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Small Homes Make Better Cities

There’s plenty of benefits to your closet-sized apartment, all you need is a shift in perspective

A rendering of a Heijmans ONE development, designed to make use of vacant lots temporarily. Image courtesy Heijmans.

How much space do we need to call our own? A bedroom? A tent on Skid Row? A palace with 100 rooms? The notion of “home” is a human universal but the spectrum of its definition is vast. Even within a single culture, people have different housing preferences and affordability issues.

In the context of cities, people tend to live in smaller spaces. Land values increase closer to amenities such as business districts, transit, and culture, so naturally housing costs are higher closer to those locations. When small homes are unavailable, people tend to crowd into whatever size space is available, but while over-crowding has been an urban housing reality for ages (Jacob Riis’ work from the 1890s, for instance, is an enlightening read), it is not something city planners want to encourage. So how can cities facilitate affordable small-scale living that enhances, rather than detracts from, quality of life?

The Urban Land Institute recently completed a study on “microunits,” a term for studio apartments around 350 square feet. The findings show that these units are not only increasing in popularity but are affordable for workers making less than $40,000 per year and are also performing well for landlords, with higher occupancy rates and better rental value per square foot than conventional apartments. A Google search of the microunit reveals delightful examples from around the world, complete with space-saving innovations like lofted beds, miniature appliances, and fold-up versions of virtually everything.

One example of the microunit is Seattle’s “aPodments,” developed by Calhoun Properties. These apartments are essentially single room occupancy units (“SROs”), which have historically carried the stigma of government-subsidized housing for the poor. With aPodments, Calhoun offers the same small floor area but sets the rent at a market-rate price and targets students and professionals who want to live in pricey neighborhoods without having share a lease with five roommates.

Another small space trend is Los Angeles’ small-lot ordinance, which allows developers to build multiple small homes as one construction project. The original lot is divided into smaller lots, giving buyers the chance to own private property at a fraction of the price. The multi-story homes are narrow and set close together to achieve a more dense urban form than LA’s charming but sprawling bungalows.

While these microunits and small-lots are a step in the right direction, they both rely heavily on professional developers. Cities should be rethinking how to incorporate smaller homes beyond the typical new development route. UCLA’s cityLAB recently looked at how to encourage “granny flats,” or backyard homes, while addressing community concerns about this unconventional housing type. The Rural Studio in Alabama has been designing small houses that would cost less than $20,000 in labor and materials. Though intended for a rural setting, these thoughtful designs could also exist in urban areas, perhaps as backyard homes or on underused land. Similarly, Dutch developer Heijmans released plans for simple homes that can be placed temporarily on vacant lots, providing low-cost housing as well as neighborhood and landowner benefits. These small-scale housing solutions may not look like the typical American dream and would require an ample dose of political will and adjustment of city codes, but could be a radical approach to providing flexible, affordable housing for those traditionally left out of home-ownership and desirable neighborhoods.

While living in tight quarters may seem like a negative trade-off, it is also part of what makes cities great. Smaller homes require more activities to be experienced in the public realm. Restaurants become a dining room for large gatherings, and bars become a living room for watching sports with friends. With no room for private pools or exercise equipment, people work out in local parks, public pools, or gyms. Those without private yards must take their dogs for regular walks on the street or visit the neighborhood dog park. Activities performed in public create more vibrant spaces, facilitate chance encounters, and support local businesses.

Furthermore, the economies of scale in dense neighborhoods make it possible to provide collective amenities. Density supplies the volunteers, tax base, and paying customers to support shared services like public transit, community gardens, bike repair co-ops, and ride-share programs. Shared services not only make urban life easier for the individual, but they also serve as a public forum where neighbors of differing backgrounds are joined by a common interest or need. This community-building phenomenon mirrors that of small-town or rural problem solving: simultaneously providing a solution to a shared need as well as a sense of geographic belonging.

When you are forced to live life alongside others, to rely on the community for things you need, you more clearly understand your smallness and your importance in the scope of society. You cannot fully curate your urban life: the people who enter your personal space, the sounds or smells you experience, and the timeframe in which events occur are largely outside your control, but in turn you also contribute to others’ experiences. You are one artist among many, and you are also a part of the artwork. It is what makes urban life so uncomfortable and frustrating, but it is also what makes it so thrilling and rewarding. So embrace your tiny apartment and actively share public spaces; they make your city a better place to live.

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