Have laptop, will travel: The rise of the humble, glossy micro-unit in 7 major US cities

cat box

Photo: Stephen Woods/Flickr

New York City

Population: 8,405,837
US rank by population: 1
Density: 27,012 per square mile
Minimum unit size for new construction: 400 square feet

Micro-unit policy: Although the Big Apple is often associated with elbow-to-elbow housing, the city’s standards for new construction are relatively strict regarding micro-units; current zoning regulations set a minimum unit size of 400 square feet for new dwelling units (Article II, Chapter 8, 28-21). The 400-square-foot rule was part of the “Quality Housing Program,” which was established in the 1980s to combat the city’s declining population and promote “high-quality housing” to attract middle- and high-income people. Under the same program, privately developed Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing and group homes are not permitted.

Recent developments: In July 2012, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development announced adAPT NYC, an experimental program to develop apartments smaller than the minimum of 400 square feet. More than 30 development teams submitted proposals to design, construct and operate the city’s first proper micro-unit apartment building on a city-owned site at 335 East 27th Street in Kips Bay. The competition rules stipulated that 40 percent of the units had to be affordable.

In early 2013, Monadnock Development was selected as the winner, and construction is now underway for the modular project, called My Micro NY. The building, designed by nARCHITECTS, will have 55 studios measuring 260 to 360 square feet, Curbed reported. Every unit will have 9’8″ ceilings, a Juliet balcony, closet, overhead storage and kitchenette with two electric burners, under-counter refrigerator and 18-inch dishwasher. Of the units, 22 will be affordable. The development is anticipated for completion in Fall 2015.

Chicago

Population: 2,718,782
US rank by population: 3
Density: 11,842 per square mile
Minimum unit size for new construction: About 275 square feet

Micro-unit policy: There is no minimum size per unit, under municipal code. However, the “gross residential floor area developed on a lot divided by the total number of dwelling units on such lot may not be less than 500 feet,” (Chicago Zoning Code 17-2-0312) which means the average gross size of units in a building must be 500 square feet or greater. This average dwelling unit size standard does not apply to government-subsidized or elderly housing developments.

In addition, there is a maximum percentage of “efficiency” units permitted within a residential project (17-2-0313-A). The proportion of micro-units allowed in a building can vary from as low as 20 percent in residential areas up to 50 percent in certain downtown areas.

Adam Hengels’ The Micro Maker notes two critical obstacles to developers building micro-units — Minimum Lot Area (MLA) requirements and parking minimums. MLA standards (17-2-0303-A) essentially set a cap on the number of units to be constructed on a site, based on the size of the site — MLAs for efficiency units can vary from as small as 135 square feet up to 1,000 square feet. “Keeping the number of units on a site to a small level, prevents a developer from building micro-apartments at a reasonable density economically, and a developer building larger units will be able to pay more for the land,” Hengels writes.

Lastly, parking minimums demand that new developments must have between 0.5 and 1 parking space per unit, which becomes unwieldy for high-density micro-unit projects with tenants who may not even own cars.

Recent developments: In November 2014, micro-unit power player Cedar Street Cos. announced its plans to convert the historic Bush Temple of Music building in the Gold Coast into bite-sized apartments, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. The French Renaissance Revival-style building, which Cedar Street purchased for $12.5 million, will be divided into compact apartments measuring 350 to 450 square feet. The project will be called FLATS No. 800, in accordance with the company’s FLATS brand, which has outposts in Uptown, Edgewater and Ravenswood.

All FLATS apartments have in-unit washer/dryer, free Wi-Fi and access to 24-hour fitness centers in the building. The FLATS developments even allow dogs and cats, according to the official site. As part of a current promotion, people who sign up for a two-year lease will receive a custom Heritage bicycle:

Free-Bike-Giveaway-01

Image: FLATS Chicago

San Francisco

Population: 837,442
US rank by population: 14
Density: 17,179 per square mile
Minimum unit size for new construction: 220 square feet

Micro-unit policy: In November 2012, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to shrink the minimum size for a residential unit to 220 square feet, SF Gate reported. As a sort of test run for the city, the legislation dictates that no more than 375 of these micro-units can be developed; after 325 compact apartments have been built, the City Planning Department will conduct a review of the new housing’s impact.

