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As Apartments Continue To Shrink, Developers Redefine Micro-Living

If the average U.S. apartment did the Facebook 10-year challenge, it would reveal itself to be 52 SF skinnier.

Caesura in Brooklyn, N.Y., features 34 micro-units of less than 400 SF.

Renters all over the country are choosing smaller units with bigger rents, all in the name of proximity to bars, restaurants and cafés, according to a recent study by RentCafé using data by Yardi Matrix. The average size of an apartment built in 2018 in the U.S. was 941 SF — 5% smaller than an average apartment built a decade prior.

Meantime, average rents for new apartments increased 28% compared to 10 years ago.

Saving a few hundred dollars a month is very meaningful to a millennial living in the Pacific Northwest who would rather live in a smaller space in the heart of the city than face a lengthy daily commute, said James Wong, co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based Vibrant Cities, which is building micro-units.

“How do we give you a beautiful great place to live for around 1,000 bucks a month? You can’t find that anymore,” Wong said.


“Gateway cities with high density and restrictive zoning are seeing an increase in smaller unit configurations,” Yardi Matrix Manager of Operations Doug Ressler said. “In addition, impact is seen in urban Western and Southeastern markets, where there is a lack of new supply and 5-49-unit availability.”

Apartments around the country, including ones built before 2018, are an average of 882 SF. Seattle, which has built thousands of new apartments in recent years to accommodate Amazon's growth in the city, has the smallest apartments in the U.S., at 711 SF, according to RentCafé. Chicago and Manhattan tied for second-smallest apartments, with an average of 733 SF.

In larger metropolitan areas where prime real estate comes at a price, developers are redefining shoebox living with micro-apartments, units that are often less than 400 SF. Architects and developers focus on versatility in living spaces and community in shared spaces.

Here are four ways they are making tiny living look large:

1. Focus on versatile furnishings

At Caesura in Brooklyn, N.Y., apartments are outfitted with space-saving furnishings, including a queen-size Murphy bed, versatile desks and a coffee table that expands into a dining table that seats eight.

A new 26-story, 320-unit apartment complex in Chicago’s South Loop features micro-units as small as 389 SF. Within its micro-units, Eleven40 provides Murphy beds, LED lighting and USB ports to maximize space.

Residents who want to squeeze into Caesura, a Brooklyn, New York, apartment complex with 34 micro-apartments ranging from 314 to 384 SF, will sleep on hideaway beds with built-in desks. A console table expands into an eight-person dining table. Many of the apartments include a shelf that protrudes from the bed when it is upright and remains horizontal when the bed is lowered.

Vibrant Cities is planning two multifamily projects featuring micro-units in Portland. Ground was broken last month on Ascend by Vibrant Cities, which will feature 101 apartments averaging 250 SF and including a sleeping area, bathroom, a mini-fridge and a microwave. Construction will begin in a few months on Zeal Lofts, which will offer 216 units, also averaging 250 SF. Two of the five floors will be lofted, with separate living and sleeping areas. 

2. Get rid of the kitchen sink — and the kitchen

Ascend's micro-units average 250 SF.

Both Vibrant Cities complexes will offer large amenity spaces, including two community kitchens per floor.

The community kitchens are purposely designed to be near the elevators, allowing residents to see and participate in activity as they come and go. Comfortable seating will invite residents to linger. Game nights and movie nights will aim to foster community engagement. 

“People have been doing this for a long time, where they get roommates,” Vibrant Cities' Wong said. “The great thing that we designed purposely for our micro-apartments is that you don’t have to deal with a roommate. You get your own entire private space. You have your own private full bathroom and sleeping area, like a studio apartment. You get a kitchenette. Most people don’t even cook, anyway.”

3. Create space for work, study and exercise

Eleven40 in Chicago

Eleven40's 2K SF community-oriented space in Chicago is designed to function as an extension of each unit’s living room, something CA Residential, the multifamily investment and development arm of Chicago-based CA Ventures, focused heavily on during development.

“We’ve seen residents engaging in a higher level of socialization than you see in a typical apartment building — something we attribute to our extensive amenity offerings,” CA Residential President Bob Flannery said.

“These enhanced spaces provide opportunities to create long-lasting friendships, which can help with retention over the long term,” he said. “Additionally, with monthly rents being lower, residents have more money to spend on experiences with new friends they’ve made.”

A rooftop garden gives residents of Brooklyn's Caesura a place to connect with neighbors and nature. 

4. Lend out the (not-so-small) stuff

Caesura also offers a common goods library, which keeps residents from having to think about storage of larger essentials. The lending library offers vacuum cleaners, toolkits, bike pumps or other household tools. Renters who would like to host guests can borrow a 12-piece dinnerware set, folding table and chairs and even an ice-cream maker.

“We have crafted this modern building to make it a thoughtful place to live where the living space extends beyond the apartment into the Caesura community,” Jonathan Rose Cos. Development Manager Jenny Wu said. “The design of the building encourages the interaction of neighbors, the sharing of goods and ideas, and the convergence of housing and life.”

“We offer our residents a life with enriched experiences and sanctuary, and the building’s prestigious location promotes cultural enrichment and connects to everything that city living offers.”