Micro Apartments Offer Small Slice of City Living

Despite zoning issues, micro units are in the works in several U.S. cities.

Living room of a micro apartment model at Factory 63 in Boston.
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For many Americans, the McMansion and its supersized mortgage payments have lost their luster. At the same time, many people are delaying marriage and living alone for longer periods of time. The shift has led the way for tiny homes with less square footage and almost no wasted space, a phenomenon called micro apartments or micro units.

Micro units are catching on in Europe and Asia due to high population density, but stricter zoning laws have slowed their spread across the United States. Some micro units are as small as 200 square feet, requiring a building variance from some cities, since many have minimum square footage requirements for livable units.

Developers and groups like Citizens Housing & Planning Council, a New York nonprofit, work to support micro housing. Single people comprise almost 30 percent of all households in the United States, according to Sarah Watson, deputy director of the nonprofit. "We have been trying to promote smaller studios because there's so many single people and not enough legal [housing] options for single adults," she says. Her organization is working with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch a pilot program on East 27th Street to test the idea of relaxing zoning laws and building smaller apartments.

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The smaller units appeal to young, single professionals who want the convenience of living in a city and haven't accumulated extra stuff (the popularity of e-books, online video streaming and digital music means they don't need space to store books, movies or CDs anyway). In some cases, the micro units have built-in multipurpose furniture like a lofted bed since traditional furniture may not fit the space. However, they still include a small bathroom and kitchen area.

"It speaks to this millennial generation that's watched older siblings get handcuffed to houses during the housing crash, and I think they have a different attitude about housing," says developer Michael Rushman of Rushman Dillon Projects. "They're much more concerned about living in urban neighborhoods with lots of things to do within walking distance [than having a lot of space]."

His company is developing an 87-unit micro housing project that is undergoing the public approval process in Jersey City, N.J. Each unit will average about 340 square feet, according to Rushman. "The idea is that someone could move in with a smartphone and a duffel bag full of clothes," he says. "We're looking at it as a way to create a different lifestyle that's more akin to what college and university students are accustomed to."

Three hundred and forty square feet doesn't leave much room for entertaining guests, so the proposed building plans include common spaces that can be used for large dinner parties as well as a courtyard, roof deck and gym that will occupy the landing areas on all levels of the building.

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In Boston's Innovation District, several new buildings offer similar collaborative spaces. Factory 63, a shoe factory converted into live/work apartments, opened last spring and features communal spaces including a roof deck with an infrared grill, lobby with complementary wireless Internet and flexible space for residents to entertain guests or business associates. The units start at $1,699 per month.

Ross Chanowski, a 25-year-old entrepreneur who recently moved from Chicago back to Boston, says he loves the collaborative environment at Factory 63, even though it means living in a small area (his unit is about 450 square feet). "I don't miss having more space at all," he says. "…[There's] plenty of opportunity in the small space. I use the lobby as my office where I can have meetings and conference calls."

Chanowski also enjoys meeting residents and attending public events the building hosts, including fundraisers for local charities and tech meet-ups. "This building and the area is almost like a playground in some sense," he says. "Every inch of it is usable and discoverable."