Why micro apartments are a huge deal

Demand is strong for these affordable, trendy, teeny new digs, some about the size of a parking space. And in some locations, opposition is strong as well.

By Marilyn Lewis May 17, 2013 10:54AM

This post comes from MSN Money contributor Marilyn Lewis.

People stand in an empty 374-square-foot apartment in a micro-housing unit in Fort Point, South Boston on Feb. 13, 2013 (© John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)There's no middle ground when it comes to the matchbox-size apartments springing up in cities around the country. You love them or you hate them. They're tiny and cheap, and that's both the appeal and the problem.


Itty-bitty apartments with 150 to 300 square feet of total living space are a fast-growing trend in high-priced cities. A space 15 by 17 feet, for example, provides 255 square feet of living area. The biggest micros are 500 square feet. That's half the size of a two-car garage. High-priced custom homes often have closets vastly larger.


Demand for micro apartments is strong in cities such as Boston, New York, Montreal, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle, where rents are rising fast. There, micro apartments constitute a new kind of affordable housing -- minus the government subsidies. (The photo shows a micro apartment unit in Boston.)


'Rip-offs' and 'firetraps'

Neighbor groups have sprung up all over Seattle to oppose micro housing. Irate opponents say they're firetraps and rip-offs for residents and cash cows for developers. Critics worry they'll attract transients and criminals. They object to the intense density and lack of on-street parking. The buildings are cheaply constructed and will become slumlike in time, ruining neighborhoods, others say. 


One neighbor told The Stranger, a weekly Seattle newspaper:

"Anyone who can scrape up enough money to live month to month can live there," he said, worried that low-income interlopers would jeopardize his chances to sell his own house. "I don't think most people want to live next to a boarding house with itinerant people living in it."

In his neighborhood, a loophole in the permitting process let a developer apply for six townhouses but build, within each townhouse, as many as eight micro units of 150 to 200 square feet each. Each cluster of micros shares a kitchen. Instead of the six townhouses that neighbors were expecting, they were confronted with 46 tiny living units, each renting for about $500 a month.


As compelling as the arguments against the micro apartments sound, The Stranger's thoughtful exploration demolishes each as false or hysterical.


Life in a micro

Plenty of Americans are thrilled to get one of these teeny apartments. The Stranger caught up with residents who love life in their micro homes. One was Alex Tursi, 29, a contractor who does graphic design at Microsoft (Microsoft owns and publishes MSN Smart Spending):

He acknowledged it was small space, but "the sacrifice of the space is an equal trade-off to have my own spot," he said. His last home, with comparable rents in the neighborhood, was in a house "with people I found on Craigslist, and I lived with strangers, and one of them was just a nut."

New York is so taken by the micro movement that the Bloomberg administration held a design competition to encourage affordable micro dwellings. The Museum of the City New York is showcasing an exhibit of clever designs for 325-square-foot dwellings.


The need for cheaper housing is indisputable. "In downtown Boston, a one-bedroom of around 500 square feet can go for as much as $2,100 a month," The Atlantic writes.


Seattle is a leader in the micro movement. There, the average rent has risen 15% for a studio apartment (now at $991) and 21% for a one-bedroom ($1,230) in the past five years, The Stranger says.


Since 2006, Seattle has allowed construction of 48 buildings of micro apartments, each 125 to 200 square feet -- enough homes for about 2,300 people, USA Today says.


Strong demand

John Infranca, a research fellow at the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University Law School who is writing about the teeny apartment movement, told USA Today that demand is strong in many cities for single-person housing:


"People are getting married later, divorcing at a higher rate, delaying marriage for several reasons, or are older individuals outliving spouses," he said, adding that "on a square-foot basis, it's not affordable, but it's more affordable than other studio and one-bedroom apartments."

Solo households are a growing share of the population in industrialized countries, MSN Real Estate says. The Census counts 33 million Americans living alone. A quarter of all U.S. households are made up of just one person, The National Association of Realtors says.


"We have a shortfall now of 800,000, and it's only going to get worse,"New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a recent news conference. "This is going to be a big problem for cities with young people."


Tenants are attracted by the new construction, lower prices and the chance to ditch their commutes and their housemates. They  typically stay for around a year, one Seattle-area developer told USA today.


Judy Green, a senior who lives on a fixed income, told USA Today that she's happy in her tiny Seattle home:

"I can afford the rent. The unit is lovely and the building is attractive. It's nicely finished and it has large windows with lots of light. I'm comfortable with the size," she told council members recently. "There's people like me that live minimally and are happy with a place like this."

All in all, Americans may just have to get used to micro apartments. In crowded Asian cities they're already common. Stylish Tokyo, for example, leads the way in architecturally intriguing urban homes, says this ABC News video report. But it would be naive to think that all tiny housing is equally desirable, as this altogether different ABC News feature illustrates, with dramatic overhead photos of families squished together in tiny Hong Kong apartments.


