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What Is a Micro Home? And What Does It Mean in New York?

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According to the Department of Housing Preservation, a New York City microdwelling is defined as an apartment with a kitchen, a bathroom, and at least one window that is, by city law, no smaller than 400 square feet. To some, that might sound downright palatial, since we know for a fact that there are apartments in the city smaller in size. Not all small apartments are legal, though—a Furman Center study (PDF!) estimates that between 1990 and 2000 alone some 114,000 new illegal apartments were added to the city through unlawful subdivisions or in basements. We can only assume that these are both small and dark.

To solve some of the problems arising surrounding the city's lack of space and housing inventory, and cope with the skyrocketing number of individuals living on their own—the Citizens Housing and Planning Council estimates that some 56 percent of New York City dwellers live alone—the city has embarked on a microdwelling pilot program called adAPT NYC. For the program, former mayor Mike Bloomberg waived the city's 400-square-foot size requirement and selected a winning design for a building on a city-owned lot on 27th Street between First and Second avenues that will contain 55 modular apartments between 250 and 370 square feet. While the program is one of the first of its kind, microdwellings are being increasingly looked towards to help solve the city's housing crisis and to help Mayor de Blasio achieve his affordable housing goal.

The SRO, or Single Room Occupancy apartment, is another form of microdwelling that's prevalent in New York City. These small spaces generally have neither a personal kitchen nor bathroom, but share them with other building occupants. According to a report published by the CUNY Law Review, only about 15,000 SROs exist throughout the city today, down from their height of 200,000 in the 1950s (this number, however, rises and falls widely, depending on the source of the data). Because of their shared nature, SROs aren't held to the same size standards as micro apartments; a new SRO building in Harlem has rooms as small as 175 square feet. Next City reports that, by law, SROs must be at least 150 square feet, have a window, an accessible fire exit, and have only one tenant.

Of course, what counts as "micro" for New York may not apply across the U.S. In light of other American cities, New York's requirements seem large. In 2012, a San Francisco board ruled that 220-square-foot apartments could be built in order to provide more affordable options in the pricey, supply-starved city. Similarly, according to the Furman Center, "Washington, D.C., Denver, and Austin follow the International Building Code's definition of minimum unit size, and accordingly require at least 220 square feet for an efficiency unit with two occupants and an additional 100 square feet for each additional occupant."

Remember, the entire Tiny House Movement isn't new. Calling for an end to excess and an emphasis on moderation, affordability, and pared-down living, pioneers like Lloyd Kahn became advocates in the 70s, while Sarah Susanka joined the chorus in the 1990s. Within the movement itself, homes range from an infinitesimal 80 square feet to 1,000 square feet—the latter figure seems large to New Yorkers, but to much of the country, it implies major downsizing.

Most micro homes, though, clock in at less than 500 square feet. Another way of looking at it is that, according to the Urban Land Institute, a micro-home is bigger than a one-car garage but not as big as a two-car garage. The best part? They're crazy cheap, and pretty darn adorable.

Taking a global view on micro homes offers a whole new set of insights. In dense cities like Hong Kong, shoebox-sized apartments are the norm. The average apartment, according to journalist Christopher DeWolf, is less than 450 square feet. No wonder the video of architect Gary Chang's home, which he designed with sliding walls and other hacks to pack 24 configurations into a tiny floorplan, went viral. From Seattle and Sao Paolo to Paris and Poland, creatively designed small spaces (generally, under 500 square feet) abound.

Whatever the exact square footage used to define them, it's clear that urban dwellers and others bent on making do with less will continue to inhabit small spaces in order to survive, financially and otherwise.
—Zoe Rosenberg and Hana R. Alberts
· The $80-a-Week, 60-Square-Foot Housing Solution That's Also Totally Illegal [Next City]
· The Macro View on Micro Units [ULI; PDF!]
· Responding to Changing Households: Regulatory Challenges for Micro-Units and Accessory Dwelling Units [NYU Furman Center; PDF!]
· 6 Charts That Show New York Needs More Micro-Apartments [Curbed]
· Micro Week coverage [Curbed]