for that studio I rented for $460 a month in Chicago? It’s now a condo unit for sale for a mere $528,000.

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