How much would you pay to rent a 240-square-foot apartment? Could you fit your kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living space into a 22-square-meter flat? One New York couple has done just that, squeezing their lives into a home not much bigger than the average prison cell—and paying $1,500 a month in rent. In a city where the average monthly rent for a Manhattan apartment rose 9 percent this year to $3,778, Erin Boyle, 28, and fiancé James Casey, 30, may have scored a bargain.
Boyle and Casey have taken small living in stride, limiting their possessions to the essentials, finding creative storage solutions, and even writing a blog about their experience (www.readingmytealeaves.com). And, if Mayor Michael Bloomberg has his way, the couple may soon be seen as trailblazers. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development has called on developers to design a "micro-unit" apartment building in Manhattan as a prototype to solve a shortage of studio and one-bedroom rentals. New York City has about 1.8 million one- and two-person households, and only 1 million studio and one-bedroom apartments, according to a department statement. Submissions are due September 14.
The proposed "micro-unit" apartments would measure 275 to 300 square feet (26 to 28 square meters), smaller than current housing regulations allow. Such cramped living quarters were outlawed during tenement reform in the late 1800s, when regulations were aimed to eradicate the squalid conditions of the working class by enforcing minimum requirements for space and light. A more recent law, passed in 1987, makes it illegal to build apartments under 400 square feet.
"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," Jerilyn Perine, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) and former Housing Commissioner for Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, told New York's public television station WNET.
"Today things are different," Perine added. "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."
The modern micro apartments also feature a vastly different price than the low-cost tenements of yesteryear – a projected $2,000 in rent monthly.
"That's crazy," said Alyssa Iwano, a 31-year-old waitress in Brooklyn. "Manhattan is way too expensive. These are just modern tenements for wealthy people, not a low-cost option for singles."
When asked how much she would pay for a micro-unit apartment, Iwano said $500 a month would be reasonable, while acknowledging that average studio rentals in Manhattan hit $2,569 this year, up 18.8 percent from 2011.
Iwano shares a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment with her boyfriend in the remote Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge. She pays a comparatively rock-bottom rent of $1,700 a month, after being priced out of Manhattan digs. Even with her bargain apartment, Iwano said she has considered moving back to her home state of New Jersey to save on rent.
"Brooklyn is more affordable than Manhattan, but not as affordable as commuting to the city from other states like New Jersey," Iwano said. "I enjoy the amenities of New York but I don't like the cost of living – I want quality of life, too."
In a press conference announcing the micro-unit development proposal, Mayor Bloomberg denied that he was resurrecting the squalid tenement life of the 1800s.
"The tenement problem was big families in very small [spaces]," the mayor said. "We're not talking about that. We're talking about one or two people who want something they can afford, and they don't entertain or need big space."
New York is famous for its ridiculously expensive real estate market, with one third of renter households spending more than half their income on rent. While critics say the $2,000-per-month micro-unit apartments are still unaffordable for many long-time residents of the city, the Mayor's office countered that the program meets the needs of thousands of fresh, well-off young professionals that flood into the Big Apple each year looking for jobs and New York culture.
"Developing housing that matches how New Yorkers live today is critical to the city's continued growth, future competitiveness and long-term economic success," said Mayor Bloomberg. "People from all over the world want to live in New York City, and we must develop a new, scalable housing model that is safe, affordable and innovative to meet their needs."
Bloomberg doesn't really realize how small 300 square feet is, complained Iwano.
"I saw the mayor standing on a layout of the apartment design in the newspaper," she said. "He was standing on the stove. He has no idea how small 300 square feet is."
Brooklyn Heights couple Boyle and Casey balances their 240-square-foot living space with a zealous quest for simplicity. Buying a new possession means getting rid of another item. Clutter is forbidden, and compromise is king.
"If there's one thing that living in a tiny apartment has done for us, it's been to help us think about the stuff that we accumulate," Boyle writes on her blog.
The couple is exactly the type of young professionals that Mayor Bloomberg is targeting with the micro-apartment initiative, but will their downsized approach to life catch on? The trend is already spreading to other cities like San Francisco, where developers have proposed a 160-square-foot "smart unit" apartment design. Every feature of the apartment is dual-use. A window bench converts to a sleeping futon, and the kitchen counter also functions as a work desk.
"This seems like a logical, necessary response to housing in an extremely high-cost market like San Francisco," Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, told the San Francisco Chronicle. To allow construction of the micro-units, the city would need to cut the size of the smallest allowable apartment by about a third.
The author is a freelance writer living in New York City