Is DC Ready For 275-Square Foot Housing?

by Shilpi Paul

Is DC Ready For 275-Square Foot Housing?: Figure 1
Three micro-studios. Image courtesy of R2L Architects. Click to enlarge.

Micro-units, or residences that are under 300 square feet, have been a hot topic on this site and around the web in recent months. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg famously requested proposals for a 60-unit micro-studio building this summer, and San Francisco is considering dropping the minimum size requirement for apartments in the city from 290 square feet to 220.

In DC, micro-studios almost made it to Chinatown, and unlike New York and San Francisco, the city already has a very low minimum living area requirement that even the smallest micro-units would probably not reach: the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) tells UrbanTurf that residential units can go as small as 220 square feet.

So, is DC ready for micro-units? A poll that UrbanTurf conducted a few months ago revealed that 61 percent of respondents would be willing to live in units measuring out at just 275 square feet.

The market certainly has a few demographics that may be interested. Young professionals just starting out in their careers seem like natural candidates, whether the units are rental or condo. Barry Madani of Madison Investments also sees a few other potential buyers, like wealthier suburbanites who want a place to land in the city. Another potential client base may be corporations, who could keep the units for out-of-town employees as an alternative to renting out pricey corporate apartments. While the conversation around micro-units generally involves apartments, Madani has been exploring the possibility of micro-condos that would sell for less than $250,000.

Some additional planning may be necessary to make what would be extremely small units feel livable. Proximity to a variety of public transit options would help, and as for layout, high ceilings will keep the space from feeling too claustrophobic, thinks Madani, especially if the height would allow for a loftable bed.

Is DC Ready For 275-Square Foot Housing?: Figure 2
Layout of a micro-apartment. From the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Tom Lenar of R2L:Architects believes that planning is essential to a successful micro-unit. Built-ins and foldable features to help open up floor space are important, and a thoughtful orientation of the unit in relation to the windows can keep the space feeling lighter.

“Most of the micro-loft plans that I’ve seen are long, skinny shoe boxes, with a window on the shorter wall, which limits its size,” said Lenar. “It’s a recipe to make a small space feel smaller and cluttered. And potentially a dark one, with the limited area for windows. This can be avoided by limiting the overall depth of the building so the architect doesn’t force him or herself into designing the apartment this way.”

Lenar knows from experience. His firm was responsible for drawing up the plans for the Chinatown micro-studios mentioned above, before the developers — Douglas Development — decided to fill the building with office tenants instead. That project would have brought DC its first micro-units.

The first developer who does bring such small units to the city would likely have to spend some time not only figuring out a comfortable design, but also possibly wading through DCRA to find out how to acquire Certificates of Occupancy and other paperwork for the units.

And, they would have to sell the idea to skeptics. Some community members worry about the type of resident who would be drawn to these units, imagining a dorm-like environment with young revelers filling the halls.

Madani acknowledges that these small abodes are likely to attract more transient tenants. This may complicate condo codes that restrict the percentage of renters in a particular building, as well as disrupt peaceful atmospheres. The way to mitigate any tension may be to keep the units separated from more permanent communities, he thought.

“Owners of one- and two-bedroom units are usually stable homeowners who like to know their neighbors,” noted Madani. “It would probably work better if the building was entirely filled with small units.”

Other cities exploring this possibility have encountered opposition. San Francisco’s recent plan to vote on legislation that would lower the minimum size of apartments was postponed due to fierce debate. Critics are worried that the apartments would attract wealthy techies rather than those in need of a more affordable housing option. Some were also just put off by the small size, which felt inhumane. Defenders argued that allowing developers to create small apartments would help bring down San Francisco’s rapidly rising rents. The vote has been rescheduled for November.

While DC doesn’t have the regulatory restrictions, developers still haven’t jumped on the idea…yet. “Someone needs to take the first step and figure it out,” said Madani. “Then you’ll see buildings getting carved up into smaller and smaller units.”

See other articles related to: smaller homes, micro units, editors choice

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/is_dcs_housing_market_ready_for_microunits/6104


  1. kob said at 7:20 pm on Thursday October 11, 2012:
    >Some community members worry about the type of resident who would be drawn to these units, imagining a dorm-like environment with young revelers filling the halls.< This is total nonsense without foundation whatsoever. I live in a 356-sf unit. It is one of a number of small units in my building. It is not a dorm room. It is a complete apartment, and a smaller unit, 275-ft, can be quite livable as well. What creates stability? Size, cost or ownership? In DC, a small studio in a good location -- short walk to Metro/bus can easily cost $1,500 or more. Although you can find studios in prime areas for below $200,000, there are many priced above as well. To argue that someone in a one-bedroom is more stable, less noisy and more considerate than someone in a smaller unit is false up and down. Good luck arguing that at an ANC meeting.
  1. Alexa said at 9:15 pm on Thursday October 11, 2012:
    I agree with kob. I am a professional who has been living and working in a 270 square foot apartment for nearly 3 years. If the unit were available for sale, I would purchase it. It is centrally located and fits everything I need. I likewise have friends who are a professional couple and share a space about the size of mine to save money. A spared down space is not for everyone, but in a city that is incredibly expensive to live in, and with everything at your doorstep, small living can be a smart decision.
  1. Alexa said at 9:17 pm on Thursday October 11, 2012:
    I will also be writing about making it work in such a small space here: youandmeandwalliemakethree.com
  1. jpmghs said at 6:48 pm on Monday April 29, 2013:
    I think the micro-unit is perfect for a young professional (just out of college) who is working in the city, until she/he settles down. But that’s usually about 4-6 years after this period. So it has a pretty long age range…then it passes on the next fresh out of college young professionals… SO I think it will stay. And for all of you talking about your home is your other you, and your home is this and that. You’re probably all older. And when I’m 35,40,45, I’ll have enough money to get a bigger place for my wife and family. But you don’t need all that you are talking about between ages 22-32. Where you are just trying to live close to your job and save money, and make work commute easy and you’re working so much anyways, all you need is a bed to sleep in and a meal to cook. The micro unit isn’t targeting the Baby boomer crowd…and not even alot the Gen Y…because you guys are already settling. SO don’t worry…it’s not aimed at you. It’s aimed at the demographic I explained above…and we will continue to have these fresh out of college young professionals…and I think it will become a stage/time (just like a college dorm) where you say I did it…but I’m over it…as you get older you need more and more of that…
  1. William said at 12:44 am on Tuesday July 23, 2013:
    Decades ago, in California, I lived in buildings composed mainly of 400 sq. ft. studios, specifically designed for single adults, or maybe, childless couples. After the novelty wore off, building owners faced “discrimination” lawsuits for trying to restrict the buildings to people without children! So... be ready for that.

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