Micro-apartments: a new concept in New York

New York (AFP) - New York, a city of exorbitant rents with more and more single residents, is about to get a brand new type of apartment: micro-units, for decades prohibited under zoning regulations.

A first building of 55 prefabricated studios spanning nine stories is due to welcome its first tenants in Manhattan in the fall.

Between 260 and 370 square feet (24 and 34 square meters), they come equipped with kitchenettes, shower rooms, storage, large windows, nine foot six (2.9 meter) ceilings and a Juliet balcony.

In New York, 31 percent of the population lives alone, both young and older people, according to the statistics office.

"We don't have the stereotypical nuclear family as we used to with two parents and two children," said Tobias Oriwol, project developer at Monadnock Development which is building the pilot.

"People are marrying later, people are divorcing, people are living longer, deciding to cohabitate," he said.

"But the housing industry keeps delivering two bedroom apartments, one bedroom apartments, three bedroom apartments, and these don't fit the needs of these new households in the city," Oriwol added.

At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, dozens of workers are building the micro-units, which will be transported by truck to the building site, which is owned by the city, at 27th Street in east Manhattan.

They will be assembled in two weeks in June. Then the roof will be put on, the brick facades added and the finishing touches added to the exterior and the layout before the first tenants arrive.

Inside each unit, everything has been meticulously thought out: in the kitchen there is a mini dishwasher, mini fridge, two hobs and a microwave but no traditional oven.

- Common areas -

"We did a lot of research on what people wanted. We had to make choices," said Oriwol. "Our apartments are 100 percent usable, and meant to be lived in by today's people."

The tenants, who are expected to be of all ages and backgrounds, can rent additional storage space, and have access to a large communal kitchen, a TV room, a laundry, a bike shed and a gym.

"You may not need to host 15 people in your very own apartment, but you have the ability to do so in the rest of building," Oriwol explained.

Twenty-two of the studios will be classified as affordable housing while the other 33 will be offered at market price.

Studios in the neighborhood cost around $3,200 but "because these are smaller, it makes sense they will be cheaper," said Oriwol.

Developers and housing advocates are closely following.

In New York, regulations designed to help families have prohibited the construction of housing units smaller than 37 square meters in much of the city since 1987.

Under this pilot program, then mayor Michael Bloomberg waived the zoning regulations for the site to test the market for this new housing model.

If the project is deemed a success, many hope that the regulation can be lifted altogether.

The regulation does not correspond to the needs of people today, says Sarah Watson, deputy director of the Citizens Housing Planning Council, a non-profit research organization devoted to housing problems in New York.

- Supply mismatches demand -

"Actually only 18 percent of the households in New York City are nuclear family with all children under 25," she said.

"A third of all of the households are a single person living alone, and on the other side, about a quarter is people sharing in some way, to fit themselves into the city," she said.

Current legislation also prohibits the cohabitation of more than three people who are not related. Watson says there is a "big mismatch" between need and supply that often inflates rent.

"There are so many single people and such a small amount of well-designed studios for them that actually the price of studios are inflated," she said.

"If you artificially add five single people to share a unit then the landlord can get an lot more money for that unit."

If supply better matched demand, prices could also come down, she said.

Watson says that out of necessity, New York should offer more choice particularly with the city projected to absorb hundreds of thousands of new arrivals in the coming years.

The city that never sleeps, which is frequently a trend setter, is lagging behind other American cities on micro-units.

Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington have already jumped on the micro-apartment bandwagon.

If the pilot is deemed a success in New York, then others will follow. And developers, never short of ideas, are already planning other micro-concepts, such as two or three bedroom 46-square-meter apartments, suitable for two or three roommates.