The development of micro-housing—apartments and other dwellings smaller than 300 square feet—is a growing trend in many popular cities cramped for space. But where in the country can you find the teeniest examples of this trend? Maybe not the cities you'd first guess.
Right now, the micro-unit leader in the U.S. is the city of Seattle. According to a story in Politico, this is namely thanks to developers like Jim Potter, who discovered a quirk of the city's zoning which allow them to build units much, much smaller than the typical Seattle apartment. Turns out that city code counts kitchens, not bedrooms when counting units. So Potter can pack 64 individual living spaces into a building which normally houses eight "units" by making the bedrooms (where people actually live) share a kitchen (which is the technical "unit"). We're talking micro-apartments as small as 90 square feet.
This is not a popular feature with critics in Seattle who think of Potter's developments like SROs (single room occupancy hotels) or boarding houses which signaled poverty and illicit activity at the turn of the last century. Last month, the city voted to institute a 200 square foot minimum for some new apartments.
Yet in fast-growing metropolises like Seattle, these extra-small micro-units (microscopic-units?) are not only tackling potential housing crises and helping downtowns densify, but also catering to a very specific demographic that cities are trying to attract. Eco-minded Millennials—who are flocking to city centers in higher numbers than ever—supposedly don't mind residing in buildings that feel more like the dorms they recently vacated. And really, who needs a kitchen anyway?
The U.S. is not leading the pack globally when it comes to micro-housing, of course. Japan, Hong Kong, and much of Europe have been doing tiny apartments better than us for years. But culturally we're moving in that direction: 28 percent of all American households were made up of single people in the 2010 census, a number that's been growing since the 1970s. So it is worth looking at how low some American cities can legally go (in square-footage terms) when it comes to building new housing. Here's your micro-unit breakdown across the U.S.A.
It's surprising indeed, but among large American cities, Seattle seems to be ruling the micro-housing race in the total numbers of micro-units built. With over 3,000 units constructed, some as small as 90 square feet (with shared kitchens), Seattle easily wins, although new zoning regulations might require bumping the minimum to 220 square feet.
Not surprisingly, the same developer transforming Seattle is also opening micro-unit developments in nearby Portland, using the same shared kitchen model. One building in the city's Northwest quadrant replaced a single family home with 56 units.
The micro-unit trend is being fully embraced by several supportive housing groups in LA, who are working to bring new architecture to formerly homeless residents. There are a handful of affordable housing projects in the city's downtown as well as in the neighboring city of Santa Monica that have units as small as 200 square feet.
For a city with probably the biggest housing crisis in the country, some relief might be in sight. The first micro-apartments in the city are finally under construction, with 160 units in SoMa serving as a kind of pilot program that plays with the city's "average minimum required area" for apartment buildings. The 220 square feet units are modeled after similar housing in Berkeley, which were originally designed for students.
As this Washington Post article details, DC has plenty of projects in the 250 to 400 square-foot range, some with the same shared kitchen and public spaces model as Seattle's successful developments. DC's city code minimum remains very low at 220 square feet, which opens the door for even smaller spaces.
The Arcade Providence transformed a 1828 shopping mall into residential space which now has the smallest apartments in the city, at 225 square feet. These micro-units built in downtown Providence are catering to students and artists, according to this Wall Street Journal article.
While there are no minimum square footage restrictions in the city code, there are plenty of other zoning issues that make micro-units unpopular with developers in Chicago. One development company is rehabbing former SROs. These studios average 350 square feet and can be as small as 275 square feet.
Boston's own housing crisis hasn't reached a fever pitch yet but the demand for smaller apartments is definitely there. The city's first microunit development is building 195 units at 350 square feet.
A battle is currently being waged in the Texas city to permit even smaller housing that what's currently being developed. An affordable housing project will open this fall in Austin's downtown with units that are only 400 square feet.
The legal minimum for the famously dense city is still 400 square feet (which may be news to some residents who live in much smaller spaces that were cordoned off before the code went into effect). Michael Bloomberg's administration held a competition in 2012 to design new, affordable units as small at 250 square feet for a specially zoned area of Kips Bay, in Manhattan. These haven't been built yet, however.
Photo: An apartment built in a storage unit