Recent developments: The Panoramic in SoMA is a micro-unit project poised to enter the market in June 2015. Developed by Panoramic Interests and located across from Twitter headquarters, the 11-story building will have 160 apartments, with an average size of 354 square feet, Curbed SF reported. Of the 160 homes, there will be 120 studios, starting at 274 square feet. The miniature pads have the classic Murphy bed and other built-in furnishings, while amenities include a roof deck, 3,500-square-foot lobby/lounge, cafe/market with wine bar, City CarShare and bike storage. The building has mostly been leased out for student housing at California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Renderings of facade and studio layouts below:

Panoramic SF

Panoramic Studios TableBed

Panoramic Studios Twin Beds

Images: Panoramic

Seattle

Population: 652,405
US rank by population: 21
Density: 7,251 per square mile
Minimum unit size for new construction: 220 square feet, as of Fall 2014 (used to be 90 square feet)

Micro-unit policy: With more than 3,000 micro-units constructed, Seattle leads the major American cities in the tiny housing movement. Newly constructed residences can be as small as 90 square feet, or “about the size of two prison cells put together,” according to Politico. As of early March, 782 micro-units were approved for occupancy, and another 1,598 units are in the pipeline, the Seattle Times reported.

Why does the city have such a robust micro-unit scene? Until 2013, a loophole in city regulations essentially gave developers free reign to create petite housing without a public review process. A single “dwelling unit” was defined as a building or portion of a building intended to be occupied by one (1) family and containing sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation facilities required by this Code” (22.204.050 D). However, under the previous code, “‘family’ means any number of related persons or eight (8) or fewer unrelated persons” (22.204.070 F). In contrast, housing with nine or more people living in a unit was categorized as “congregate housing” and had to undergo a public review process. As an artful dodge, late Bellevue developer Jim Potter constructed buildings with “suite” setups, in which one suite held eight separately leased micro-units with private bathroom and kitchenette, but all sharing one full kitchen, according to the NYU Furman Center report. Potter’s innovation caught on, and the number of Lilliputian units mushroomed.

The infographic below tracks the growth of micro-units and congregate residences, which are defined as “rooms or lodging… provided for nine or more non-transient persons not constituting a single household,” with shared kitchen and living space. Historically, congregate residences were used to permit student dorms, fraternities, sororities and other uses:

microscongregate_productionovertime

Image: Courtesy of Mike Podowski/City of Seattle, Department of Planning and Development

Amid the micro boom, neighbors complained about the influx of new residents and sudden decrease in available on-street parking. In October 2014, Seattle City Council unanimously approved a bill laying out new rules for micro-housing, or “small efficiency dwelling units” (SEDUs). The minimum SEDU size is now 220 square feet, with a minimum 150-square-foot sleeping area. The units must have their own bathrooms and kitchens or kitchenettes. In addition, SEDU projects must come with parking in some areas of the city and gain approval through the design review process, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported. Private, non-special needs congregate housing, which can be as small as 70 square feet per unit, may solely be constructed in higher density zones and is subject to a design review, as before. The legislation only applies to permits submitted after November 17, 2014, when the new regulations went into effect.

Recent developments: In February, the Seattle City Council approved a bill that would set a maximum rent of $618 per month for select micro-units built under a tax break program. The Multifamily Property Tax Exemption Program gives 12-year tax breaks to developers who set aside a portion of the units in a project for affordable housing, the Seattle Times reported. Before, studios reserved for lower-income residents under the program had to be affordable for people earning no more than 65 percent of the area median income, or $40,170 per year. This translates to a maximum studio rent of about $1,000 a month. The new legislation, sponsored by councilmember Sally Clark, lowers the rent cap, making studios affordable to people earning no more than 40 percent of the AMI, or $24,720 per year. Also, developers must now keep 25 percent of the units in a project below market rate in order to qualify for tax breaks, as opposed to the previous standard of 20 percent.

Washington DC

Population: 646,449
US rank by population: 23
Density: 9,856 per square mile
Minimum unit size for new construction: About 220 square feet

Micro-unit policy: With regards to minimum unit sizes, Washington DC follows the International Building Code standard: an efficiency dwelling unit “shall have a living room of not less than 220 square feet of floor area,” along with a separate closet, kitchen sink, cooking appliance, refrigeration facilities and bathroom. (IBC 1208.4) This means that the effective minimum apartment size in the District is slightly more than 220 square feet. The District’s existing parking requirements vary from one spot per unit to one spot per four units in higher-density areas. (2013 D.C. MUN. REGS. tit. 11, § 2101).

Since 2007, DC has been undergoing a laborious overhaul of its zoning code, which was last revised in 1958. Demand for more streamlined units could impact the zoning revision, as Greater Greater Washington notes the imbalance between the city’s housing stock and demographics: “Only 20 percent of DC households are families with related children, yet 60 percent of the housing stock has two or more bedrooms.”

Recent developments: Developer SB-Urban has three micro-unit projects in the pipeline, all furnished rentals — a 121-unit development on Blagden Alley, a 90-unit conversion of the historic Patterson Mansion in Dupont Circle and a 140-unit building at Georgetown’s Latham Hotel.

