Micro-Apartments

Glenn Greenberg and Will Herbig were living in a 650-square-foot condominium in Dupont Circle, a hip neighborhood in Washington, D.C., when water damage forced them to leave. They moved into a micro-apartment in a new building a few blocks away, The Drake, and loved it. Even when their condo was habitable again, they decided to sell it and stay in their 450-square-foot studio.

“To us, it was more than the studio space,” said Greenwood. “It was the public space in the building as well.”

That’s part of the appeal of micro-apartments. To the residents, it feels like a worthwhile tradeoff, with a smaller private space but large shared amenities. The Drake has a spacious roof deck with expansive city views, a shared work space for residents who work from home, and a communal kitchen and dining room for those who want to host a dinner party. The management puts on community events for the residents. For a certain type of tenant, it’s an ideal situation.

“The small unit forces you to get out,” said Greenberg. “In the lobby, they had coffee and tea every day. You’re there and you meet people as well.”

What exactly is a micro-apartment? A 2014 Urban Land Institute report, “The Macro View on Micro Units,” noted that a micro-unit has no standard definition but offered this working definition: “a small studio apartment, typically less than 350 square feet, with a fully functioning and accessibility-compliant kitchen and bathroom.”

Greenberg and Herbig’s apartment would be too big to fit that definition. Wynwood 25, a micro-apartment building planned in Miami to open next summer, will have studios as big as 500 square feet. The standard size for a conventional studio is 750 square feet, said Jon Paul Perez, vice president of the Related Group, who is developing Wynwood 25 to add to his portfolio of conventional apartments.

What makes a unit micro depends on the market, said Rohit Anand, principal at KTGY Architecture + Planning, Tysons Corner, Va.

“In Dallas, 500 square feet might be a micro-unit,” Anand said. “In coast cities, it could be 350 square feet.”

Why build micros?

Developers describe micro-apartments as a response to the high cost of housing in coastal cities such as Washington, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia. And it’s not just on the coast. There’s a mixed-use development, The Exchange, planned to open in Salt Lake City in 2020, that will include micro-units. The Salt Lake City Council last year declared an affordable housing crisis for the city, with downtown studio apartments renting for $1,100 a month. Those in the Exchange will be close to half of that.

In Washington, Keener-Squire Properties, a large area developer, started planning The Drake in 2010.

“We had a lot of older buildings that had smaller apartments,” said Michael Korns, partner at Keener-Squire. The rents were more reasonable, allowing young residents to rent a place in desirable, but otherwise prohibitively expensive, urban locations. “We realized if we had the opportunity to build the building we wanted to, we could build the units with the floorplan we wanted.”

In 2014, Keener-Squire opened The Drake and The Harper, on 14th Street NW, a recently revitalized neighborhood that attracts young professionals. The Drake has a mixture of micros and regular sized apartments, and The Harper is all micros.

Korns doesn’t like the term micro-apartment.

“It makes it sound like not a real apartment,” he said. “These are nicely appointed and finished, and they’re more affordable than other alternatives in that area.” A studio in either The Harper or The Drake rents for $1,950 a month for 320 square feet. More expensive units are $2,450 for 430 square feet.

Another difference from conventional apartment buildings is related to density and the local market. The Drake and The Harper have only 56 parking spaces for 218 units and 36 parking spaces for 144 units, respectively, and even those spaces are not all used by residents. Retailers and employees rent some of the spaces. In Washington, many young people who live downtown don’t have cars. That would not work in every city.

Miami builds its first micro-apartments

In Miami, “everyone has a car,” said Perez. Still, city regulations require micro-apartments to have one parking space each versus 1.5 spaces per regular sized apartment.

Like Korns, Perez sees his two micro-developments scheduled to open later this year, Wynwood 25 and The Bradley, as a way to bring down rental costs. They will be the city’s first micro-developments, with The Bradley all micro-units and Wynwood 25 having a higher than usual percentage of studios and one bedrooms.

