By Sarah Trefethen
When Rory Bolger moved to Manhattan in 2004, he, like many newcomers before and since, was startled by the challenge of finding housing in Manhattan.
“I thought I was going to have to live above 125th Street,” he says.
Instead, he found a place to call home for just under $1,500 on 87th and Columbus, in the heart of the Upper West Side.
The catch: the entire apartment was just 375 s/f.
At first, he says, “it was very hard to visualize how I was going to live there without killing myself.” But with the right furniture and a little creativity, he stayed comfortably for four years.
And when he finally left, Bolger, a senior associate and CitiHabitats, sold the co-op for his former landlord.
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last week that the city will sponsor a competition for developers to build a development of 300 s/f “micro-apartments” on city-owned land, some people wondered if anyone would ever want to live in such cramped quarters.
But brokers familiar with the wants and needs of Manhattan’s house-hunting singles are adamant the mayor has it right, and — with a little attention to design — tiny apartments could help fill a huge demand. “If they build it, we can sell it or rent it,” said William Moye, a sales and leasing broker at Bond New York.
New York City has more residents today than at any time in history, and experts expect the growth to continue over the coming decades.
New York County [Manhattan] is the most densely populated county in the United States, and one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with a 2010 population of 1,585,873 living in a land area of 22.96 square miles, according to the most recent census.
That’s 69,464 residents per square mile more dense than any individual American city.
It is also one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, with a 2005 per capita income above $100,000.
“They’re talking about the city getting to 10 million people, and how are we going to do that?” Moye asked. “Obviously, some people are going to move to Brooklyn, but other people are still going to want to live in Manhattan.”
At the same time, living in small spaces in New York is nothing new.
“Landlords, as we know, have cut up spaces in all kind of ways and people will still rent them,” said John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute. “In New York, you don’t live in your apartment; you live out of your apartment. You live in the city, that’s really what you’re buying.”
Young people new to the city are obvious candidates for compact accommodations, he said, but small, affordable studios could also be a boon for older people struggling to pay and care for a larger apartment.
“Seniors are living longer and longer, they’re going to have more financial burdens. You can obviously move to Iowa, but if you’ve lived in New York your whole life, you don’t want to move,” McIlwain said.
The days of Bolger’s $1,500 per month studio are long gone, brokers say. You’d be lucky to rent anything in Manhattan, no matter how small, for less than $2,000. And the demand that has driven up rents is not limited to rentals.
“I thing for sale in particular there’s a huge demand that’s not being addressed,” says Jeff Schleider, managing director of Miron Properties. Schleider, a green building enthusiast, cites the lower environmental impact of small apartments as another benefit.
If the experiment announced last week is deemed successful, the city says it will loosen regulations to allow developers to building more tiny apartments.
Bloomburg announced the contest at a press contest at the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“The design ideas are what got us intrigued, what got me intrigued,” says Rick Bell, executive director of AIANY, adding that the mocked-up floor plan in which the mayor announced the contest — images that were widely distributed in the city’s news media — was “a provocation,” rather than a proposal. “I think we’re going to see with the RFP a whole lot of more creative thoughts.”
Thoughtful and innovative design will be an essential component of the project.
Common space, from laundry and fitness rooms to an area where residents can read and socialize, is important for people living alone in small quarters, those interviewed for this article agree. McIlwain even suggests a shared kitchen area to augment limited studio facilities.
Inside the spaces, some of the features residents might look for are high ceilings, large windows, and a floor plan that allows some feeling of separation between the kitchen and sleeping areas.
“Nobody wants to feel like they can roll out of bed and open the fridge,” Bolger says.