The thin line between quaint and claustrophobic.

As I've admitted before, I adore a great tiny home, an apartment or house so amazingly minimalist as to demand ingenuity in how people live, how we design furniture, how we conceive of a place. Tiny homes can be a space for brilliant innovation. They can make those of us just in it for eye candy reconsider what's truly essential in our own living spaces. They can also, on a practical level, help make city living more affordable for many people.

And then there is this tiny home, recently described in The New York Times within the "economic underbelly" of Hong Kong:

Twenty-two men live in this particular 450-square-foot apartment in the neighborhood of Mong Kok, in cubicles each hardly larger than a single bed, stacked above one another along two narrow passageways that end in a dank toilet and shower room.

Each cupboardlike cubicle has a sliding door, a small television, some shelves and a thin mattress. Most of the men have lived here for months, some for years.

At least 170,000 people in Hong Kong, the Times reports, live in a situation remarkably like this one. These are people so poor in a high-cost city that they can't afford the luxury of standing upright in their own homes.

An elderly resident poses in his cubicle in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

A staffer checks a column of lockers at a mini storage service provider inside an industrial building in Hong Kong. With more than half private dwellings now measuring less than 538 square feet, a cottage self-storage industry has mushroomed across Hong Kong, with industrial warehouses diced up into labyrinthine storage cubicles to cater for people whose lives have spilled beyond the walls of tiny homes. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)
CityLab 2013
Exploring urban solutions to global challenges
See full coverage

These kinds of tiny homes have existed for much longer than the current trend of "micro" apartments in American cities, a topic we're set to discuss next week at CityLab, The Atlantic's summit on city-level innovation. The micro apartments leaders in cities like New York are promoting tend to be chic and thoughtfully crafted to feel larger than they really are (and not necessarily all that affordable). The existence of dwellings like these in Hong Kong is a reminder that micro living can just as easily be not adorable at all.

It's a little hard, though, to pinpoint exactly where the tiny home market veers from intriguing to inhumane. Is it at 150 square feet? Is it when you can't afford the bespoke furniture? Certainly you're there when, as the Times describes, people live in "units fenced off with plasterboard or cagelike wire mesh" – features that evoke a zoo more than a residence.

Recently, it seems as if the Internet has been full of tiny homes that are more ambiguous: 100 square-foot living cubes in Japan, this 100 square-foot apartment in Harlem that's "barely bigger than a prison cell." I'm not sure how I feel about those last two examples, but they hardly evoke the same wonder as, say, this little guy.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Smoke from the fires hangs over Brazil.

    Why the Amazon Is on Fire

    The rash of wildfires now consuming the Amazon rainforest can be blamed on a host of human factors, from climate change to deforestation to Brazilian politics.

  2. a map of London Uber driver James Farrar's trip data.

    For Ride-Hailing Drivers, Data Is Power

    Uber drivers in Europe and the U.S. are fighting for access to their personal data. Whoever wins the lawsuit could get to reframe the terms of the gig economy.

  3. Fishing boats, with high rises on the banks and a mosque in the distance.

    Will Sea-Level Rise Claim Egypt’s Second-Largest City?

    Al-Max village in Alexandria was ruined by floods in 2015. Yet, despite climate change’s growing threat to the city, critics say it has scarcely been addressed.

  4. A photo-illustration of a map of San Francisco

    What Are the Maps That Make Us?

    Introducing a new CityLab series of personal essays on the power of maps in shaping our private and public lives.

  5. a photo of a BYD-built electric bus.

    A Car-Centric City Makes a Bid for a Better Bus System

    Indianapolis is set to unveil a potentially transformative all-electric bus rapid transit line, along with a host of major public transportation upgrades.