For 11 years I lived in an “illegal” apartment – six while serving as a member of the Boston City Council. The apartment, located at 45˝ Garden Street in Beacon Hill, was every bit the size as its fractionally numbered address suggests. At 416 square feet, it represents a unit that could not be built today, in virtually all of Boston.
One approach is to build faster. But it’s also to build smaller. Smaller is easier than faster.
For years Boston has rejected “micro-units” – small apartments generally below 450 square feet. But now, a social campaign in Boston’s neighborhoods (video below) is helping to change the public’s perception.
Today, the minimum unit size allowed in Boston is 450 square feet. But often, the permitting process requires that the size far exceeds the minimum threshold. Census data from 2013 pegged the average sized unit for Greater Boston, an area of 1.14 million homes, to be 1,467 square feet. Boston units are so large, in fact, we wound up on a top ten list for cities with the biggest apartment sizes.
There are not nearly enough micro-units out there. The last time BostInno looked into the data, Boston had just 148 micro units built with 205 more under construction.
The problem with larger sized apartments is less housing gets built. It’s just math. The smaller the unit, the greater the density and the more units that can be built. A larger unit might be important for families with children, but it isn’t necessary for most young professionals looking for a reasonable rent.
So why hasn’t Boston seen more micro-unit housing created? Part has to do with Boston’s aged housing stock, in that most of it was designed for a family and not the current 66 percent of people today who are single or part of two-person households. This, you could say, is an “our housing doesn’t fit us anymore” problem.
The other reason we’ve avoided building micro-units is due to the gatekeepers known as neighborhood groups. Most of these groups don’t like the sound of “micro-units.” It conjures images of cramped, overcrowded tenement housing. And so they condition their support on the unit sizes increasing; thus, fewer units get created.
But recently, Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab, a program run out of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, has teamed up with the Boston Society of Architects to bring small living to the masses.
Armed with a 385-square-foot micro-unit, the team is on an eight-neighborhood “road show,” placing an actual stand-alone home in the middle of public spaces, at convenient times, so that everyday citizens can walk in and provide feedback. The Uhü, or “urban housing unit” as it’s called, is well designed and offers an efficient and enticing layout. The units themselves are modular and stackable, so possibilities abound for scaled micro-unit apartment buildings.
According to Max Stearns of the Innovation Lab, the public’s response over the last two weeks has been overwhelmingly positive, with only 1 to 2 percent of its visitors rejecting the concept, and the rest of the some 2,000 visitors offering their support. He’s even acknowledged that traditional neighborhood-group-types seem to be coming around.
“Having a conversation about smaller spaces in the abstract is very challenging,” he said. “If you can actually walk into one [you think], ‘This isn’t so bad, I could live here, my friend could live here.’”
In the effort to create more mid-market housing to meet the demand in Boston, one approach is to build faster. But it’s also to build smaller. Smaller is easier than faster.
Today, only the South Boston Waterfront specifically allows for micro-units. The rest of the city is at the mercy of old zoning requirements, where stipulations such as minimum lot size, parking and open space can make building a micro-unit impossible. Even if such zoning requirements can be avoided, there’s also a directive in place from the Boston Planning & Development Agency forbidding such micro-units.
The short term fix is to remove the BPDA directive; the longer policy initiative is to update zoning throughout the city.
Small living isn’t for everyone. But as someone who lived in an unofficial micro-unit for more than a decade, I know it can work. Boston housing policy should catch up with the demands of the broader public, and allow for smaller unit sizes. It’s the least they can do.
Mike Ross is a real estate attorney at Prince Lobel and a former City Councilor. He currently lives with his girlfriend in East Boston in a 780-square-foot row house.