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To Shrink Rents, S.F. Considers Shrinking Apartments

Oct 18, 2012
Originally published on October 18, 2012 8:32 pm

In many large cities, like Dallas, Phoenix and even parts of Chicago, $800 a month is enough for a clean one-bedroom apartment, decked out with a living room, washer and dryer — and maybe even a pool, in a larger complex.

But if you want to live alone in San Francisco, getting those amenities at that price is practically a pipe dream. With the region's resurgent high-tech industries luring many well-educated, well-paid workers to the Bay Area, the average rent for a studio apartment in the city now runs around $2,000.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering a proposal that seeks to address that. A proposed change to the building code would reduce the minimum allowed size for a studio to just 220 square feet. That includes the bathroom, kitchen and closet — leaving a living area about the size of a cruise-ship cabin.

While that may sound like a tight squeeze, supporters of these "micro-apartments" say they would provide a much-needed option for the pricey and densely packed Bay Area.

Two Bedrooms, Four Roomies

Andy Huang, 31, moved to San Francisco from New York this summer. He has a good job in the tech field, but he's living with three roommates in a two-bedroom apartment.

One roommate, Leo, lives in what was probably once a pantry. The other two roommates occupy the unit's actual bedrooms.

For $800 a month, Huang lives in what was once the living room. His clothes hang on a set of parallel bars in the corner. Contact lens cases, deodorant and other toiletries adorn the fireplace mantel.

"As you can see, there's no closet," Huang says and laughs. And there's no sofa or desk, either.

"Yeah, this is definitely not for everyone," Huang says. "People would be frustrated by the fact that this room has no closet. There's four guys sharing a bathroom."

City Supervisor Scott Wiener authored the micro-apartment proposal for people in Huang's situation.

"We have a housing affordability crisis in San Francisco," Wiener says. "Rents are through the roof."

Wiener says he wants to help people who would prefer their own space but can't afford the city's sky-high rents.

"And if we can give them an option that's smaller for [$1,200, $1,400 or $1,500], that's a good thing," he says.

"Shoebox" apartments are commonplace in large international cities like Tokyo and Paris. Berkeley, Calif.-based architect Patrick Kennedy points to other U.S. cities like Boston that are trying micro-units on for size. New York recently launched a pilot program to test "tiny living" designs.

Kennedy is convinced that the smaller spaces will soon catch on in San Francisco, too.

He shows off one of about two dozen apartments his firm, Panoramic Interests, is building near downtown. The unit is 290 square feet — just a tad over the current smallest legal size in San Francisco. But he says he could easily go smaller if the micro-unit ordinance is approved when it goes up for a vote in November.

'Like The Smart Car'

Kennedy is also a master at packing a lot into small spaces — evident as he gestures around the apartment.

"We have a window seat with a table that goes up over there in the corner," he explains. "We have a dining room table that converts to a Murphy bed over here. We're going to have a love seat there."

Even a dishwasher is packed into the tiny kitchen.

Kennedy compares the apartments to tiny cars. "It's like the Volkswagen or the Fiat Cinque Terre ... or the Smart car," he says. "People are skeptical when it's first introduced, but soon it's embraced."

But while there may be demand for supersmall units in big cities, the plan does have its critics. Some worry that San Francisco could go the way of Singapore if the tiny units catch on. That Asian megacity is now limiting micro-unit construction to reduce overcrowding.

Copyright 2013 KQED. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Apartments in pricey crowded San Francisco could soon go micro. A proposed building code change would allow the minimum size of a studio unit to shrink down to just 220 square feet. That includes a bathroom, kitchen and closet. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Stephanie Martin reports that fans of the idea are willing to sacrifice a little space if it means paying less in the expensive Bay Area.

STEPHANIE MARTIN, BYLINE: In most large cities like, say, Dallas, Phoenix, even parts of Chicago, $800 a month is enough for a clean, one-bedroom apartment, decked out with a living room, a washer and dryer, maybe even a pool in a larger complex. But if you're single and want to live on your own in San Francisco, no deal. The region's resurgent high-tech industry is luring in so many well-educated, well-paid workers right now, the average rent for a studio is now around $2,000.

ANDY HUANG: Yeah, this is the apartment.

MARTIN: Thirty-one-year-old Andy Huang moved here from New York City a couple of months ago, and though he has a good job in tech, he's living with three roommates in a two-bedroom apartment.

HUANG: Hey, Leo. Hi.

MARTIN: His roommate, Leo, lives in what was probably once a pantry. The other two roommates have the real bedrooms. And once upon a time, Huang's room was a living room.

HUANG: So as you can see, there's no closet.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Clothes hang on a set of parallel bars in the corner. Contact lens cases, deodorant and other toiletries adorn the fireplace mantel. There's no sofa, no desk. A laptop sits on the bed. He's paying $800 month.

HUANG: This is definitely not for everyone. I think people would be frustrated by the fact that this room has no closet, and there's four guys sharing a bathroom.

SCOTT WIENER: We have a housing affordability crisis in San Francisco. Rents are through the roof.

MARTIN: City supervisor Scott Wiener authored the micro apartment proposal for people in Huang's situation. He says he wants to help people who would prefer their own space but can't afford the city's sky-high rents.

WIENER: And if we can give them an option that's smaller for 12 or 14, $1,500, that's a good thing.

MARTIN: Shoebox apartments are commonplace in large international cities like Tokyo and Paris. Berkeley-based architect Patrick Kennedy is convinced the smaller spaces will soon catch on in San Francisco. He points to other U.S. cities now trying them on for size, like Boston and New York, where a pilot program recently launched. Well, this doesn't seem that small.

PATRICK KENNEDY: No. In fact, it will seem bigger, believe it or not, once it has furnishings.

MARTIN: Kennedy shows me one of about two dozen apartments he's building close to downtown.

KENNEDY: You know, it's like the Volkswagen or the, you know, Fiat Cinque Terre, I mean, it's a tiny car or the smart car. People are skeptical when it's first introduced, but soon, it's embraced.

MARTIN: This unit he's showing me today is just a tad over the smallest legal size in San Francisco - 290 square feet. But Kennedy says he could easily go smaller if city leaders approve the micro unit ordinance going up for a vote next month. Packing in a lot is his specialty.

KENNEDY: We have a window seat with a table that goes up over there in the corner. We have a dining room table that converts to a Murphy bed over here. We're going to have a loveseat there, a desk, flat-screen TV over there.

MARTIN: And this is a - this looks like a, oh, dishwasher. OK.

KENNEDY: Yeah, dishwasher, yeah.

MARTIN: Some critics worry that if super-small units become too popular, San Francisco will go the way of Singapore, which is now having to limit micro-unit construction to reduce overcrowding and to make more space for families. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Martin in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.