Here’s the Real Deal on the Micro-Housing Trend

Is micro-housing an affordable solution in pricey urban areas or is it making the problem worse?

To some housing visionaries, micro-housing promises a possible solution for affordable urban housing. So how come a 420-square-foot New York City co-op is on the market for $1 million?

Micro apartment interior

That’s $2,369 per square foot — 33% more than the average for SoHo ($1,600).

Micro apartment exterior

One reason it’s pricey is because the owner, “Life Edited” founder Graham Hill, spent $365,000 on custom modifications, like a collapsible dining table that seats 10.

Micro dinner party

And a bathroom, with “double doors and heavy-duty insulation,” that does double duty as a “meditation/phone room.”

Meditation room and toilet

But expensive micro-housing isn’t just an NYC phenomenon. It’s popping up in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and elsewhere. A 278-square-foot condo in San Fran’s SoMa neighborhood sold for $335,000 in 2014. That’s 33% more than the area’s average price per square foot.

Micro housing san francisco

Still, micro-housing is well-intentioned. Hill of “Life Edited” renovated the NYC co-op to promote his message that you can “live large in small spaces [and] have a fulfilling life that allows you to live within your means financially and environmentally.”

But is micro-living realistic? Sure, micro-rentals are often more affordable than larger spaces (a San Fran studio might rent for $2,500; a micro-unit for $1,600). But that’s still pricey. In fact, some opponents say micro-housing is geared to the top 30% of earners (in particular, working singles), not struggling folks who need affordable housing options.

Skyline and fence

Then there’s the potential domino effect. In Seattle, some housing experts warn that inflated rents for micro-units are inciting building owners to raise prices on bigger spaces.

Seattle skyline

Finally, what about actually “living” in a home that’s usually smaller than a studio — that is, well under 400 square feet?

Micro apartment sink

It’s one thing to live in a tiny house, like the Berzins, who live in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. “We wanted to cut back on our overhead and … own what we live in outright,” says matriarch Hari.

Berzins' tiny house

But there’s a world of difference between a tiny house and an urban micro-unit. Tiny houses are inexpensive to build — averaging about $25,000 to $30,000, according to tiny house aficionados and builders. And owners usually locate them where they can expand their living area with outdoor space.

Tiny house exterior

Instead of being a sanctuary, a micro-unit can be claustrophobic, say designers and psychologists. Over time, you might resent the cool, built-in, space-saving features that you have to pull out, put away, and pack up daily. 

Micro apartment bunk beds

Micro-housing may also have an adverse impact on neighborhood stability because it contributes to overcrowding. Years ago, cities banned micro-housing, then called single-room occupancy, which had resulted in substandard living for middle-class urbanites, transient workers, and poor families. Building codes later ensured people had more space. Are we going backwards?

Clotheslines between apartments

Image Credits
1-4, 8, 11:
5: The San Francisco Association of REALTORS®
6: Vincent Desjardins via Flickr
7: Rattlhed/Wikipedia
9: Hari Berzins,
10: Tennessee Tiny Homes
12: Library of Congress LC-DIG-ds-03837