“Miami is one of the more expensive cities for housing costs as a percent of income,” Perez said. His micro-units will rent in the range of $3.00-plus per square foot, comparable to or less than larger new apartments in the city. But the rent per unit will be lower. A 600-square-foot unit in The Bradley will rent for $1,800.

The Wynwood neighborhood, where both developments are located, is a cutting edge, artsy part of town. For the type of residents who gravitate to micro-apartments, young professionals just starting their career, Wynwood is “where they spend their time outside of work,” said Perez, “the bars, restaurants and art galleries.”

Said Anand, who has designed many micro-developments, residents “are not spending as much time within their dwelling unit. The neighborhood is the amenity.”

But developers like Korns and Perez who offer luxury micro-units say relying on the attractions of the neighborhood is not enough.

“You also want to make sure you provide amenities at the building,” Perez said. “They’re going to be used a lot more than if you have a 2,000- or 3,000-square-foot apartment to hang out in.

“People are going to need a place for work stations, a place to watch football games, big grilling areas where they can invite friends over, have big dinner parties, extra lounge chairs by the pool,” he said.

Higher cost to build, but helpful in competitive market

What are the pros and cons of micro-units for developers?

“They’re somewhat more expensive to build and operate because they have more kitchens and bathrooms,” said Korns. “You’re leasing more apartments in the same number of square feet, so you have to staff it accordingly.

On the upside, “hopefully you can appeal to more people because of the more affordable price.”

Although the cost to build is a bit higher, “the financial benefit is about the same as a regular size apartment,” said Perez. “It allows you to make sense of the deals in a highly competitive rental market.”

Perez is also planning Miami’s first micro-condos, in a building to be called Wynwood 29. He is still analyzing the market, but he sees it as “another way to tackle the affordability issue.”

“A younger person a couple of years out of college can’t afford a $200,000 to $300,000 apartment,” Perez said. “In Miami, we now require a 50-percent down payment” since the end of the recession when building started again in 2010. A first-time buyer generally does not have a $100,000 down payment.

Inside the unit

Designing a micro-apartment is a particular challenge for the architect. Different developers have different ideas of what they want. Some may want the type of ingenious design seen on TV design shows, with a loft bed stored out of sight above a couch.

For The Drake, Keener Squire asked architect Steve Dickens to figure out “how small in square footage a unit could be and still be fully functional,” said Dickens. He is senior associate at Eric Colbert and Associates in Washington, D.C. Working with Keener Squire’s construction division, for example, Dickens determined through trial and error that the optimal minimal size for a bed niche was the size of a queen size bed plus 20 inches on either side.

One of the hardest parts was designing each unit to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing standards, Dickens said. Because of the accessibility requirements, “the bathrooms seemed somewhere between normal and even gracious.” But those requirements also meant “you didn’t even have half an inch before something could be off,” he said.

Because units are closer together than in a regular apartment building, soundproofing in the floors, walls and ceilings is crucial, Dickens said. In a micro-unit, “if you hear your neighbor’s TV you can’t escape it” by going to another room.

Solution to affordable housing

Not all micro-units are luxury apartments. Some are built as affordable housing. In San Francisco, Patrick Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests has designed CitySpaces® Micro- PADs® (pre-fab affordable dwelling) — a steel modular home specifically designed to meet the needs of homeless people. Each 160-square-foot unit has a bath and kitchenette and meets Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing Code requirements. Using city money, the MicroPADs are erected inexpensively and quickly.

“There’s no definition of micro-unit, legal or industry,” said Dickens. “It’s an open question; is there a difference between a very small apartment and a micro-unit? The difference to me is that a micro-unit implies a lot of forethought, programming and design as well a construction character and quality that optimizes a very small apartment. That’s the distinction, where there’s a real concerted effort to optimize the space.”

Greenberg and Herbig had a similar experience when they were tenants.

“When you live small, it forces you to edit everything in your life,” said Greenberg. “It’s a freeing feeling to be disciplined.”

Joan Mooney is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., who wrote the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® Water Infrastructure Toolkit.

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