Policy Minute: The Potential for Small Unit Housing

April 12th 2018

City Street with text Policy Minute

As more people opt to live alone, cities around the country are reevaluating how well their existing housing stock is meeting the changing demands of their residents. Small units, often with shared living spaces, were once common in urban areas, but then fell out of favor. Today, local governments and housing advocates are once again considering whether small units are a viable option to meet the evolving needs of urban dwellers. 

This Policy Minute rounds up the latest research and perspectives on the contemporary debate surrounding small unit housing. 

By The Numbers 

  • Fewer U.S. households are living with a partner or with children: In 2014, over half of the U.S. population was living alone (28%), living in a couple without children (24%), or living with unrelated roommates (5%). Adults sharing housing with relatives made up another 12% of the population. Only 30% of the U.S. population was living with children (couple living with children [22%]; single person living with children [8%]). See CHPC’s The Making Room Household Model>>
  • One in three NYC households consisted of New Yorkers living alone: Approximately one-third (33%) of New York City households in 2015, or more than 1.01 million, were made up of single adults living alone. See NYU Furman Center’s 21st Century SROs White Paper>>
  • Many single-person households in NYC struggle to pay rent: More than 436,000 single adults living alone in NYC were rent-burdened in 2015 (meaning that they spent more than 30% of their income on housing costs), and more than 250,000 were severely rent-burdened (spending more than half of their income on housing costs). See NYU Furman Center’s 21st Century SROs Policy Brief >>


“Building Smaller: Can Small Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City?” View a panel hosted by the NYU Furman Center at NYU School of Law on February 21, 2018). Read more about the event or watch a recording >>



When America's Basic Housing Unit Was a Bed, Not a House, a visual story by Ariel Aberg-Riger (CityLab, February 22, 2018


NYU Furman Center Research 

While micro units and efficiencies with shared facilities could be a source of affordable housing in New York City, a number of barriers impede their creation. This 2018 report by the NYU Furman Center explores the viability of small units to help address New York City’s affordable housing need. The white paper and accompanying policy brief demonstrate the financial feasibility of small-unit housing and detail the regulatory barriers the city would need to address in order to spur their development. Read the policy brief or the white paper.

Smaller housing units can meet evolving housing needs in U.S. cities. This 2014 research brief and white paper from the NYU Furman Center outlines the regulatory, financial, and political barriers that impede the development of smaller, denser housing types in five U.S. urban areas—New York, Washington, D.C., Austin, Denver, and Seattle. Read the research brief or the white paper.


Other Research

Getting micro-units to market requires support of public regulatory authorities. Reporting from Architect Magazine discusses the challenges that zoning codes, design and construction regulations, and community reactions pose for developing micro-units in United States cities, concluding that “as lifestyle and cultural expectations evolve, building codes inevitably have to play catch up.” More>>

“Less than one-fifth of single-person renter households [in New York City] are able to rent a new studio unit affordably.” A new report in the Manhattan Institute’s Urban Policy Frontiers series describes a mismatch between the demands of New York City’s households and the supply of appropriately sized available rental units. The authors suggest that regulations should be amended in order to promote flexibility in housing options and to legalize currently illegal housing and ensure resident safety. More>>

What is the relationship between micro units and the sharing economy? In a Fordham Urban Law Journal article titled “Spaces for Sharing: Micro Units Amid the Shift from Ownership to Access,” John Infranca, Associate Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School, proposes that the sharing economy and changing preferences about ownership might contribute to the demand for smaller housing units. The article also suggests that cities should consider the how regulations for sharing economy services, such as car- or bike-sharing, might work in tandem with regulations for new residential development. More>> 

Other Viewpoints

What It Takes To Design NYC Micro-Apartments Fit for Families? by Tanay Warerkar (Curbed, February 23, 2018)

The Health Risks of Small Apartments? by Jacoba Urist (The Atlantic, December 19, 2013

New York Advocates See a Place for 21st-Century SROs by Josh Cohen (NextCity, February 27, 2018)



Webinar: Research Briefing on 21st Century SROs
The webinar briefing, which will take place on Wednesday, April 18th, from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. ET, will present the NYU Furman Center’s latest findings on small unit housing as a strategy to address affordable housing challenges. More >>

Exhibit: Making Room: Housing for a Changing America
This exhibit by Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC) at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. showcases innovative housing design solutions for meeting the evolving 21st-century needs of America's diverse households; on display through September 16, 2018. More >>


City Perspectives

Boston: Boston Micro-Apartments: A Brief History of the Trend
At the start of the decade, small units were looked to by the city and developers to help meet housing needs. But, when the city authorized the creation of small units, the new units didn’t materialize in the numbers that many had expected. More>>

Denver: Micro-Apartments in Converted Hotel Flip Sides for $31M
Turntable Studios, a hotel-to-residential conversion and one of the city’s first micro unit rental projects, sold last year for $31 million. The 179 units in the building average approximately 365 square feet. More>> 

Los Angeles: Micro-living in L.A.: Could You Live in Less Than 400 Sq. Feet?
Micro units are becoming more common in L.A., where they are now found in rehabbed older buildings and in new developments. In one downtown development, a 343 square foot micro unit rents for $1,915/month. More>>

New York City: Tiny Home Test Drive
The Carmel Place micro unit project, the first of its kind in the city, was the result of a 2013 small space competition sponsored by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). The building features 55 apartment units sized between 260 and 360 square feet. More>>

San Diego: City’s Long List of Regulations Prevents Smaller, Cheaper Apartments
Developers building small units face issues related to city regulations, such as parking minimums and mitigation fees tied to unit count, which add cost to projects. Still, a number of new affordable housing buildings with micro units have opened in recent years. The city is also grappling with the loss of SRO hotel units due to demolition and conversion. More here and here>>
San Francisco: Dorm Living for Professionals Comes to San Francisco
Developer Starcity is building dorm-style housing with shared bathrooms and kitchens and is anticipated to have thousands of units open in the Bay Area by 2019. The bedrooms range between 130 and 220 square feet. More>>

Seattle: How Seattle Killed Micro-Housing Again
Builders have used new techniques, such as modular construction, to develop numerous micro unit projects in the past five years. However, as the city implements its Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) strategies, it is contending with a number of issues related to small unit sizing and design. More here and here>>

Washington, D.C.: Life in a 375-Square-Foot Apartment
Several micro unit apartment and condominium buildings have recently opened in the nation’s capital, catering to tenants who choose desirable locations over larger unit sizes. More>>

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