The current solution to fixing New York City’s housing affordability problem is very tiny apartments. These micro-units are typically around 300 sq ft, with some as small as 150 sq ft. That’s really small. The average NYC studio is about 550 sq ft, and that’s already too small by most standards. The poster child of micro-apartments in NYC is Carmel Place in the Kips Bay neighborhood of Manhattan. Carmel Place is the result of an initiative to address the housing problems in NYC. The objective was to find a way to build more apartments without increasing the overall footprint of a building.
The success of this project is debatable. Part of the reason is micro-units don’t adequately address housing problems holistically. First off, they appeal only to a specific demographic — young, single professionals. But housing isn’t just a problem for young, single professionals. It’s also a problem for students, couples, and families; people in their 40s and retirees; outdoor enthusiasts and pet lovers. There are countless ways of living, and micro-apartments only consider one of them. Even among young, single professionals, there are many lifestyles that are incompatible with micro-units: homebodies, those who enjoy having guests over or like cooking, and people that need space for their hobbies. Micro-units only make sense for single professionals with a lot of disposable income for eating out, renting everything they use, and socializing in public spaces. If that isn’t you, you’ll need a normal-sized apartment.
Another glaring problem with micro-apartments is that despite being smaller than the average studio, they are more expensive. The units in Carmel Place go for $2600 - $3100. A quick search on StreetEasy in Kips Bay shows tons of 1-bed apartments and even 2-beds twice the size of the units at Carmel Place for around the same price or even cheaper. Tenants at Carmel Place will be paying more for less. If micro-apartments are built on a wide-spread scale and are rented at market price, they’ll increase the price per square footage resulting in apartments that are smaller on average and still unaffordable.
The financial burden of current micro-housing options complicates the stress and negative impacts on mental health that comes with tiny living quarters. New York City has a law that mandates every housing unit needs to have a minimum of 400 sq ft (Carmel Place had to get mayoral permission to be exempt from the law). The law was put into place after other attempts of cramming people into small spaces led to slum conditions. Architects of micro-apartments do a good job of making a 300 sq ft apartment feel a lot bigger than it actually is. Units are designed with multi-purpose furniture to maximize space. Beds that fold into the wall allow the living room to double as a bedroom. A telescoping table can expand from a simple desk to a table for four. Every piece of furniture has storage built into it. However when your entire apartment is one room, that room becomes your bedroom, living room, and kitchen all at once, and therefore the apartment becomes nothing at all. There’s an adage that advises against working in bed because it impacts productivity. A bed is for sleeping and relaxing, not working. A kitchen is for cooking and nourishment, not storing clothes. With micro-apartments, there is no separation of activity creating confusion in the brain which functions primarily by compartmentalizing. Focus is easier achieved when the space you occupy encourages that task, even if that task is something like sleeping or unplugging from work.
Micro-units are just too small for a human being. They do not have separate, distinct spaces. Even the “largest” micro-unit has one space that acts as both the bedroom and the living room. Humans need more. A home is someone’s safe place, a space where they can retreat and recharge. The less space they have, the less they can recharge and feel safe from the world. In a dense city like New York, it’s even more important where as soon as you step out of your home you’re thrown into public. There’s no buffer. This isn’t to mean that everyone needs to live in multi-story single family houses. No, that’s just not possible in NYC. Even the current minimum of 400 sq ft doesn’t do a person justice — maybe 500 or 600 should be the new minimum. Then there’d be enough room to have rooms.
It’s wrong to think that housing affordability and shortage problems can be fixed by simply building thousands of housing units crammed together. Sure building more housing is a component of the solution. But legislative policy -- like rent stabilization, freezes, and caps -- and better transit options do a whole lot more for residents and their mental health. Housing is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. Finding the best way to fit a person’s life into a shoebox shouldn’t be the main fix — regardless of how well-designed or space-saving it is. Cities are growing in population and density, and living spaces will reflect that, but there is a line at which residents are impacted negatively. Micro-apartments cross that line.