Could You Live Here? As City Pushes For Smaller Apts, We Look at Life 300-sq.-ft. and Below

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City is pushing for even smaller apartments

Manhattan residents pride themselves on their creative uses of space. Using the oven for storage is an amateur move compared to the ingenuity of how some people make their tiny spaces work; lofted beds have become de rigueur. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg is planning on pushing New Yorkers' taste for confined spaces to the limit.

Last month, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) unveiled a scheme to construct what the city is calling micro-units, apartments designed to be 300 square feet or less.

HPD has launched a design competition called adAPT NYC, asking developers to submit proposals to create these miniscule living spaces. The winning bidder will be able to build on a city-owned site in Kips Bay; at least 75 percent of the units in the building, which will be at 335 E. 27th St., will be micro-units, between 275 and 300 square feet (half the size of a subway car), and will be reserved for one- or two-person households.

The city will have to waive current zoning regulations that require new apartments to be at least 400 square feet in order to build the apartments, but the mayor is hoping not only that it will work but can serve as a model for new buildings around the city. The units will be designed with efficiency in mind and will be situated for maximum exposure to light and air. They will also be kept at below-market rates, which for a studio in Manhattan is currently about $2,000.

"Everyone is excited to see the response to the RPF request for proposals] and what sort of creative designs and financial solutions are presented," said Mark Thompson, chair of Community Board 6, where the new building will be constructed. "There's been a lot of interest generated about the possibility of creating units that are below market rent."

Thompson said that while the project could be welcome in such a densely populated neighborhood with few vacant apartments, it will also depend very much on the price point of the units. If they're designed for people just starting out who can't otherwise afford their own apartment, close to $2,000 isn't going to cut it, he said.

There are, of course, the lucky few who rent apartments in Manhattan for well below market rent. Felicia McCoy lives in a cozy studio on West 104th Street. While she always thought she might one day move to a more spacious pad, the stabilized rent-currently $889-has kept her happily in place for 22 years.

"I'm trying to be a minimalist," said McCoy of not having a lot of space. "I'm also not home a lot, so I really don't care."

For McCoy, the tradeoffs of living in a small space-no place to put a proper table, stray papers quickly piling up in the middle of the room, a tight squeeze with visitors-are primarily worth it because of the price and location. Paying close to $2,000 for a potentially smaller space in Manhattan, even if it was a design and amenities upgrade, just doesn't appeal to her.

"I would move to the Bronx, like a friend of mine did," she said, before she'd pay more for a studio.

But real estate agents swear there will be people clamoring to get into the micro-units if they are priced even slightly below normal market rents.

"Prices are so high now; if [renters] want to live and work in Manhattan, they have no other alternatives," said Jason Haber, CEO of Rubicon Properties. He was standing with one of his agents, Eric Mendelsohn, in a tiny Upper West Side one-bedroom that rents for $1,975 a month. Haber and Mendelsohn said that the apartment, which is less than 500 square feet, would probably be snapped up soon because the lack of direct sunlight was offset by a dishwasher, an anomaly in a prewar building.

They both insisted that demand for micro-unit apartments in Manhattan will be high. The housing shortage practically guarantees that anything under $2,000 will be easy to rent, Haber said.

Mendelsohn said he works with a lot of recent college graduates who want to live in Manhattan, but their options are shrinking.

"There's a real housing shortage and there's not enough inventory," Mendelsohn said. "Many managing agents aren't allowing pressurized walls anymore," which young people commonly use to turn an out-of-their-price-range one-bedroom into a divided two-bedroom apartment they can share with a roommate, he explained. The micro-units would be perfect for many of his clients, he said.

Lower East Side resident Lisa Travnik was among the young professionals scouring Manhattan for an affordable place two years ago, and she snapped up a studio for less than $1,500, with a big sacrifice on space. Travnik lives in a 275-square-foot apartment; she is living proof of how people might exist in the forthcoming micro-units.

"My kitchen is a decent size, my bathroom is a normal size and it has fairly high ceilings," said Travnik. "Those are the things that make it livable."

Travnik's apartment, which she described as a "cozy cave" that doesn't get too much direct sunlight or cell signal, has its charms. The exposed brick and new kitchen appliances are bonuses, she said, as is the prime location in her neighborhood of choice. Her queen-sized bed-something she insisted on having, since she spends much of her time sitting on it-takes up most of her living space, but she has it strategically lifted to fit baskets underneath. Still, it's a challenge to keep it clutter-free, and it's not necessarily a bargain-basement price.

"Sometimes it seems like [a lot to pay] for how small it is. But I know that rents are going up. When I first got it, it felt like more," Travnik said. "For the area, it's pretty low."

Travnik hopes to stay at least another year in her place and thinks she's set it up to maximize the little room she has. She's become a de facto expert on storage, learning how to "store up" and utilize her vertical space and how to choose furniture pieces carefully to fit in exact spaces. She loves her apartment but can't imagine sharing it with another person. She did say, however, that in a more mindfully designed space, it could very well work.

Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist who studies how people's surroundings affect their mental well-being, agreed that design is a key factor in whether two people, or even just one, could thrive in a micro-unit. But more important than that, she said, is the element of choice.

"We need to feel like we're in control of our lives, including our physical world, and if people really get to choose to live in these apartments, they will feel better about the whole experience," she said. "If it turns out that everybody getting a certain kind of aid from the city is forced to live in these spaces, there will be some real unhappiness."

The city is positing that the micro-units can accommodate couples as well as singles, aiming to give more options to the 1.8 million one- and two-person households in New York. But can two people really co-exist in a space that small? Augustin said it truly depends on good design, as well as personality.

"All human beings need to be able to be alone to order their thoughts from time to time," Augustin said. "You can be alone in different ways. Two people can be alone in 300 square feet, if they can sit in ways that they don't see each other."

She said that something as simple as having two chairs back to back can facilitate the kind of privacy that most people think only comes from having a larger apartment with multiple rooms. But it also depends on the personalities of the people living there-the cramped space is probably not great for an introverted person to share with an extroverted one, for example.

Perception is also a key factor, she said.

"Someone comes from Hong Kong to the United States, [it's] not as dramatic [a change] as for someone who grew up in a great home in Chappaqua, a kid who grew up in that type of large home," Augustin said.

She suggested that painting the walls light colors, eliminating clutter and using vertical storage can all help make a simple small room into a welcoming home.

"When we have more clutter, our eyes catch on more stuff, it's quite difficult to survey our environment," she said.

All of these prescriptions for small living could be the way of the future, especially if the city continues to grow in population with a mind for environmentally conscious development. For some, any move toward providing more middle-range rental housing is urgently welcomed, even if the space is minimal.

"There is simply too much demand and not enough supply," said Haber. "And this is in a sluggish economy. Imagine if the economy picked up."

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