Manhattan "shoebox" apartment - 7.25 sq m

I think the effectiveness of his proposed regulation on maximum soft drink serving sizes is questionable, but New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on the right track with his pilot program for micro-apartments in Manhattan.

The Mayor is seeking proposals from developers for the construction of an apartment building on city owned land with 75% of units sized between 275 and 300 sq ft (that’s 25 – 28 sq m).

At the moment, the minimum size for an apartment in New York is 400 sq ft (37 sq m). However that’s for new apartments. Much smaller apartments in older buildings are common.

This woman, for example, pays $800 a month for a 105 sq ft apartment in the West Village. This man moved out of a 96 sq ft apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and now pays $800 per month for one in the same neighbourhood that’s just 78 sq ft (see exhibit).

Then there are much bigger apartments that offer even less space per person because they’re crammed to the sills with lower income – commonly immigrant – households.

Although definitely on the small side, new apartments smaller than New York’s current minimum are now common in the centres of Australian capital cities. For example, the average size of new studio apartments in Melbourne is around 34 sq m (365 sq ft).

I’ve heard these apartments described as “dog boxes” and “the new slums”. Like the US, we’ve a long history of paternalistic regulation in Australia. In the past, high minimum sizes for dwellings and lots have prevented some households from making their own decision about how they want to trade-off various housing attributes.

The wonderful thing about small apartments is they enable people who couldn’t otherwise afford it to live in locations of very high amenity. They don’t provide much in the way of space by suburban standards, but they do provide what many buyers and renters want – high levels of accessibility, typically to the many and varied attractions of the CBD.

They’re not aimed at low income buyers or tenants (two years ago the average selling price of those small Melbourne studios was over $300,000) but they nevertheless constitute affordable housing for one and two person households of modest means. Buyers and renters willingly choose to trade off ‘space for place’.

Residents are also typically transitory and hence more tolerant of the limitations of space. They might be students or they might be young singles or couples who expect to increase their income over time. It’s temporary – they expect to have the option of moving to larger dwellings at a later stage of their life.

Most urban dwellers in the world actually live in very small dwellings compared to what Australians regard as an acceptable minimum size. Moreover, very small apartments can be designed with great efficiency, as architect Gary Chang’s famous 32 sq m apartment in Hong Kong amply demonstrates (video).

It’s not that many buyers and tenants of small studios wouldn’t prefer something a bit bigger, they just can’t afford it or they’re not willing to pay more. If the ability to construct additional housing in sought-after areas wasn’t so constrained by planning rules, it ought to be possible to build more units of somewhat larger size for the same cost.

Mayor Bloomberg’s micro-apartments will probably rent for around $2,000 per month. Sounds a lot, but this is Manhattan. That’s affordable compared to the options available to these two college graduates. They told the New York Times “It was really difficult to even find a decent convertible one-bedroom apartment for less than $4,000.”