Reinventing Affordable Housing: Tiny and cheap instead of large and expensively subsidized
Many will doubtless regard with skepticism the Bloomberg administration’s newly announced “micro-unit” pilot program. The administration is asking developers to submit proposals for the design and construction of an apartment building on a city-owned site in Manhattan; the city will adjust zoning restrictions there, allowing the winning developer to construct a building full of tiny, 275-square-foot apartments. In a country where plenty of homeowners have garages far larger than the proposed apartments—which would be not much bigger than an ATM lobby—there will be a tendency to see the micro-units as novelties similar to gourmet food carts, Central Park bike-rental wars, $500 Broadway tickets, and other aspects of life unique to the Big Apple. Instead, we should view these little apartments as a serious and significant step forward in the city’s housing policy. The Bloomberg administration is reinventing affordable housing in terms that make sense: denser and cheaper, instead of expensive and subsidized. And in doing so, the city is mapping the way toward ensuring that it continues to be a magnet for the talented young newcomers it needs.
Though it may look radical to allow apartments that must be smaller than any of Anna Wintour’s closets, the micro-unit idea is actually a rediscovery of what affordable housing used to be before it assumed its current form. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New York saw the construction of small, cheap housing, such as the Lower East Side’s tenement houses and Brooklyn’s thousands of three-story buildings (often with stores on the first floor and apartments on the second and third). It was the same in other cities. Philadelphia saw the construction of 299,000 row houses—small, connected single-family structures. Boston had clusters of “three-decker” frame homes. Chicago had a vast “bungalow belt.” Even Levittown’s small-lot split-levels were part of the same story. All sorts of private, unsubsidized structures offered the same deal that the proposed micro-units do: trading off space to save on the rent or the mortgage. They allowed American cities to grow and low-income newcomers to have homes.