San Francisco Thinks Small, Ponders Shoebox Apartments

Thursday, August 23, 2012

They are cozy, not cramped.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering a developer-backed ordinance that would allow the minimum living space of an apartment to shrink from 290 square feet to 220, about the size of a one-car garage. That is also about four times the size of a typical prison cell and about one-fortieth the size of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Upper East Side townhouse.

The mayor gets a mention because micro-apartment zoning is also being considered in New York City, where the tiny domiciles are being beta tested. Bloomberg is a fan and in his long-term sustainability strategy for the city, called PlaNYC, he envisions 1 million more New Yorkers by 2030, clustered in micro-apartments on “new parkland” near public transit systems.

He is not unaware of the negative images some people have of tiny apartments and the fears they engender.

“The tenement problem was big families in very small (spaces),” Bloomberg said. “We're not talking about that. We're talking about one or two people who want something they can afford, and they don't entertain or need big space.”

The San Francisco plan was due to come up for a vote in July, got pushed back into August and has now been delayed until at least September while supporters scramble to find votes on the board to approve it. The ordinance has been rewritten to limit the relaxed restrictions to new construction, addressing concerns that landlords would chop up their current housing to rent more units. Another amendment put a two-person restriction on occupancy but made it clear larger families already living in small quarters won’t be evicted for violating the law retroactively.

Supporters of micro-apartments say they fill a demand in desirable areas for more housing, fit with public policy aimed at developing housing along mass transit lines, offer affordable housing to lower-income people and serve a population that is trending toward singe-person occupancy. In San Francisco, 41% of people live alone.

Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy says it also fulfills a dream of every college kid to live in a dormitory for the rest of their life. “That demographic cohort wants to continue their collegiate experience for an indefinite amount of time,” Kennedy told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I envision this as a launching space as they get established.”

Kennedy is working on a project that would offer shoebox apartments for $1,300-$1,500 a month, compared to the average San Francisco efficiency price of $2,075. Those studios average around 493 square feet, which works out to about $4.21 per square foot. Kennedy’s 220-square-foot ultra-efficiencies pencil out to between $5.91 and $6.82 per square foot, a huge premium for the developer.

And that huge profit, critics say, is behind the push for micros, which they call inhumane and exploitive of people who will have no choice but to live in spaces too tiny to thrive in. They worry that, despite occupancy restrictions, families will end up crammed into the apartments and attempts to provide more hospitable accommodations for low-income people will be short-circuited.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Plan to Shrink Minimum S.F. Apartment Size Hits Political Snag (by Chase Niesner, SF Public Press)

Micro-Apartments Next for S.F.? (by Carolyn Said, San Francisco Chronicle)

Agenda 21 Micro-Apartment Scheme Being Beta-Tested in NYC (by Susanne Posel, Occupy Corporatism)

New York City “Micro” Apartments Aim to be Cozy, Not Cramped (by Jonathan Allen, Reuters)

NYC Asking Developers to Test Tiny Apartments (by Samantha Gross, Associated Press)

In a Hot Climate, Rentals Shrink (by Michelle Higgins, New York Times)

Will Micro Apartments Go Macro? (by John Caulfield, Builder)

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