In The Current Economic Climate, Downsizing Is In. But How Small is Too Small?

10.3.12 | McMansions are out, but are tiny apartments in? In the wake of the recession, with large homes sitting empty as they await foreclosures, some advocates for a healthier planet are reducing their carbon footprint by living in very small houses — some as small as 200 square feet. (Check out the oddly alluring Tiny House blog).

By reducing our living space, these advocates say, we reduce heating and cooling costs, have less of an impact on the world around us, and require less furniture and material goods. And in the current economic climate, we should all be encouraged to do our part to save. Right?

But how small is too small? And while these houses are attractive in rural or suburban settings, small living spaces mean something very different in urban environments, where there is often no backyard for the kids to play in and less fresh air to breath.

Developers and housing advocates had just this debate last month in San Francisco where the Board of Supervisors is considering legislation that would change the building code to allow construction of new apartments as small as 220 square feet. Now that’s tiny.

Advocates say these small units are necessary not so much to lower carbon footprints but as a response to extremely high housing costs.

Tech workers from across the globe continue to flock to San Francisco where the average rent for a studio apartment in the city is over $2,000 a month. The New York Times reports this is an increase of 22% since 2008. Advocates estimate rents for the new units would be in the range of $1,200 to $1,500 a month.

According to city supervisor Scott Weiner, who proposed the legislation, the units are needed to provide affordable housing to singles, students, and the elderly.  ”The fact is 41 percent of San Franciscans live alone. There are a lot of people who don’t need or can’t afford a lot of space,” Weiner told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year.

But some housing advocates disagree and say what the city really needs is affordable housing for families.

“This is not family friendly,” Ted Gullicksen, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, told the New York Times. “This is aimed at tech workers and those who need a crash pad.”

“The biggest need we see in San Francisco is in the two- and three-bedroom apartments for low-income families, not the small efficiency units,” City Supervisor Jane Kim told The Christian Science Monitor. “Beyond that, she says, ‘we are not encouraging these kinds of developments because we have no idea how they will further strain our amenities – things such as schools, transportation, and especially open spaces.’”

These so called “micro-units” are part of a nationwide trend. New York City has approved a pilot project to built 60 units as small as 275 square feet. And Chicago has had success building high-density single units for low-income and student housing.

And as the piece in The Christian Science Monitor notes this is not a new experiment. Densely populated cities across the globe like Tokyo have been experimenting with small living spaces for many years. Advocates say with attention to form and function small places can be pleasant ones.

But there are some real equity concerns here as the debate in San Francisco shows. Tenants rights advocates are concerned about living standards and quality of life and whether there will still be a place for low-income families in San Francisco in years to come. As Barbara wrote here last week, the new economy clusters jobs in cities like San Francisco, and the lifestyle and disposable income of the more privileged members of the millennial generation may be driving low-income families out.

Here in San Francisco the vote on the new proposal was postponed till next month.

Photo/ Nicolás Boullosa.

Comments are closed.