Micro-Apartments Aren't New, They're Just Usually Illegal And Awful

Tiny apartments are suddenly being hailed as a solution to skyrocketing urban housing prices. But they’re not new—SRO’s have been around for decades, and they’re historically so bad that they’re banned.

Tiny, dorm-like micro-apartments are officially a "hot trend in U.S. real estate" according to a Reuters story that profiles civil engineer Aaron McConnell, who sleeps in a twin bed with eight roommates in Seattle. From the story:

Tiny apartments like McConnell’s are cropping up in major cities around the country to meet the demand of people who are short on cash but determined to live in areas with otherwise pricey rents.

Micros, also known as "hostel-style" apartments, usually offer less than 200 square feet (18.5 square meters) including private bathrooms, and they typically come furnished, sometimes with built-in beds and other amenities to save space.

It’s the logical extension of a school of thought that sees density as the solution to American cities’ persistent shortage of affordable housing. How else, without government subsidies, can you build housing on the cheap while still letting people live in desirable locations with manageable commutes?

But there’s an inconvenient reality underlying this hope. Micro-apartments aren’t actually new; they have just historically been illegal—and pretty terrible to live in.

As the Next American City reminds us, the micro-apartment has a longer history as the SRO, or single room occupancy unit. Even as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg commissioned architects to build a "new housing model" of sub-300-square-foot micro-units, the city had an estimated 100,000 illegal SROs. They were outlawed by the city back in 1955 when people started viewing them as substandard and inhumane. Standards on minimum apartment size have since emerged in other major cities. The Next American City explains:

Since then, the number of legal SROs in New York City has dwindled dramatically, with some 175,000 units disappearing between the 1950s and today. Single-room dwellings also fell out of favor in other urban centers across the country, which led in the loss of nearly 1 million SRO units nationwide. Between 1960 and 1980, Chicago lost 80 percent of its 38,845 SROs, while Seattle saw 15,000 units disappear. In San Francisco, more than 10,000 units were converted or demolished between 1960 and 2000.

What’s new about the "micro-apartment" isn’t its existence, but its legality. That legality will likely mean better, safer conditions for inhabitants. But competing with the illegal SROs will take a commitment to affordability that even the most efficient private developer is unlikely to meet without help. The main character in the Next American City story, Boubacar Balde, lives in a 60-square-foot room in an apartment with blocked fire escapes and windows that don’t open—but for a price of only $80 a week. "I don’t have another choice," Balde says. "That’s why I’m here."

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  • CC

    These sound like private sector dorms to me.  I'm not really sure that I understand the problem with real-estate developers trying to offer new, modern amenity-equipped, mini apartments.  Clearly there is a segment of grad students and your professionals that are looking for an affordable way to cut down commute times and costs living in more central neighborhoods.

    And how would this be that different than a large apartment where the owner has chopped up the rooms to make 5, 6 or 7 tiny bedrooms instead of a more traditional layout.  This is really common in Europe and you end up with the same, a bunch of your professionals or students with a common kitchen, bathroom (maybe 2 if they're lucky) and living space, but since they can't all be on the rental contract one of them as to take the "financial risk" and illegally (in most cases) sublet individual bedrooms.

    From the photos they really don't look all that bad.  This would at least help bring it all above the table and cut into many black-market renting problems.  Let the market decide I say.

  • ohnonononono

    I don't have a subscription to read that NextCity article you linked, but the comparison between SROs and the proposed micro-units doesn't make sense. "SROs" aren't just small apartments. People rent single rooms in SRO buildings, hence the name. SRO buildings have shared bathrooms and kitchens. Everything other than the bedroom is common space. Traditional New York City SRO buildings usually had a shared bathroom per floor and a shared kitchen for the building. 

    The "micro-units" that the Bloomberg administration has proposed are simply small apartments. There's a minimum size of new apartments in NYC, and it's being lifted on this one site as part of this proposal. The "micro-units" aren't single rooms for rent. They're apartments with their own private bathroom and kitchen (or kitchenette) per unit. Apartment buildings don't (typically) have shared bathrooms or kitchens. This is a huge distinction. I don't see how you can say that the "micro-units" are basically just modern SROs. They're not at all. Nobody's building new SRO buildings. They're just trying smaller apartments.  

    The proposed site where the "micro-units" are going up is in a fairly affluent, hip, young neighborhood where professionals, including a ton of transient medical interns/students (it's close to the "medical row" of NYU Langone and Bellevue hospitals) will flock to these units because they offer new, modern amenities in exchange for smaller space. The poor people who live in the (legal, grandfathered) SROs that still exist, mostly in Upper Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs, are a totally different market. The "micro-units" will not be cheap by most standards. They'll be priced similarly to other apartments in the neighborhood. They'll be nicer but smaller. 

    And people living in illegal apartments or illegally sublet SROs are yet another end of the market. I'm not saying different segments of the housing market aren't related, but drawing equivalency between the three as you are is odd and confusing. 

  • Thunderbuck

    I think SROs can absolutely be part of the solution.  They provide considerably more safety than homelessness, but I agree that it requires careful management and design.

    I see some strata to this: premium units in buildings with amenities like guest suites, fitness facilities, and games rooms, and possibly some kind of social committee.  Units themselves would have state-of-the-art connectivity options and top-grade appliances and fittings.  Possibly, such suites would be integrated into more "traditional" condo towers.

    What I'd REALLY like to see is SROs that work as "transition housing" for people with mental health and/or addictions issues.