Can Micro-Units Be Livable?

By Kai Bates – IMCL Urban Design Consultant

A new trend in urban real estate development has been sweeping through the nation’s biggest cities in recent years. This trend, if left unchecked and not properly managed, could significantly hurt quality of life in our cities, potentially causing a disastrous return to the suburbs. The trend I’m referring to is micro-unit housing, also known as micro-housing, microapartments, microflats, micro dwelling units, single-room occupancy units, or even apodments.

Micro-units (example from Seattle pictured below) are small apartments that are usually around 200-300 square feet, though much smaller units exist in Rome and Tokyo. These apartments often include a small living/bedroom area, a small bathroom, and a kitchenette. In some cases, bathrooms and kitchens are shared among residents on the same floor and the micro-units are primarily for sleeping and sitting.

In 2012, Architectural Record reported on the emergence of micro-unit housing as a way for cities to attract young, creative people to their downtowns with affordable housing options. Cities such as San Francisco were starting to reduce their square footage minimums and developers were ecstatic because they could make more money with more units per building. It wasn’t long before one of the leaders in urban planning news, The Atlantic Cities, took notice and started to promote micro-units as a great new housing option in cities, even though the version they described (pictured below) is much nicer than most – more about that later.

Mainstream press outlets, such as USA Today and the The New York Times, also got wind of this trend and started to report on a micro-unit backlash that was starting to develop in cities across the country. USA Today discussed the coming micro-unit boom in Seattle (48 approved projects to accommodate about 2,300 residents), causing many residents to voice their concerns about everything from the potential negative impacts on neighborhood character to parking. Most importantly, people in Seattle were concerned that micro-unit developments were being approved without design review that allows for public comment. In San Francisco, The New York Times reported that while micro-unit advocates saw the smaller units as a way to address the city’s affordability crisis (average monthly studio rents were $2,100 in 2012), opponents felt that attracting more young, high-tech workers would only make matters worse. 

In early 2013, New York City announced the winner of its adapt NYC competition for comfortable and affordable micro-units around 250 square feet. The winning design (unit floor plan pictured right) became the first micro-unit building in the city, further fueling the debate.

A common thread throughout many of the articles about micro-units in cities across the country is the pushback coming from those who live close to new micro-unit developments. But, there has been very little discussion or comment from those who actually live in them. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to add my own experience to this discussion.

In 2013, I, too, became intrigued by the micro-unit phenomenon. Being an Urban Designer who, unfortunately, has always lived in the suburbs, I was eager to “walk the talk” and move into the city. I am a strong proponent human-scale, mixed-use, compact, walkable, transit-accessible development, and I think we humans need to live as sustainable a lifestyle as possible. So, I found a recently built micro-unit development in a neighborhood that met all of my criteria – I won’t reveal the exact location since I currently live there. Suffice it to say that the development is downtown and very close to transit, a grocery store, and numerous restaurants – all things that I thought would far outweigh the fact that it is located next to a freeway.

Having lived here for nearly a year, I have learned a lot about micro-units and downtown living. As a result, the elements that I think are most important for cities to look at when reviewing micro-unit developments are the building’s location, construction, design, and management.

First of all, there is the location. As I mentioned, the building I live in is right next to an elevated freeway. The amount of road noise and pollution from traffic are both quite dramatic, making the living conditions uncomfortable and very stressful. Since the apartment doesn’t have air conditioning, whenever I open the window, the situation worsens. Unfortunately, the negative effects of the freeway dwarf the benefits of living close to transit and a grocery store. Yes, the area is very walkable, but walking anywhere near the freeway is very unpleasant.

Next, there’s the building’s shoddy construction. Before the building was barely a year old, the floor boards in my apartment had all warped and become creaky. I can hear every movement from the people in the apartment above me, and, because of the enormous gaps around the front door, I can often hear people’s conversations from the apartments across the hall and numerous unpleasant smells from other units frequently fill my apartment.

