The Claustrophobia of Micro-Apartment Living

Sure, tiny spaces look cool. But would you actually want to live in one?

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Museum of the City of New York

The smallest apartment I have lived in was technically a double-occupancy room of about 250 square feet. It had been chiseled out of what was once a single with a private bathroom, on a hall shared with other Columbia-affiliates in Morningside Heights. My roommate and I agreed that, because I kept later hours, I would inhabit the "second room," which was actually just a narrow hallway leading to the bathroom. My share of the space was not closed off from hers, which is lucky, because otherwise there would have been even less air circulation. My domain fit only a twin bed, shoved against the wall beside a piping hot radiator, and a small desk. To get to the bathroom, my roommate had to walk sideways past my bed; if I was seated at my desk, I had to get up, push in the chair, and step back to clear a path. 

This will be fine, I thought, I am a small person, how much space do I really need? 

But of course, the size of one’s apartment is not so much about real estate as it is about breathing room for the mind. Precious personal space. And if your mind gets too cramped, you will start to lose it. 

Within a couple of months, I began to test all the different ways I could reach out and touch each wall from a central point. I scraped down postcards with my toes while I was reading in bed. When winter came, and the radiator pipe got fiery hot, I had to contort my body sideways to crack the window, which let in all the noise from Broadway. The cacophony of the street, which would only increase in volume as the night progressed, was so disturbing that it made me crabby, and then resentful. The conditions of my apartment had made me so crotchety at such a tender age.

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The environment weighs heavily on New York City—not only during a catastrophic hurricane or a blistering snowstorm, but also with every day heat waves and cockroach infestations, not to mention the street cart smell that wafts through your window and the wailing soprano who lives downstairs. In a city, where any single person has little control over their surroundings, one’s apartment is the promised refuge of sovereignty. As it turns out, all these elements can make a tiny apartment feel less like one’s home than the hole of a hollowed out tree in a very big and hostile forest.

Still, most people are willing to put up with a lot for a slice of New York real estate. At an open house, a realtor once defended the price of a modestly-sized two-bedroom by saying, "People will sleep standing up to live in the Village." Most New Yorkers have had to settle into tight places, and while I can laugh it off and move out after a year (to another apartment, only slightly larger), small apartments, overcrowded apartments, inhospitable apartments are a constant. They often result, as mine did, from landlords trying to squeeze out every inch of inhabitable space, in order to charge as many tenants as much as possible. This usually affects desperate apartment-seekers the most. The ones who are struggling even just a little bit more than that might get pushed out—to a less cared for building, farther away from work and school, or onto the street.

But claustrophobic habitation may be coming into vogue. Mayor Bloomberg is an advocate of micro-living, at least in theory, which he championed during the opening of “Making Room,” a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. Like him, I took a tour of a 325 square foot residence—the winning micro-unit design of the city’s adAPT housing competition—and delighted in its clever pockets of storage and "The Swing 000 Wall Bed," which folds up when company is coming. Guests walking through one afternoon inspected the model home’s layout and craftsmanship, as if it were on display for move-in on the first of the month.

Printed on a gallery wall was the message, "With unmet demand for more housing choices growing, many people are turning to an improvised housing market, often resulting in inappropriate, illegal, and dangerous living situations." Next to this was a monitor showing a loop of desperate Craigslist postings, fading in and out, like a screensaver of apartment mug shots.

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There are many good reasons why tiny apartments are good from a city planning point of view: they are efficient, cost-effective, and accommodate growing populations. Almost half of the people living in New York City are single adults, but one-bedrooms and studios account for only 1.5 percent of the rental housing stock. And the population keeps getting bigger.

"Making Room" makes note of the fact that San Francisco and Providence already allow developers to build micro-units, and Japan and Hong Kong are well known for their small dwellings. But this can be taken to a disturbing extreme. Last week, the Associated Press reported that, for some of Hong Kong’s poorest residents, a small home is, quite literally, a metal cage, for which they pay the equivalent of $167 a month. Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, told the AP, “Cramped living space in cage homes, cubicle apartments and sub-divided flats has become the reluctant choice for tens of thousands of Hong Kong people.”

It’s impossible to imagine living under such conditions, much less shelling out rent for it. The standards of what makes a home habitable can vary widely, but what’s humane stretches only to a point. (“Billennium,” a story written by J.G. Ballard in 1962, carries this question to its dystopian end: the home becomes a cell.) In plotting out housing plans for cities, though, we may wonder where to draw the line: how much space is ideal, how much can be spared? And how much can we tolerate, for the sake of participating in that great big metropolitan world?

The micro-home set up at the museum will be constructed as part of New York City’s first micro-apartment building (officially, anyway). Forty percent of the fifty-five units—all between 250 and 370 square feet—will be offered as affordable housing. The most eager renters will likely be young people with modest incomes, who don’t mind the idea of a pull-down bed, and who are enticed by the promise of a rooftop garden. Shared spaces like this are a key aspect of micro-living, because they cut back on the square footage needed for so many private rooms. And when individual space is limited, residents can become more intimately connected to the rest of their building. Given the constraints of a tiny apartment, you take stock of your position among the company of neighbors.

A tiny apartment forces you out of it, squeezing you from your private quarters into public spaces. Which can be both an attraction and a drawback of urban life: a city is not for shutting yourself in your apartment, no matter the size. A city is where you retreat outside.

About the Author

  • Betsy Morais is an editorial assistant at The New Yorker.