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They're Small, But These Big-City Apartments Tout Their Communal Feel

Jul 23, 2016
Originally published on July 23, 2016 10:18 pm

Summertime means college graduates are on the lookout for work and housing. For those eyeing big city life the trick to paying reasonable rent might mean downsizing — really downsizing.

In coastal cities, where space is scarce and demand is through the roof, there is a new housing trend developing: micro apartments.

Think dorm life, but a little more grown up. Small studio apartments, kitchenettes and beds that fold into the wall to make space.

It's a tight fit. Before Christina House and her boyfriend moved in a couple months ago some or her friends warned about all the space she was losing.

"But honestly," House says, "we have more living space and more sleeping space in this apartment even though it's a different format."

She lives at the new WeLive apartment building in Arlington, Va. The developer says what residents give up in square footage is made up for in large communal spaces.

The commercial grade kitchens come with a variety of appliances and a communal spice rack.
WeLive

Down the hall from House is a yoga studio. On the floor below is a commercial grade kitchen. There's also a large living room with plush couches and bookshelves where residents gather most Monday nights to watch The Bachelorette together.

But what Christina appreciates the most doesn't have to do with all the additional space. It's how the other residents treat her dog, Raleigh, a high energy lab-beagle mix.

"My first week here one of the girls met him and they said, 'Oh, he's so sweet. If you can't get home on time I'm happy to come by your apartment and I'll walk him for you.' " She instantly felt at home.

"People are looking to live in community," says Brad Hargreaves, founder and CEO of Common in Brooklyn. "They're a little sick of the shiny glass high-rise where nobody knows their neighbors."

Like WeLive, Common offers small personal spaces and a lot of communal areas. On top of that, the development encourages socializing with planned events like group dinners and book clubs.

Hargreaves wants to make the decision of where to live as stress-free as possible. He's even streamlined the application process.

No more reams of finely typed paperwork or trips to the broker's office. His process takes about 10 minutes online.

"We've gotten over 6,000 applications for about 100 rooms that we've opened thus far," Hargreaves says.

Communal areas like this provide a quiet place for WeLive residents to grab coffee and get work done. Kind of like a coffee shop right outside your front door.
WeLive

Mike Simonsen of Altos Research sees numbers like that as evidence of a housing crisis in coastal cities like New York and Seattle. What those cities have in common is strong economic growth, strong inbound immigration and a shortage of affordable quality units.

Simonsen is both a real estate consultant and an investor. He's helping fund a new micro apartment project in Seattle called Anew apartments. And he shared some numbers to back up his decision to invest.

Like 40,000 — the number of jobs he says Seattle is adding each year. Compare that to the number of new apartments — only 7,000. Add in a projected rent increase of 6 percent to 10 percent a year and you start to see a real problem.

Or, for Simonson, a business opportunity.

"I don't think this is gonna replace things like high-rise development," he says, "but I think it's a really important trend especially in the cities facing this crisis."

A 250-square-foot apartment at Anew will cost a little over $1,000 a month. That's smaller than a typical studio but they look sharp. The developers use the word "luxury."

But not everyone can afford those prices and some developers also see potential in micro apartments as affordable housing.

Linda Mandolini, of Eden Housing in the San Francisco Bay Area, says micro apartments could meet her clients' financial and social needs. "They really want to be in a context where they have a neighborhood and they have a community and I think landlords are really trying to be competitive with that."

Mandolini expects that developers will begin thinking less about things like square footage and access to a swimming pool — and more about what it takes to create a sense of belonging.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many college graduates are out looking for work this summer and someplace affordable to live. That might mean some downsizing - real downsizing. Places like New York, Seattle, San Francisco, where space is scarce, demand is through the roof, if you can afford a roof, there's a new housing trend. NPR's Lee Hale has more on what's called micro apartments.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: Think dorm life, but a little more grown up. Small studio apartments, kitchenettes, beds that fold into the wall to make space. It's a tight fit. And before Christine House and her boyfriend moved in a couple months ago, some of her friends warned her.

CHRISTINA HOUSE: Oh, you're going to lose space. Aren't you going to be cramped? But honestly, we have more living space and more sleeping space in this apartment, even though it's a different format.

HALE: Christina lives at the new WeLive apartment building in Arlington, Va. The developer says what residents like her give up in square footage is made up for in large communal spaces, like a fitness studio.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Come all the way back up to the top. Let's see five more. Here we go. Five air squats. Push your knees out.

HALE: There's also a giant commercial-grade kitchen downstairs and a large living room with plush couches and bookshelves. But what Christina appreciates the most doesn't have to do with all the additional space.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG COLLAR JINGLING)

HOUSE: Hi. Hi. Hey.

HALE: That's Christina's dog, Raleigh, a high-energy lab-beagle mix.

HOUSE: My first week here, one of the girls - they met him, and they're like, oh, he's so sweet. If you can't get home in time, I'm happy to, like, come by your apartment, and, like, I'll walk him for you. I was like OK, thanks. Yeah.

BRAD HARGREAVES: People are looking to live in community. That is, they're a little sick of the shiny glass high-rise where nobody knows their neighbors.

HALE: This is Brad Hargreaves, founder and CEO of Common in Brooklyn. Like WeLive, Common offers small personal living spaces and planned events, like group dinners or book clubs. Hargreaves wants to make the decision of where to live as stress-free as possible. He even streamlined the application process, and he throws in unlimited coffee. People are lining up.

HARGREAVES: We've gotten over 6,000 applications for about a hundred rooms that we've opened thus far.

HALE: Six thousand applications. Mike Simonsen of Altos Research sees this as evidence of a housing crisis in coastal cities, like New York and Seattle.

MIKE SIMONSEN: Strong economic growth, strong inbound immigration and a real shortage of affordable quality units.

HALE: Simonsen is both a real estate consultant and an investor. He's helping fund a new micro apartment project in Seattle called Anew Apartments, and he shared some numbers to back up his decision to invest, like 40,000. That's the number of jobs he says Seattle is adding each year. Compare that to the number of new apartments - only 7,000 - and you start to see a real problem - or, for Simonsen, a business opportunity.

SIMONSEN: I don't think this is going to replace things like high-rise development. But I think it's a really important trend, especially in the cities facing this crisis.

HALE: An apartment at Anew will cost you a little over a thousand a month for about 250 square feet. That's smaller than your typical studio, but they look sharp - granite countertops, stainless steel. The developers use the word luxury, but not everyone can afford those prices. And some developers also see potential in micro apartments as affordable housing, like Linda Mandolini. She says micro apartments would meet her clients' financial, as well as social, needs.

LINDA MANDOLINI: What they're really demanding is not just an apartment building where they're - you know, they're not part of something bigger. They really want to be in a context where they have a neighborhood and they have a community. And I think landlords are really trying to be competitive with that.

HALE: Mandolini expects that all developers will begin thinking less about square footage and access to a swimming pool and more about what it takes to create a sense of belonging. Lee Hale, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.