In the past few years, the “tiny house movement” has become increasingly popular across the US. Americans are choosing to downsize the square footage of their homes, opting to live in 100 to 400 square foot dwellings in the name of “simpler living.” New Yorkers, like many urban dwellers, do not always have the ability to choose their desired square footage – in fact, many renters in the New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area spend more than thirty percent of their incomes on housing due to high housing costs. As a means of providing centrally-located housing stock to young professionals, cities like Boston, Providence, Austin, and Washington have experimented with “micro-luxury” developments, essentially the city version of tiny houses. New York City has joined the movement for microapartments with its adAPT NYC design competition, launched in 2012, but with a slightly different spin: in this case, the emphasis is on creating affordable housing stock in addition to attracting the luxury housing market.
adAPT NYC was a pilot program which called for proposals for “innovative micro-unit layout and building design.” The initiative was part of former Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to finance affordable housing units for half a million New Yorkers, called the New Housing Marketplace Plan. A development team made up of Monadnock Development LLC, Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation, and nARCHITECTS won the competition with a proposal which would later be named Carmel Place. Located at 335 East 27th Street in Kips Bay, Carmel Place contains 55 apartments ranging from 250 to 350 square feet, with an average of 300 square feet. Though New Yorkers have been making the most of small spaces for quite some time now, these units are unique because they are designed with features like tall ceilings, modular furniture, and ample storage space in order to make them feel more livable.
Hardwood floors, large windows, and Juliet balconies create the illusion of a larger space, while storage lofts, expanding tables, and Murphy beds maximize the amount of usable space. Notably, all apartments adhere to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility codes, and 22 of the 55 units were reserved for formerly homeless veterans and affordable housing candidates. Market-rate apartments rent for $2,500 to $3,000 per month, while tenants in the affordable units pay anywhere from $950 – $1,490 depending on their salary. A concierge service called Ollie is included with the market-rate rent, and is available at an additional charge for those living in the affordable units. A public garden, ground-floor porch, den areas, laundry facilities, and a fitness space create communal space to make up for decreased space within the units.
The building itself sits on a remarkably small footprint of 45 by 108 feet, and Bloomberg issued a mayoral override on local laws requiring apartments to be a minimum of 400 square feet for Carmel Place. Carmel Place was constructed from prefabricated modules made in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, making it the first multi-unit building in Manhattan to be built using modular construction. Once the modules were created, it took about 3.5 weeks to construct the tower last year. The expected completion date is April 1, with residents set to move in on this day. More than 60,000 people applied to live in the apartment’s 14 affordable units, clearly not deterred by the small square footage. Some of the market rate apartments are still available.
The apartments at Carmel Place, along with microapartments as a whole, have been met with criticism from psychologists and public housing advocates. Health risks associated with living in cramped spaces include increased rates of domestic violence and substance abuse, and the need to choose between fitting physical belongings and loved ones within a living space can lead to feeling simultaneously claustrophobic and isolated. When couples and parents squeeze into a tiny living space, it can put strain on the relationship and impact children’s abilities to study and concentrate. In short, adults who face stress from their jobs need to see home as a safe haven, and adolescents require a certain amount of privacy for healthy social and academic development. And, though Murphy beds and extendable tables ostensibly make small living spaces “modular” and accommodating of daily activities, people are wired to avoid adding extra steps to everyday tasks, so after a while it’s likely that residents of microapartments will simply stop folding up their furniture and will feel even more claustrophobic. While the microapartment lifestyle might be doable for a young person in their 20s or 30s trying to save some money in the short term, public housing advocates worry about making microapartments a standard in affordable housing, since low-income families wouldn’t be able to “opt out” of the lifestyle.
Proponents of microapartment living point out that square footage alone should not be the only factor considered by critics. In the case of Carmel Place, design choices like Juliet balconies, tall ceilings, and large windows can make units feel just as spacious as “traditional” apartments. Even if microapartments are not adopted as a wide-scale solution to affordable housing, they can at least provide inspiration for increased living standards in low-income homes. For example, a smaller square footage combined with tall ceilings and lofted storage space can make a unit feel much more liveable. It’s also worth noting that increased density would allow low-income individuals to live closer to the center of the city, potentially negating the impacts a long commute can have on one’s health.
In the meantime, the city is pushing for changes in zoning laws that would allow for smaller apartments and increased building density. The city believes that creating more small apartments will benefit young, single professionals as well as the elderly, and increased building density will allow for more low-income housing closer to the heart of Manhattan. Since residents have yet to move into Carmel Place, we’re still waiting to hear how people are liking their modular living spaces. If you’re interested in downsizing your square footage in exchange for a more thoughtfully designed living space, you might be a great candidate for the microapartment lifestyle and I would be happy to help you find one.