When it comes to design, my biggest issues with the 260 square foot space are the kitchen setup (unnecessarily large refrigerator and stove, tiny sink, small counter top, and no drawers) and that there is no room for a bed or in-unit washer and dryer.

Finally, there is the building’s poor management. Good management is extremely important in any apartment, but I would argue that it’s even more important in a place like this. All of the stresses caused by the location, construction, and design could be eased significantly with friendly, caring, and responsive property management. Unfortunately, virtually every interaction that I’ve had with management has been, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory.

This personal story is not intended to make every micro-unit development sound terrible. It is merely meant to illustrate how such development, if not properly regulated, can make urban living miserable. Even though micro-units are often considered “affordable” housing, it is vital that these developments and their residents be treated with the same care and concern that are given to any other property. People’s health and well-being should not be sacrificed just so that developer’s profits can be increased.

My great fear and reason for writing this article and relaying my personal experiences is that cities across the country will jump on the proverbial micro-unit bandwagon and let developers throw these things up in the names of sustainability, increased density, economic development, etc. and they will snuff out the urban renaissance that we are currently experiencing. As more and more people move into cities to reap the benefits of more walking, biking, and taking transit and less driving; having more contact with others; being closer to jobs and services; and so much more, it would cause enormous harm to force those people to live in modern-day tenements and to make their experience a negative one.

A recent book and two recent articles made me think that my fears were not unfounded and that they were in fact coming true. In the fantastic book Happy City, Charles Montgomery discusses his experience of living in a small apartment amidst the “hyperdensity” of Manhattan, suffering from the ill effects of noise, pollution, and crowding that made him feel claustrophobic and even lonely and isolated despite the fact that there were people all around him.

The first article that caught my attention appeared in the The Atlantic at the end of 2013. The article, “The Health Risks of Small Apartments”, quoted a number of psychologists who voiced concerns about the negative impacts (claustrophobia, increased stress levels, domestic violence, substance abuse, and more) of micro-unit housing on children, mid-age people, and the elderly.

The second article, “Why I Miss the Suburbs”, appeared in The Atlantic Cities in early 2014. Written by a Millennial who had lived in small apartments in New York City and Washington, DC, and was now longing for the quiet and openness of the suburbs, this article, though it’s anecdotal and not representative of larger trends, confirmed for me that it’s a very real possibility that people could be drawn back into the suburbs.

With all of the above in mind, I would like to urge cities to be very careful when it comes to developing micro-unit housing. As Montgomery writes in Happy City, “We benefit from the conveniences of proximity, but these conveniences can come with the price of overstimulation and crowding. We will not solve the conundrum of sustainable city living unless we understand these contradictory forces and resolve the tension between them.” Increased density and sustainability are essential goals. But, they need to be carefully implemented and managed.

When it comes to micro-units, cities must ensure the units are located away from excessive noise and pollution, they are constructed with high-quality materials, they are designed so that people can live comfortably, and they are managed properly. I would argue that a mix of unit types from micro for students to three bedrooms for families within a building is better for the community, the neighborhood, and the city than entire buildings full of one unit type. A mix of unit types combined with access to community gathering spaces would be ideal. All of the concerns mentioned in this and other articles need to be taken seriously and addressed appropriately.

In my research for this article, I was really happy to come across efforts by the City of Seattle to research, evaluate, and get public feedback on what rules are needed to improve micro-unit housing. This is exactly what every city needs to be doing to make sure that micro-unit development is being done responsibly and that everyone works together to continue to try to improve urban livability as much as possible.

Finally, I just want to point to a micro-unit project that, though it isn’t perfect and it has caused much consternation amongst local residents, is better than most that I’ve seen. The SMARTSPACE SoMa project described in the aforementioned The Atlantic Cities article addresses a number of the issues I’ve brought up: it includes a built-in Murphy bed, in-unit washer and dryer, high-quality materials, soundproofing, and a location in a quiet, residential neighborhood that’s close to shopping, restaurants, and public transportation. If all micro-unit developments could be of this caliber or better, we may be able to continue to foster the urban renaissance and improve quality of life and livability in our cities.