More from Smart Spending:





May 17, 2013 12:55PM

sounds like the size of a college dorm room.



if you live light you can make that work no problem! anyone who goes to college would know this.

May 17, 2013 1:02PM
Funny how those with money and nice housing don't want affordable options for the grunt workers that serve them at low wages. Maybe if they supported better pay for the grunt workers they wouldn't need such cheap housing?
May 17, 2013 12:52PM

In Singapore where we recently visited, the government has subsidized apartments for low income folks and the few that are on welfare (which is a whole story itself).  These apartments, for up to 2 people are 200 sq feet.  A family of up to 5...400 sq feet.



May 17, 2013 2:14PM
When you're in an area where housing has become prohibitively expensive it's time to move to a more affordable location.  Many an ex-Californian has moved to Texas where both rents and home prices are within most peoples financial means. Squeezing oneself into 250 square feet, an oversized telephone booth (remember those?), does not a happy home make.  Those hi-tech firms in Silicon Valley would do better for their employees by making a similar move to friendlier locations.


Oh my Lord, these places rent for two to four times what my first house note with taxes and interest was. And it was 1800 sq feet. That means at today's prices it should rent for $3,200 to $6,200.


We are turning Japanese. They have long had like 300 sq foot houses for people to live in and even a couple of decades ago had these tiny three four high by 4 feet wide 7 feet long coffin rooms for rent about $900 dollars a month just big enough for a few clothes and a bed to sleep in and perhaps a small flat screen TV.


I guess we are going to get these coffin rooms ourselves soon and perhaps they will just bury us in them when the average age of the block gets to be 66 years. Make everything nice and neat.

May 17, 2013 2:35PM

Yes providing affordable housing is important.  the problem becomes when there is an issue with power, or some type of emergency.  250 to 350 does not provide you with enough storage room to provide for yourself for the recommended 3-4 days.  As stated in the article when your living area is smaller than the size that would be needed to house your car, there is a problem.  Even if you ride a bike you still need room for that.

I know personally if it was just me that I had to worry about, I would be fine with that.  But the reality is if you have someone over you need more room, or you just might as well live in a car.


May 17, 2013 5:53PM
These micro-apartments are temporary at best - like student digs - for single folks moving up the corporate ladder.  Location is the key for those who prefer the urban lifestyle.  There will always be slum-lords who will subdivide older homes into "sleeping rooms" with shared kitchens and perhaps shared baths.  Folks will stay in these only until their circumstances improve.  They are a stop-gap at best.  I lived in 250 square feet or less during grad school - I was fortunate that I did not have to share - and I was happy to move on. 
May 19, 2013 1:12AM
Living in a shoebox can cost $2,100 a month?  Then you'll need a few roommates.
oh yeah a two car garage is normally 22X22 at most 24X24 which means it is about 500 sq ft not the 1,000 sq ft the article says.

one last note it reminds me the the 1972 Gensis song



"Get 'Em Out by Friday" is a rock epic on the 1972 album by British band ,


The song starts with a fast-paced refrain of Pebble ordering Hall to "Get 'em out by Friday". In the following verse, the Winkler tells a disbelieving Mrs Barrow that a firm of men has purchased her property and that she has been evicted. She refuses to leave, so Pebble raises the rent on the property. In lieu of this, the Winkler offers 400 for Mrs Barrow to move; she does, albeit grudgingly. However, shortly after Mrs Barrow moves in, Pebble again raises the rent.


A slow instrumental indicates a passage of time, taking the story to the year 2012. At this time, Genetic Control has announced that they are restricting the height of all humans to four feet. This piece of news is then discussed in a pub by a man named "Joe Everybody," who reveals the reason behind the restriction: so that Genetic Control, who has recently bought some properties, will be able to accommodate twice as many people in the same tower block.

May 17, 2013 6:20PM
Part of the problem in Seattle is the way the developers file for these projects. On one hand they will call it 6 units so they do not have to do an environmental impact study to build, then they will file it as 48 units for tax breaks / subsidies etc.
May 28, 2013 12:10AM

I have lived in a 250 sq.ft and a 300 sq.ft. apodement or small apartment lol.  I found there is plenty of room for a single man.


I had a futon, flat screen tv and a 40 inch flat screen tv plenty of room for me shower, refrigerator, and a microwave and i shared cooking area no big deal.  You know they are comfortable and this was before they came popular lol.  Some people don't realize a single person doesn't need a real big apartment (585 sq.ft up) nor do we need to pay what they ask for it lmao.  Lets stop bitching about something that is going to happen if you need to bitch about it have them make a law they need to be 250 to 300 sq.ft.

May 28, 2013 12:12AM
damn made a mistake not two tv one tv and a desktop computer geesh i was laughing so hard at those silly comments from people that have never tried it.  I think they should be a movie critique or food critique that never goes to the movies or eats at a restaurant.
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