Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
“Kasita” promises super-small apartment units that can be moved to other cities. It’s a housing solution in search of a problem.
There’s a lot to like about Kasita, a micro-modern-modular apartment building coming up in the heart of Texas. The units are 208 square feet in size: teeny-tiny, but these days, less is more. Especially in Austin, where the population as a whole is booming but where families with children are leaving the urban core in droves. To help singles squeeze their lives into such small spaces, Kasita boasts tons of interior-design bells and whistles, from modular “tile” shelving to various networked-home features.
And then there’s Professor Dumpster, aka Jeff Wilson, the former dean of Huston-Tillotson University who once made his home in a 33-square-foot dumpster as a teaching exercise. He’s the brain behind Kasita, and he’s assembled a diverse team of designers and executives to build his dream in Austin and at least nine other cities. Kasita has raised at least $645,000 in private investment so far (and more is promised).
But Kasita also raises two questions. And on these points, the project risks running awry.
The first concern is, unfortunately, key to the whole Kasita concept: The prefab housing units are all micro-modular units. They can be moved from one city to another, presuming there is a vacancy in the destination Kasita. Think of them as modular storage drawers that you might buy from the Container Store (but much cooler looking).
It’s a solution in search of a problem. Sure, moving’s a pain in the ass. The micro-modular unit doesn’t get you out of moving, though. It just makes the process that much more difficult. A resident who lives on the third floor of Kasita is going to need a crane or a truck to get her pod down and on to the truck that will carry the pod to its next location. It’s bound to be less expensive to hire two movers for an hour—how much can it cost to pack up a 200-square-foot apartment?—or do it the old-fashioned way by paying friends for their labor with beer and pizza.
“Request a move across town or across the country with a tap on your phone,” the site reads. But who would ever do this? The tech triumphalism is off-putting. Moving is stressful because it’s important. It’s supposed to be stressful. And broadly speaking, permanent housing isn’t something that begs for branding across cities, like hotel chains or Lyft.
The second issue is the cost. Dumpster/Wilson has said that the units will rent for $600. The company has two lots in downtown Austin, where rents go for much more. Rents downtown range from around $900 to more than $2,000. Depending on where the Kasita lots are located, the median rental housing cost might be more than three times the asking rate for a Kasita unit. (I’ve emailed the Kasita team to ask about the location and will update when I get answers back.)
There’s a popular misconception that modular housing necessarily means cheaper housing. The high costs of housing aren’t driven by the manufacture of homes. They’re driven by the high price of land in places like Austin, one of the finest cities on this planet (and my former home). In a city where Millennial residents are allegedly holing up in “stealth dorms” in order to escape high rents, the queue for a $600 downtown apartment—even an utterly tiny one—would run like the endless line to Franklin’s on a sunny Saturday during SXSW. The same goes for Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and other cities where Kasita plans to expand. After all, here’s what $600 gets you in Bushwick.
“Through partnerships with local entities, Kasita will rent units at about half the market rate of a studio apartment,” the website reads. Maybe that will work. Call me skeptical.
There is a solution to high rents in Austin, though—and it’s staring us right in the face: The rendering of Kasita depicts in the background various types of housing in the Live Music Capital of the World, including tall residential towers, several of which have gone up in the city in recent years. More buildings like these, with a greater variety of unit sizes and formats—and, crucially, the zoning that allows for high-density residential construction—is just what the doctor ordered.