New York City’s July 9 launch of a pilot program to develop micro rental apartments of between 275 and 300 square feet is already drawing significant interest from domestic and international parties.
As of Wednesday, 920 “request for proposal” forms to design, construct, and operate an eight- to 10-story building with 80 such micro units in the Kips Bay neighborhood of Manhattan had been downloaded from the website of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which is managing this project with the Department of City Planning.
These downloads come from all five of New York’s boroughs, as well as other U.S. cities such as Boston, “and places abroad like London, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Israel, Taipei, etc.,” said Eric Bederman, HPD’s spokesman, in an email to Builder. Proposals must be submitted by 4 p.m. Eastern Time on Sept. 14, and the city will hold a pre-submission conference on July 31.
This pilot program, called adAPT NYC, is the city’s latest effort to address its chronic housing shortages and palpable demographic shifts. An estimated 1.8 million households, or more than 60% of the city’s total, have one or two people living in them, according to city estimates. But there are only 1 million housing units that are either studios or one-bedroom apartments to meet that demand. And these one- and two-person households are increasing.
“Developing housing that matches how New Yorkers live today is critical to the City’s continued growth, future competitiveness, and long-term economic success,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “People from all over the world want to live in New York City, and we must develop a new, scalable housing model that is safe, affordable, and innovative to meet their needs.”
With adAPT NYC, New York is playing catch-up to a trend toward micro living that has been prevalent for years in Paris, Barcelona, London, Tokyo, and other international urban centers. Oakland-based Pyatok Architects even developed a 95-square-foot studio for low-income singles in Manila “where the toilets didn’t need to be accessible and the bed could be lofted,” says principal Mike Pyatok.
adAPT NYC is also part of New York’s more extensive New Housing Marketplace Plan, initiated in 2003 to add and/or preserve 165,000 housing units by 2014. At the end of 2011 the plan had surpassed the 128,000-unit mark and had another 10,146 units under construction. In a 2011 survey, the city found that the net vacancy rate for its 2.17 million rental units was 3.12%.
To get adAPT off the ground, New York City is waiving a 1987 zoning law that requires housing units to be at least 400 square feet. The city has stated its intention to keep the rents on the apartments in the Kips Bay building—which are expected to include windows, kitchens, and bathrooms—under $2,000 per month. As the program expands, it could eventually offer more-affordable living space.
Anyone who has ever attempted to rent an apartment in New York City knows that anything even remotely affordable is going to be tiny. However, a lot of what’s been available are units that have been subdivided illegally by property owners, often with scant attention to residents’ safety.
WNET’s “Metrofocus” website points out that adAPT NYC was influenced by an initiative called “Making Room,” launched last year by the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, which engaged architects from around the world to offer solutions to New York’s housing shortages. Aside from micro apartments, the council—in partnership with the Architectural League of New York—recommended the development of smaller apartments and homes for multiple adults and extended families to share and not have to worry about the safety and fire hazards that have plagued do-it-yourself conversions.
Pyatok observes that micro apartments can trace their roots to single-room-occupancy (SRO) housing that was popular in the early part of the last century to help cities absorb population waves. While SROs in many cities gained reputations in the 1960s as refuges for the destitute or substance abusers, it wasn’t like that everywhere. Pyatok says that 15 or so years ago his firm designed 275- to 300-square-foot SRO apartments in Seattle with kitchenettes and bathroom access. He also recalls an earlier era when SROs served as second homes for the wealthy and safe havens for young women who had come to cities for employment.
Commenting on NYC’s micro-apartment plan, Pyatok says designing the units will be the easy part. “What Bloomberg should realize is that this housing is transitional and highly transitory. It has high turnover and is difficult to manage.” Maintenance and security will be critical to the success of this program. Pyatok sees similarities with student housing, where there’s turnover every nine months, and the units themselves need to be built to high standards to withstand the physical abuse to which they are inevitably subjected.
Pyatok hopes more cities will build micro housing to lure younger people starting out into lower-income neighborhoods, where they could be “tremendously valuable. They are educated, highly idealistic, and have the time to get involved in the community. Otherwise, if you just put them into one building in the center of town, all you’re creating is a ghetto for young people.”
John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.