The development of micro-housing — apartments and other dwellings smaller than 28 square metres — is a growing trend in many popular cities cramped for space. But where in the country can you find the teeniest examples of this trend? Maybe not the cities you’d first guess.
Right now, the micro-unit leader in the US is the city of Seattle. According to a story in Politico, this is namely thanks to developers like Jim Potter, who discovered a quirk of the city’s zoning which allow them to build units much, much smaller than the typical Seattle apartment. Turns out that city code counts kitchens, not bedrooms when counting units. So Potter can pack 64 individual living spaces into a building which normally houses eight “units” by making the bedrooms (where people actually live) share a kitchen (which is the technical “unit”). We’re talking micro-apartments as small as 8 square metres.
This is not a popular feature with critics in Seattle who think of Potter’s developments like SROs (single room occupancy hotels) or boarding houses which signalled poverty and illicit activity at the turn of the last century. Last month, the city voted to institute a 19 square metres minimum for some new apartments.
Yet in fast-growing metropolises like Seattle, these extra-small micro-units (microscopic-units?) are not only tackling potential housing crises and helping downtowns densify, but also catering to a very specific demographic that cities are trying to attract. Eco-minded Millennials — who are flocking to city centres in higher numbers than ever — supposedly don’t mind residing in buildings that feel more like the dorms they recently vacated. And really, who needs a kitchen anyway?
The US is not leading the pack globally when it comes to micro-housing, of course. Japan, Hong Kong and much of Europe have been doing tiny apartments for years. But culturally the US moving in that direction: 28 per cent of all American households were made up of single people in the 2010 census, a number that’s been growing since the 1970s. So it is worth looking at how low some American cities can legally go (in area) when it comes to building new housing. Here’s your micro-unit breakdown across the US.
Seattle: 8 square metres
It’s surprising indeed, but among large American cities, Seattle seems to be ruling the micro-housing race in the total numbers of micro-units built. With over 3000 units constructed, some as small as 8 square metres (with shared kitchens), Seattle easily wins, although new zoning regulations might require bumping 20 square metres.
Portland, Oregon: 14 square metres
Not surprisingly, the same developer transforming Seattle is also opening micro-unit developments in nearby Portland, using the same shared kitchen model. One building in the city’s northwest quadrant replaced a single family home with 56 units.
Los Angeles: 19 square metres
The micro-unit trend is being fully embraced by several supportive housing groups in LA, who are working to bring new architecture to formerly homeless residents. There are a handful of affordable housing projects in the city’s downtown as well as in the neighbouring city of Santa Monica that have units as small as 19 square metres.
San Francisco: 20 square metres
For a city with probably the biggest housing crisis in the country, some relief might be in sight. The first micro-apartments in the city are finally under construction, with 160 units in SoMa serving as a kind of pilot program that plays with the city’s “average minimum required area” for apartment buildings. The 20 square metre units are modelled after similar housing in Berkeley, which were originally designed for students.
Washington DC: 20 square metres
As this Washington Post article details, DC has plenty of projects in the 23 square metres to 37 square metres range, some with the same shared kitchen and public spaces model as Seattle’s successful developments. DC’s city code minimum remains very low at 20 square metres, which opens the door for even smaller spaces.
Providence, Rhode Island: 21 square metres
The Arcade Providence transformed a 1828 shopping centre into residential space which now has the smallest apartments in the city, at 21 square metres. These micro-units built in downtown Providence are catering to students and artists, according to this Wall Street Journal article.
Chicago: 26 square metres
While there are no minimum square footage restrictions in the city code, there are plenty of other zoning issues that make micro-units unpopular with developers in Chicago. One development company is rehabbing former SROs. These studios average 33 square metres and can be as small as 26 square metres.
Boston: 33 square metres
Boston’s own housing crisis hasn’t reached a fever pitch yet but the demand for smaller apartments is definitely there. The city’s first microunit development is building 195 units at 33 square metres.
Austin, Texas: 37 square metres
A battle is currently being waged in the Texas city to permit even smaller housing that what’s currently being developed. An affordable housing project will open this year in Austin’s downtown with units that are only 37 square metres.
New York: 37 square metres
The legal minimum for the famously dense city is still 37 square metres (which may be news to some residents who live in much smaller spaces that were cordoned off before the code went into effect). Michael Bloomberg’s administration held a competition in 2012 to design new, affordable units as small at 250 square feet for a specially zoned area of Kips Bay, in Manhattan. These haven’t been built yet, however.
Picture: An apartment built in a storage unit