Jen Doll is a former staff writer for The Wire. She is the author of Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.
By endorsing smaller and smaller living spaces, are we creating a world in which only the very wealthy can live in anything more than sardine-can habitats?
If there's one real estate thing glass-half-full people enjoy marveling over and glass-half-empty types love to judge and condemn, it's tiny, tiny apartments. On one side, those who love them shout that these apartments are more affordable, can be cozy, while New York City, not your living room, can serve as your living room. On the other, the dissenters demand to know: How can people live like animals, as if caged, and isn't this inhuman, or inhumane? Thus, we should move to Montana, obviously; where there is plenty of room to roam.
But while everyone talks, the tiny apartments are happening anyway, existing and being rented and lived in and even sometimes loved. Since July, when Mayor Bloomberg unveiled his architecture competition to design new "micro" apartments averaging 275 to 300 square feet in Kips Bay in Manhattan, the conversation ratcheted up again. No longer were these places to be the off-the-cuff little habitats imagined by real-estate-creative residents, who might convert stoves into dresser drawers or windowsills into closets as needed. Nor would they, more malevolently, be created by sneaky/greedy landlords. These were living spaces proposed, endorsed, and supported by billionaire Mayor Bloomberg. This means that more people are angrier about them, as if the city is forcing folks to live in tiny places, shoe boxes, even! (The mayor, who lives on East 79th Street when he's in town, has more than 7,000 square feet at his own residence.)
In recent weeks, another round of this discussion arose from the pages of the New York Times, where the piece "Shrink to Fit: Living Large in Tiny Spaces" appeared, featuring several New Yorkers in sub-300- (and even sub-200-) square-foot abodes. Writer Jan Hoffman linked the story to Bloomberg's micro-units proposal, saying that while those 275- to 300- square-foot spaces seemed nuts to a lot of people, "an apartment of that size sounded crazy-huge," to others, who are already living smaller. "There is extensive precedent for living tiny and tranquilly in Manhattan," Hoffman writes. Take Gab Stolarski, who keeps sweaters in the kitchen cabinets of her 170-square-foot West Village space that costs her $1,745 a month; Lauren Applebaum, who lives with her Yorkie in a 200-square-foot apartment and says extra space is unnecessary; or 6-foot 4-inch tall J. Michael Moore, who moved from a 700-square-foot apartment to a studio that's only 225 square feet (and he lives and works in it).
This is only one tiny piece of an affordable housing conversation, though. When we talk about small living spaces as proposed by Bloomberg or reflected in a New York Times piece, we're generally talking about people who could do otherwise and have decided not to. If you want to pay $1,800 for a 200-square-foot Manhattan studio and you like it, what's wrong with that? This doesn't get at more worrying concerns, like about residents being pushed out of neighborhoods they've lived in for generations because housing there has increased in value. Still, these teensy studios rented by those with at least some money are the most dramatic, picturesque example of tiny housing we get, and we keep getting them, as symbolic of gentrification or next-level urbanization, perhaps, but also maybe as a warning, a look at what-we-are-becoming: Do we want to be that? Maybe that's because there is choice involved. Are the decreasing and now city-approved tiny spaces just a slippery slope to an urban existence in which only the very wealthy can live in anything more than sardine-can-esque habitats, and where, most concerningly to some, that's OK with everyone? The defenders say it's just great to live in wee spaces, and, look, even couples can do it! Here's how you decorate, and aren't they so easy to keep clean? Simple is beautiful! But in these conversations we're still talking about people with the option to pay nearly $2000 a month in rent. That's just one (tiny) part of the affordable housing discussion, with the people who can't afford that often unable to afford the smallest of (albeit Manhattan) housing.
There are words you tend to get with any discussion of small apartments. Aside from cozy there's haven, liberating, charming, cute, simplicity,and utility, not to mention catlike and solitude and peace. That doesn't mean there aren't negatives, or adjustments, particularly with cohabiting. Kittie Lonsdale, who for 10 days a month shares her 225-square-foot studio in Tudor City with her husband, who lives the rest of the time in Dallas, tells Hoffman, "But living here as a couple, it’s like a dance: you both have to know the steps. You have to orchestrate your moves ... On Saturdays, if we both get work calls, one of us has to take theirs into the bathroom."
"It requires work to live small," said one design expert to Hoffman. Nonetheless, some took this latest in the chain of articles on the subject to be nothing more than a bunch of small-space promotion and left indignant comments. An unexpected power of tiny spaces: They may serve to threaten those who live in bigger ones, or make them feel the need to defend their own life choices. For example, from one commenter, PJ of NY, on the story:
Life's too short for this nonsense. A $100,000 income elsewhere will get you a great 4,000 sq foot home with a quarter-plus acre for a family of 6, incredible schools, 2-3 cars, a Harley, bikes, trips into the city (if you want), a couple vacations a year, and contentment that gives you true satisfaction and peace. Enjoy your sardine can!
Of course, if you're choosing to live in New York, you probably know these things and live here regardless for any number of reasons. And if you live elsewhere, you know that, too. To each his own—fortunately, there's a lot of varying real estate in the world to choose from. Some of those in sardine cans do appear to like them.
Another commenter, JCuevas of San Francisco, wrote that this is not a problem exclusive to New York, and adds that this brings up a lot of other questions about how we live and how we will continue to evolve in our living situations: "I laughed at the snarky comments about Bloomberg, and I appreciate the sentiment, but here in San Francisco, where rents are also Manhattan-like, the same trend is happening without a gazillionaire mayor. The bottom line is that we're running out of space on our small peninsula, but people want to live and work here and to avoid long commutes from the suburbs. What's interesting to me, and was barely touched on in this article, is that micro-apartments are really a new alternative to having several roommates. Does the trend mean that this generation is less willing to live with others? Or has the need/desire for these solitary spaces been there all along, while the micro-apartment solution was not?" This makes me think of Eric Klinenberg's research on singles living alone, and how more of us than ever are doing that, even as some people choose to live in much larger spaces, with roommates, into their forties.
But bringing it back to Bloomberg and the micro-units plan, Hoffman writes that the city has gotten 33 proposals for the building of those tiny Kips Bay studios, with the winner to be announced in December and the itsy-bitsy "groundbreaking planned, fingers crossed, for December 2013." As we await the flurry of commentary and criticism that will surely come with that, here is one thing we can agree on with regard to small apartments: We all want to look at the pictures. (And here are some more.)
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic Wire.