  • In February, the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) granted approval to the zero-parking Blagden Alley development, which will be designed by Hickok Cole, according to UrbanTurf. The complex at 90 and 91 Blagden Alley will consist of two buildings — one with apartments, one with amenities. A glass-roof pedestrian walkway will link the two buildings, giving residents easy access to amenities, which could include a continental breakfast. Leases will be a minimum of 90 days, but the firm anticipates that the average tenant will lease for seven to eight months.
  • The 1903 Patterson Mansion, which SB-Urban purchased for $20 million, will be transformed into apartments each measuring about 350 square feet, UrbanTurf reported. The first floor will hold communal spaces, and the project has passed muster with the local ANCs, the Historic Preservation Review Board and the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
  • Lastly, the mixed-use Latham Hotel project will incorporate the original hotel and new construction at 3000 M Street NW. The proposed apartments will measure 330 square feet each, and the architect is Shalom Baranes Associates. Unlike the other two micro-unit projects, this one will have some parking — SB-Urban plans to convert the hotel’s existing parking spots into amenity spaces, then provide 20 spaces in an off-site garage.

Boston

Population: 645,966
US rank by population: 24
Density: 12,793 per square mile
Minimum unit size for new construction: 350 square feet (only in the South Boston Innovation District)

Micro-unit policy: There’s Downtown, and then there’s everywhere else. In a June 2013 letter, Kairos Shen, Director of Planning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, lays out the BRA’s policy on “metropolitan-sized” units located in the dense Downtown district: 450 square feet minimum for studios, 625 square feet for one-bedrooms and 850 square feet for two-bedrooms. Downtown is defined as the area bounded by the Charles River, Boston Harbor, Fort Point Channel, Massachusetts Turnpike and Massachusetts Ave. Meanwhile, “neighborhood-sized” units in other parts of the city are held to the following size minimums: 500 square feet for studios, 750 square feet for one-bedrooms, 900 square feet for two-bedrooms and 1,200 square feet for three-bedrooms.

However, in late 2010, the city approved the construction of “innovation units” that can be as small as 350 square feet, the Boston Globe reported. These dwellings are only permitted in the South Boston Innovation District and in buildings with shared amenities such as a lobby or roof deck. In 2013, the city allowed 450-square-foot “metro studios” to be built outside of Downtown; now, they can be erected in a neighborhood if they are within one mile of public transportation, according to the Globe.

Recent developments: In November 2014, construction formally commenced on One Seaport Square, a $600 million pair of mixed-use towers that will hold 832 apartments and about 30 retail spots and entertainment venues. One of the two high-rises, the VIA, will include 96 innovation units in a separate wing, Boston.com reported. The efficient dwellings will be studios and one-bedrooms measuring 365 square feet to 685 square feet. The project will have the largest number of micro-units built to date in the city; it’s scheduled for completion in Summer 2017.

In March, leasing commenced at the Seaport District’s 100 Pier 4, Curbed reported. Of the 359 units in the development, there are 50 innovation units spread over two floors, with apartments as small as 410 square feet. Rents for available units are priced from $2,524 per month.

Portland

Population: 609,456
US rank by population: 29
Density: 4,375 per square mile
Minimum unit size for new construction: About 150 square feet

Micro-unit policy: Ambiguous. Portland’s land use code does not establish a minimum dwelling unit size, according to a cross-city study that Seattle conducted in Summer 2014. Building code states that every efficiency dwelling unit must have a sleeping/living room measuring at least 220 square feet Meanwhile, “group living” setups involve several sleeping rooms surrounding a shared kitchen.

Recent developments: The Eko Haus Freedom Center in the Pearl District was the first modern large-scale micro-unit community in the city. The building opened in March 2013, with studios measuring between 267 to 385 square feet, KGW reported. At the time of launch, rent ranged from $785 to $1,050 per month. The studios are fitted with 9.5-foot to 14-foot ceilings, Juliet balconies in every unit, ceiling fans and granite kitchen countertops. Select apartments even have walk-out balconies. Amenities include free WiFi, laundry facilities, lounge, bicycle storage and a game room. Below is the floorplan for the “Ballard” units, which are the smallest in the building:

Eko Haus ballard fp

Rendering via freedomcenterliving.com

Footprint Investments, which has built several compact housing developments in the Seattle area, is also making micro-moves in Portland. The developer has two four-story projects in the works at 2250 NW Thurman Street and 1525 N.E. 41st Avenue, The Oregonian reported. Each building, rising on a traditional single-family lot, would essentially replace a house with 56 “group living” bedrooms with shared kitchens. The average living space would measure about 200 square feet. Footprint Thurman at Thurman Street is slated to open in Spring 2016, while Footprint Hollywood at NE 41st Avenue will be completed in Spring 2016.

In mid-March, Riverland Homes Inc. filed permits for a five-story micro-unit apartment building at 3116 N. Vancouver Avenue, according to The Oregonion. The existing house at the lot would be torn down.

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