Who’d Live Here? Micro-Units and NYC Housing Needs

Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden, Mayor Bloomberg and Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) Commissioner Mathew Wambua stand on the blueprint for the city's new micro-units. HPD has put out a request for proposals seeking a developer to build an 80-unit tower in Kips Bay. Photo by Edward Reed for the City of New York

From Jacob Riis’ photographs of slum tenements in the 19th century to websites like Curbed, there’s ample evidence that New Yorkers are fascinated by the living conditions of other New Yorkers. So when Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office announced on Monday a request for proposals to build a Kips Bay residence composed of 80 micro-units measuring 275 to  375 square feet , the Internet ran wild with speculation over who would choose to live in these tiny spaces, especially since rent is projected at $2,000 monthly.

Architects and urban planners have been calling for new models of housing to suit the needs of the city’s changing demographics. This project, aimed at singles, can only exist because Bloomberg will be waiving certain zoning codes. Those very codes were results of  early 20th century reforms aimed at providing poor families humane living conditions, in terms of space and natural light. Ever since, residential buildings in the city have had the traditional nuclear family in mind and have not kept up with the alternative modes of living today.

Housing Limitations, Then and Now

adAPT NYC [the micro-unit development] is a fantastic opportunity to create a model of housing that could be replicated in other locations and contexts to expand New York City’s housing stock,” wrote Mathew Wambua, commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which is managing the project in collaboration with the Department of City Planning.

While New York City has its fair share of shoebox apartments, most of those units are very old and have been grandfathered into the city’s building codes. Alternative housing models, like the tiny apartments that are common in cities like Tokyo and Paris, can’t be built in New York due to zoning codes and building regulations implemented in the past century.

In the case of micro-units, a 1987 law makes it illegal to build apartments under 400 square feet. But why, you might ask, do they need to be built in the first place?

At the moment, New York City has 1.8 million one and two-person households, but only has one million studios and one-bedroom apartments. And according to the city’s projections, the population is expected to grow by 900,000 residents by 2030, and most of those residents won’t be part of traditional nuclear families.

Consider the following statistics determined by the American Community Survey in 2009:

  • 33 percent of New Yorkers live alone
  • 24 percent of NYC households share their home with an additional adult or family
  • 9 percent of New York City households are single parents with children under 25
  • 17 percent of NYC households are a couple living alone, with no children
  • 17 percent of NYC households are a nuclear family with children under 25

Most of the city’s housing stock was designed for nuclear families, so those outside that arrangement find their housing options limited and as a result, often live in illegal apartments.  Besides the micro-unit law, did you know that it’s illegal for three unrelated adults to live together? That means that common living arrangements, such as  five artists living in a loft, two families living together or a family living with a couple of unrelated adults are actually illegal.

Jerilyn Perine, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) and former Housing Commissioner for Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, has been thinking about the problem for some time. In 2011, CHPC launched an initiative called Making Room to engage architects from all over the world in troubleshooting city’s limited housing market. That project had considerable influence on the city’s new micro-unit proposal.

We were trying to prevent cholera from spreading, families from living in a dark apartment with a coal stove. So our sense of housing became big and airy, that bigger is better.

“The housing market can’t possibly keep up with the population growth we’re projecting,” said Perine, who added, “This idea that adding to the housing supply by continually adding housing for families doesn’t address the underlying needs. This need is increasingly finding its way onto the underground housing market.”

By underground, she means illegally converted lofts and basements where people — everyone from immigrant workers to young creatives to multiple families living together — seeking affordable housing might dwell. Just like any black market, the illegal conversion market is highly unregulated, and the apartments are often fire traps that have in some cases resulted in terrible tragedies.

Creating Spatial Solutions for 21st Century New York

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of immigrant families were living in slum conditions, without sunlight and proper sewage systems. Especially after Jacob Riis began documenting the squalor, reformers began demanding  new housing regulations aimed at giving poor families as much space and air as possible.

“We were trying to prevent cholera from spreading, families from living in a dark apartment with a coal stove. So our sense of housing became big and airy, that bigger is better,” said Perine, who added, “Today things are different. We have different sanitation problems, different technology and different preferences. We have a growing responsibility about our use of environmental resources, and one of the best things you can do from an environmental point of view is live in small spaces.”

Jacob Riis took this photo of family of Eastern European cigar makers at work in their tenement apartment in the late 19th century. Flickr/Preus museum

In the Making Room project, CHPC, in partnership with the Architectural League of New York, identified three new forms of housing to suit the needs of a changing New York.

One is the micro-unit, which Perine said the Bloomberg administration wanted to test out first because it was the easiest model for them to waive the building regulations. The other two solutions include housing units for multiple adults to share without the safety violations prevalent in DIY conversions. The third solution involves the adaptation of small homes to include fire-safe units so that extended family can live together. Currently, the third type of housing is often a basement occupied by a low or middle-income family.

“It’s an issue we’ve been looking at for several years, because the community keeps talking to us about it,” said Sujatha Raman, director of development and communication for Chhaya Community Development Corporation, an organization dedicated to meeting the housing needs of the city’s South Asian community, which participated in the Making Room project.

“In Queens and other parts of the city where our community is mainly low and middle-income, the family structure of the Asian clients we work with is larger and the housing model in New York City doesn’t quite fit. Because income tends to be constricted they often need to use the basement, but because of the building code it’s very expensive to do any kind of renovation,” added Raman.

Before a family can install sprinkler systems and make other changes to bring a basement up to code for residential use, they first must make adaptations or refinements to the building code, which can cost between $10,000-$50,000, Raman explained.

Tiny Apartment, High Prices

Because the Making Room project was  focused on new affordable housing options, some might scoff at the new micro-units’ location in the pricey Kips Bay neighborhood in Manhattan, and at the “under $2,000” monthly rent projected by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

The scene of a house fire that killed three people in 2011 is seen at 2321 Prospect Avenue in the Bronx. The house had been illegally subdivided into smaller apartments. AP Photo

“We want the best unit at the most competitive rent, so we haven’t given a specific number. The average rent for a studio is roughly $2,000, and we are hoping to have rents well below that,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Perine pointed out that this is a essentially a prototype, and could be used in more affordable neighborhoods.

“Keep this in mind we’re talking about changing regulations that govern the physical layout of things. Right now a two-bedroom apartment can be exactly the same whether it rents for $6,000 or $8,000 a month. Price-point is a function of subsidy, not a function of layout. An apartment in the Bronx is not going to rent for the same price as a building in the East Village. This one project is not going to solve every problem but if you change the framework you start to solve a lot of problems,” said Perine.

Looking to other Cities for Inspiration, and Changing the Laws at Home

The three forms of solutions that Making Room suggested are prevalent in cities around the world, but because of New York’s historical tenacity and method of  slum eradication, as well as other cultural factors, they’re not yet viable in New York City.

“Tokyo has  socially, culturally and historically  been a place constrained by space, and culturally the physical aesthetic is about minimalism. It’s not something that can be manufactured, it evolved from a different place than we did here in New York,” said Perine.

The micro-unit law is far more recent than the regulations preventing the other two models of new housing put forward by Making Room. Perine said that’s why the city chose the micro-units as the first prototype, because they could get around the legal framework. So what can be done to suit the city’s housing needs?

“I think this is a growing movement. This announcement [micro-units] got huge response,” said Perine. “I think we will see reforms to regulation, but I think it will have to wait for a new administration. There just isn’t enough time left in this administration, and each of these three building types present different regulatory challenges. It’s not like you can just create the micro-units and then create the others. But I think it’s kind of in the air now.”

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