Lively debate looked at Micro Units as a housing option not just for millennials but senior citizens and families living in high-cost communities
Could you live in a 385-square-foot apartment that is a fraction of what its costs to produce typical rental housing?
Are micro units a solution for the dearth of affordable apartments available to graduate students, young professionals and working families living in high-cost communities?
Would senior citizens be interested in downsizing to a micro unit in order to continue living in the communities where they lived and worked for decades?
These were just a few of the topics at a panel discussion recently hosted by MassHousing on micro units and whether they can be a solution to the workforce housing challenge in Massachusetts.
"Micro units are a potential solution to the cost challenges we have in our housing market," said MassHousing Deputy Director Karen Kelleher. "We're losing ground to our economy – which is booming – but it creates more challenges" in producing housing for middle-income residents with rents they can afford.
Taking center stage was the uhü – or Urban Housing Unit – a 358-square-foot apartment that can be built for about $50,000. The City of Boston has taken the uhü on a tour of the city hoping residents will embrace the tiny living spaces as a way to help create 53,000 new housing units in the city for working Bostonians by 2030.
"Working families are being priced out of the market. Producing workforce housing is extremely difficult," said panelist Barry Bluestone, the Stearns Trustee Professor of Political Economy at Northeastern University.
Enter the uhü. Architect Tamara Roy, who has been dubbed the "mother of the micro unit," is one of the earliest proponents of compact living. She and Addison Godine of LiveLight LLC, designed the uhü as a way to meet housing challenges for young professionals working in Boston's Innovation District and convinced the city to change its zoning there to allow for the tiny units.
Roy, the president of the Boston Society of Architects, is working closely with Boston's Housing Innovation Lab to showcase the benefits of micro units not just for millennials but potentially for families and senior citizens. Over the past four months, the uhü has traveled to different neighborhoods around the city to give residents a first-hand look and get their feedback on whether they would actually live in micro housing.
"We want to change attitudes about small unit housing," she said. "When people see it, their attitude changes. We need these types of units. The cost of building new housing is so expensive and these units will save us a major part of the cost for that construction. There needs to be a public-private partnership to make it work to create affordable housing."
"Compact units are a fantastic tool and address the housing need for Boston," agreed Max Stearns, the Program Manager for the Housing Innovation Lab. Stearns conceded that micro units "are not for everyone, but they are for some people. It's not just for young people, some seniors have been enthusiastic about them and our seniors are a massively growing population."
Micro units, which compact living, sleeping and kitchen space, can be combined to create two- and three-bedroom options for families. Architects Anda and Jenny French of French 2D, PLLC designed a 180-unit micro unit building on Commonwealth Avenue that is being used as a dormitory by Boston University for two years and then will convert to rental units.
A two-story former car dealership was converted into a six-story micro-unit community that features commercial business space on the first level and communal space for socializing and entertaining, a library, bicycle storage area and other amenities to make the building more of a village than a residential structure of compact apartments.
While micro units are cheaper to construct, there are still many challenges to overcome before housing costs overall can be affordable to millennials, working families and senior citizens.
Bluestone noted his research shows that rents are skyrocketing and the value of triple-decker apartment buildings have increased in value from 2009 by 105% resulting in renters paying much higher percentages of their income on housing costs.
While creating "millennial villages" of micro units with amenities is one way to address the problem to get groups of young professionals to move out of shared apartments in three-deckers into their own living spaces the city still needs to create 164,000 new housing units to meet demand.
"I don't think we can build enough to accommodate all the working families but we do have existing housing stock for working families in the triple-deckers," he said, noting that after World War II the city's population shrunk with people migrating to the suburbs but that now, with the growth of the millennial population, more and more people want to live in the city.
Bluestone advocated that agencies like MassHousing, universities and teaching hospitals, and the building trades should work together with municipalities to create micro unit housing communities for graduate students and young professionals on municipally and state-owned land to drive down development costs and free up space in the triple-deckers for families.
And communities have to change their zoning that has traditionally prohibited multi-family housing or mandates that rental units have to be a minimum size that would not allow for micro units, Bluestone added.
Young Park, CEO of Berkeley Investments, Inc., said development costs drive what market-rate housing owners charge for rent and often times the scope of the project changes economically from inception to completion. Park noted that while many renters in housing communities developed by Berkeley Investments like smaller units in the 400 to 500-square-foot range they are still paying upwards of $3,000 a month in rent.
Still, Park said micro units are a creative and potentially cost-effective way to produce more middle-income housing.
The panelists all agreed that micro units are an intriguing idea in meeting the housing challenges facing us and that the discussion and implementation of micro units is growing daily.