Micro-Life: Phantom Health Risks of Small Apartments - Rent Week


By Sophia Polin

Photo by Hans Braxmeier.

“Micro-apartments” are already cropped up in densely populated regions around Europe and Asia. Now they’re coming to New York, allegedly to provide affordable and compact living spaces for singles and young professionals.

Developers have endorsed micro apartments for years. Sarah Watson of New York’s City Housing and Planning Council believes it’s sensible to build such dense, affordable properties, as they benefit both the tenants and the greater urban dynamics.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg agrees.

“This is the first step that we’re taking to try to find a solution,” Bloomberg announced at a conference in January 2013. He was referring to “adAPT,” a design contest held by New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The winning team of architects and developers, comprised of Monadnock Development LLC, Actors Fund Housing Development Corp., and nARCHITECTS, is collaborating on the My Micro NY project. Their goal is construct a three-tiered building on 335 East 27th St with a post-Bauhaus exterior that holds 55 prefabricated micro apartments.

The prefab units within range from 250 to 370 square feet, which is less space than the smallest legal studio of New York’s past. Most of the tiny homes consist of one room and a bathroom (which, despite all odds, are wheelchair accessible). The main room contains a combination love seat/Murphy bed, along with a dining table that can be wheeled and concealed under the kitchen counter. There’s also a flat-screen TV which slides into a built-in shelving unit when not in use. A coffee table doubles as a bench, a kitchen chair doubles as a step stool.

For the micro resident, multi-functionality is key. So is utilizing the building’s communal spaces. The building at 335 E 27th St has bicycle storage, an indoor gym, a roof deck and garden, along with shared recreational areas on each floor. Personal space lost is shared space gained.

Such a system, developers think, is what young renters will pay for. Rent ranges from $940 to $1,800 per month, depending on the square footage of the apartment. The price tag is low for Kips Bay, where the NYC micro apartment complex is located.

Urbanites worldwide speculate about the effects of these efficient micro complexes. Some fear that too many people living in close capacity is dangerous. Others are concerned that the transience of youthful communities will cause economic instabilities for their surrounding districts. Residents of a neighborhood in Vancouver, Canada protest the micro apartment complex that was once a single resident occupancy building. Affordability should be granted to those who need it rather than the young creative class, they argue.

A year after the adAPT winner was announced, New Yorkers finally posed the pressing question: how small is too small?

In December 2013, The Atlantic published an article that questioned the effects of micro-dwellings on residents’ mental health. Subsequently, smaller publications posted about the subject with sensationalized headlines such as, “Micro-apartments could make you ‘crazy'” and “Size DOES matter: ‘micro-apartments’ may be linked to psychological problems, as well as DOMESTIC VIOLENCE and SUBSTANCE ABUSE, experts warn.”

Dak Kopec and Susan Saegert, professors of Environmental Psychology at Boston Architectural College and the CUNY Graduate Center respectively, both gave brief statements on the psychological impacts of crowding and compact living spaces.

“Sure, these micro-apartments may be fantastic for young professionals in their twenties,” Kopec told The Atlantic, “but they can definitely be unhealthy for older people, say in their thirties and forties, who face different stress factors that can make tight living conditions a problem.”

On behalf of her area of psychological expertise, Saegert stated, “I’ve studied children in crowded apartments and low-income housing a lot, and they can end up becoming withdrawn, and have trouble studying and concentrating.”

The article doesn’t hesitate to angle the issue as a ruse, being a collaboration between a careless government and opportunistic developers. Although it does acknowledge that Professor Saegert “agrees that micro apartments will likely be a welcome choice for young New Yorkers,” she is explicitly quoted pointing out that it is “something a developer could do in a neighborhood like DUMBO and make a lot of money.”

These kind of developments, she says, will raise the “ground rent” of the areas they occupy, driving market values up and longtime residents out. As all development does. Real estate, however, is not Saegert’s area of expertise, as “micro maker” Adam Hengels points out in a response to the article.

He wrote:

“Why does The Atlantic allow a professor of psychology to make an economic argument? This makes me wonder if the intent was to have unbiased discussion of health issues, or draw skepticism towards micro-apartments.”

He also reminds us that micro-apartments aren’t meant for families at all. They’re for young professionals who choose to sacrifice space for affordability.

How small is too small for you?