The first (and only) apartment I ever had all to myself in New York City was a 400-square-foot studio in a dilapidated tenement on a crummy block in Hell’s Kitchen. Junkies used the building’s cramped foyer to shoot up, my alcoholic next-door neighbor let his dogs poop in the narrow hallway, and one night, I heard someone getting shot just on the other side of the wall that separated my tiny garden from a parking lot.
Closing the door of my apartment behind me didn’t provide much of a sanctuary from all this madness. The kitchen was so awkwardly configured that you could barely open the oven door. Most of the floor space on the main room was taken up by a folding futon that was so hard to fold, I rarely bothered. The bathtub was square, and tiny enough that your knees practically touched your nose when you jammed yourself in there. And the whole joint was infested with cockroaches. It was a badly designed apartment in a badly designed building, and living there was kind of miserable.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that place as I took in the features of the LaunchPad, a 325-square-foot model apartment that is part of the “Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers” exhibit that just opened at the Museum of the City of New York.
This ship-shape little home, designed by Italian design firm Clei, Resource Furniture, and Amie Gross Architects, is a masterwork of folding and stacking necessities that manages to feel about twice as big as it is. There’s a bed that vanishes into the wall, an ottoman that converts into a coffee table with four seats, a tidy fold-down work station, a pull-out rolling dining table. The kitchen is spacious. The gorgeous bathroom has a full-size tub. And storage is everywhere. The woman who showed me around the space smiled triumphantly as she slid aside the flat-screen TV to reveal what she said was her favorite feature: an elegant glass-shelf bar.
The designers included the bar with the imaginary resident of the apartment in mind, a 20-something schoolteacher who would be able to afford the rental on this snug pad – if she could find it.
And there’s the problem. This fabulous little home, which was so enticing I half-wanted to jettison my family and move into one just like it, is prohibited by zoning regulations in most parts of the city. Those rules require apartments to be at least 400 square feet, even if the extra square footage, as my sad experience makes clear, doesn’t necessarily make for a decent place to live.
The exhibit focuses on the mismatch between the housing stock that is available in New York, much of it tailored for families with children, and the city’s actual population. A graphic on one wall explains that 33 percent of New Yorkers are single people who live alone, and at least 6 percent – a number that is probably significantly under-reported – are unrelated adults living together. Another 15 percent are couples with no kids. Only 18 percent are nuclear families with children under 25.
And yet studios and one-bedrooms are in perennially short supply. Among the primary reasons for the shortage: it’s expensive for builders to cover costs with smaller units, and many city rules further discourage their development.
"Making Room" makes the point that New York’s 20th-century regulations were designed to improve safety and health in the city’s dwelling-spaces at a time when large families were crowded into unventilated tenements. While they were much needed at the time, they have come to restrict housing choice for the city’s residents, especially those who live alone – a demographic that is only growing.
The situation has been made worse by the loss of several different housing types that traditionally catered to single people – women-only hotels, SROs, Bowery flophouses, and the like. And with some 600,000 new residents predicted to move to the city in the next 20 years, many of them young people just getting started in life, the housing shortage is only going to get worse.
Because regulations discourage the development of small apartments, many New Yorkers are living in illegal sublets, or jamming together in apartments that weren’t designed to hold so many people, again in violation of codes that prohibit more than three unrelated adults from living together.
The Bloomberg administration has acknowledged the problem with a design competition, adAPT NYC, that solicited proposals for micro-apartments. A group made up of Monadnock Development, Actors Fund Housing Development Corp. and nArchitects won the prize, and will be building a 55-unit apartment building in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood on land they bought from the city at reduced cost.
The city has waived zoning regulations at the site, allowing the construction of apartments ranging from 250 to 370 square feet, with ample common spaces throughout the building. The design looks pretty sweet. Twenty-two units will be set aside for what qualifies in Manhattan as “affordable housing,” with rents starting at $939.
You can see videos and renderings of the winning adAPT NYC design at “Making Room,” along with the runners-up. Also on display are videos and models of tiny apartments from around the world, including Hong Kong and Japan, where micro-living has been a necessity for generations.
Will New York law – and New Yorkers themselves – adapt to make living in such tiny apartments the norm, rather than an experimental exception? We’ll see. I only know how happy the younger, single me would have been to live in the LaunchPad or something like it.
All photos courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.