ULIDC Dirt: Micro-units coming to DC
By Emily Washington
With New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent contest for micro-unit design, the trend toward tiny apartments has been making headlines. In New York, the new micro-units require a zoning variance, but here in DC the minimum unit size is just 220 square feet, allowing for the smallest of apartments.
John Chappelear, Senior Vice President of Multifamily and Condo Operations at Kettler says that micro-units are beginning to appear in some of DC’s most desirable neighborhoods. Construction is currently underway at Kettler’s 450 K St project which will feature 500-square-foot studio apartments and 560-square-foot junior one bedrooms. These small units are emerging, he said, because for many young professionals it’s cost prohibitive to rent standard 800-square-foot apartments.
“People want to live near a metro in an urban environment, and they are willing to trade space for location,” Chappelear said. But he emphasizes that improvements in apartment design mean that these small units still can offer a quality living space, as high land prices have led to innovations in apartment layout. “With better layout, we’re able to shrink the box of one and two-bedroom apartments while still providing nice closets, so that studios often aren’t necessary.” Additionally, smaller apartments allow developers to use higher quality finishes that don’t add to the price as much as they would with a larger apartment, such as wood flooring.
Aside from the trade-off that consumers face between square footage and location, Chappelear notes that changes in consumer lifestyles may be leading consumers to accept smaller living spaces. “Many people eat out so often that the big kitchen full of pots, pans, and china is not as important.”
Toby Bozzuto, President of Bozzuto Development Company explained that his company has not worked on any micro unit buildings, but that he is watching this trend closely. “I’m very curious about the trend,” he said. “Amenities are incredibly important to any building’s success, but in some cases the neighborhood can fulfill the demand for amenities rather than the building itself.”
Bozzuto also pointed out that the success or failure of micro-units depends on other trends in consumerism. “As our personal belongings are shrinking – iPads and flat screen TVs – small apartments become very interesting. If you have a Kindle, you theoretically don’t even need a bookshelf. But if we continue to clutter our lives it will be more challenging.”
With respect to the entitlement process, Chappelear said that these units do not face any additional hurdles aside from potential neighborhood opposition to increased density. “Neighbors are not typically focused on interior design. They care about what it’s going to look like and what it will do to traffic and parking.” On the subject of parking, Bozzuto points out that because parking requirements for apartment buildings are based on the number of units, micro-units require developers to provide more parking than a building with fewer, larger units would.
While so far micro-units have not required special variances, other cities are currently debating the regulations governing minimum dwelling sizes. In Seattle micro-units have faced opposition from adjacent neighbors because new residents increase demand for street parking and add to traffic. In San Francisco, tenants’ rights organizations and advocates for the homeless have opposed micro-units because even though they are less expensive than standard new construction apartments, they are not affordable for low-income individuals, and they don’t meet families’ needs.
Both developers pointed out that micro-units are only likely to succeed in the most desirable neighborhoods where land values are very high. Chappelear said, “These units have been a staple in other countries for years, but we are just now reaching the land values that make this worthwhile.” He explained that an 850-square-foot unit at Kettler’s 450 K Street project would have to rent for over $3,000, but that the 500-square-foot units will be closer to $2,000 which many more people are able to afford.
“Clearly if someone else can build a bigger apartment for the same price that building would be a tough competitor, but I don’t think that’s possible given the land values in prime locations.” He said that in these neighborhoods “tenants care about the layout, finishes, and location. Not the extra 100 square feet.”