February 2, 2014

Micro-apartments offer slight relief for San Francisco residents

Three is a crowd at Carlos Perez’s downtown apartment.

Three is a crowd at Carlos Perez’s downtown apartment.

“It would feel cramped if you stayed in here all day,” he said one recent morning, surveying his diminutive space. “But if you’re in your 20s, why be stuck in your apartment when you could be out exploring?”

His home, all 300 square feet, is part of a new approach to the city’s housing predicament – micro-living. At a time when the median apartment rental is about $3,000 and the average home price is close to $1 million, city officials have cleared the way for mini-living spaces usually seen in high-density cities like Tokyo and New York.

“San Francisco is often in a state of crisis because we don’t build enough new housing,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who last year sponsored legislation allowing construction of 375 market-rate micro-apartments. “Right now, affordability is the worst I’ve ever seen since I moved here in the ’90s.”

The pint-size units have not been without controversy. Tenant advocates have complained that rents, from $1,500 to $1,800 a month, are still too high for many people and that the units are inadequate for families.

“San Francisco wants more housing, but no development,” said Patrick Kennedy, owner of Panoramic Interests, a Berkeley-based developer of the 23-unit building that is leased to California College of the Arts, where Perez, 27, is a residential life coordinator.

His apartment features shiny stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, a combination microwave-oven and a Murphy bed that folds up to reveal a dining table.

Another Panoramic Interests project, a blend of 120 micro-apartments and suites, is scheduled for completion next year, having made it through a web of more than 80 permits and the heated politics of the housing affordability debate.

Evictions have skyrocketed in the past year. Tenant groups, politicians and developers all point to the lack of new housing, which has squeezed both renters and prospective buyers. But many people blame soaring rents and increased competition for housing on the influx of young, well-paid workers flocking to jobs in the booming tech sector.

Wiener said the small apartments are just one part of a strategy to create more housing. The city has added only 17,000 new units during the past decade, despite a population increase of 75,000, with another 100,000 expected within 25 years, he said.

“This is (a solution) for the young professional core that we desperately need,” said Richard Taylor, director of the Center for Real Estate at Suffolk University, which last year co-sponsored a conference on micro-housing in Boston, a city also allowing more mini-apartments. “We have other strategies for other groups.”

In San Francisco, where the apartment vacancy rate is under 5 percent, renters have snapped up mini units. More than 90 percent of another micro development, 88 units ranging from 275 to 860 square feet, was rented within the first month and a half after it opened in September.

“There is a confluence of reasons,” said Alan Mark, a real estate consultant and marketer who worked with the building’s developer. “People in Gen Y, which covers people 18 to 32, are fine with small spaces. They look at the place where they’re sleeping as a bedroom and the neighborhood as their living room.”

The building comes with ample bike storage and a fitness room, grill, fire pit and lounge on the roof, where tenants can hang out or watch movies projected on a wall. Kayla Smith, who moved from a larger apartment in Santa Cruz, said she likes living close to work. It takes her exactly 11 minutes to walk to her job as a network engineer at a small company downtown and about 2 seconds to traverse her 279-square-foot apartment, for which she pays $1,850 a month.

Furnished with a bed, chair and computer table, it is too small for many of her possessions. She stores them with friends, family and her boyfriend, who lives on the Peninsula in a two-bedroom place. Sometimes she feels like she’s back in college.

“Actually, my dorm room must have been bigger,” she said.

Initially she knew little about the city’s housing crisis, but now wonders how tech workers can be part of the solution.

“What does San Francisco want me to do?” she said. “Give us tech workers something to do. How can I help?”

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