Jul 16, 2012

Are small apartments too tiny?

I think the effectiveness of his proposed regulation on maximum soft drink serving sizes is questionable, but New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on the right track with his

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Manhattan "shoebox" apartment - 7.25 sq m

I think the effectiveness of his proposed regulation on maximum soft drink serving sizes is questionable, but New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on the right track with his pilot program for micro-apartments in Manhattan.

The Mayor is seeking proposals from developers for the construction of an apartment building on city owned land with 75% of units sized between 275 and 300 sq ft (that’s 25 – 28 sq m).

At the moment, the minimum size for an apartment in New York is 400 sq ft (37 sq m). However that’s for new apartments. Much smaller apartments in older buildings are common.

This woman, for example, pays $800 a month for a 105 sq ft apartment in the West Village. This man moved out of a 96 sq ft apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and now pays $800 per month for one in the same neighbourhood that’s just 78 sq ft (see exhibit).

Then there are much bigger apartments that offer even less space per person because they’re crammed to the sills with lower income – commonly immigrant – households.

Although definitely on the small side, new apartments smaller than New York’s current minimum are now common in the centres of Australian capital cities. For example, the average size of new studio apartments in Melbourne is around 34 sq m (365 sq ft).

I’ve heard these apartments described as “dog boxes” and “the new slums”. Like the US, we’ve a long history of paternalistic regulation in Australia. In the past, high minimum sizes for dwellings and lots have prevented some households from making their own decision about how they want to trade-off various housing attributes.

The wonderful thing about small apartments is they enable people who couldn’t otherwise afford it to live in locations of very high amenity. They don’t provide much in the way of space by suburban standards, but they do provide what many buyers and renters want – high levels of accessibility, typically to the many and varied attractions of the CBD.

They’re not aimed at low income buyers or tenants (two years ago the average selling price of those small Melbourne studios was over $300,000) but they nevertheless constitute affordable housing for one and two person households of modest means. Buyers and renters willingly choose to trade off ‘space for place’.

Residents are also typically transitory and hence more tolerant of the limitations of space. They might be students or they might be young singles or couples who expect to increase their income over time. It’s temporary – they expect to have the option of moving to larger dwellings at a later stage of their life.

Most urban dwellers in the world actually live in very small dwellings compared to what Australians regard as an acceptable minimum size. Moreover, very small apartments can be designed with great efficiency, as architect Gary Chang’s famous 32 sq m apartment in Hong Kong amply demonstrates (video).

It’s not that many buyers and tenants of small studios wouldn’t prefer something a bit bigger, they just can’t afford it or they’re not willing to pay more. If the ability to construct additional housing in sought-after areas wasn’t so constrained by planning rules, it ought to be possible to build more units of somewhat larger size for the same cost.

Mayor Bloomberg’s micro-apartments will probably rent for around $2,000 per month. Sounds a lot, but this is Manhattan. That’s affordable compared to the options available to these two college graduates. They told the New York Times “It was really difficult to even find a decent convertible one-bedroom apartment for less than $4,000.”

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28 thoughts on “Are small apartments too tiny?

  1. Willie C

    Alan, just came across your article. Very important topic, however, you miss the main point. Actual sqm size of the apartment is less important than access to natural light and ventilation.

    As a Victorian, I’m sure you are aware of how poor standards are here in relation to internal amenity of high density dwellings – in fact there are no planning standards, only toothless DSE “guidelines”, and the industry uses on the bare minimum standards of the BCA (Building Codes). This compares very poorly with NSW where SEPP65 – Residential Flat Design Code provides minimum design standards around light, ventilation and other important design matters.

    It all sounds very esoteric, until you actually live in, or even see, some of the “product” (what an awful term) the market is producing in Melbourne. I admit that I am only familiar with the inner north, where the industry no doubt produces lower standard dwellings (and calls it “affordable housing” – that’s another story!), but go and see a rental viewing in 80% recent inner north development (last three years) – common features are bedrooms with no windows (“borrowed light”), single aspect and no storage space – among other poor design features.

    I recently went to view a brand new 1 bed rental in north fitzroy, I remarked to the real estate agent that it was a pity the bedroom had a “frosted glass” sliding door -which opened to the kitchen/dining and was the only source of natural light, she took a while to get what I was saying, then simply said “oh – they are all like that now”.

    Its easy to say this “product” is relatively affordable, targeted at young renters, who won’t say long, and therefore is acceptable. This is a common view among the “insiders” who will never live in a place like this. This view however, overlooks the significant costs of the Victorian “laissez-faire” approach to high density dwelling design, which can be summarized as;

    1. Actual long term financial cost – to strata owners for ongoing intervention to fix water/moisture problems (which could be directly mitigated by natural ventilation and other features of good design) – my 10 year old apartment block of 40 units has spent over $200K in the last year to patch up water issues related to poor in initial design – and the problem has not gone away, and probably never will.

    2. Social cost – we don’t even fully understand the psycho-social impact of poor access to natural light, suffice to say there will be impacts on health and wellbeing of the residents. As well as poor amenity forcing high tenant turnover – which doesn’t help stability of the block or neighbourhood.

    3. Environmental costs – significant additional energy use for heating / cooling and moisture removal.

    Its a huge topic, one which is “under the radar” of almost everyone in Victoria, save a handful of professional people who try and raise the issue, and ask why are we so far behind the rest of the country, and in fact the world?? State Gov has made noises but not interested in doing anything to challenge their “development industry” partners.

    Really great if you did an article to explore this important topic further.

  2. michael r james

    Those proposed SF micro-units are 20.4 m2 (220 sqft), pretty much spot on what I said was my minimum. BUT they propose to charge 40% more per sqm in rent compared to the usual size studio in SF! This looks a bit exploitative by the developers. Yet another of the usual reasons why renting is such a lousy deal, and makes it harder to dig out of a poverty trap.

  3. michael r james

    AD, I have only just skimmed it quickly but that article on affordable housing in San Francisco is quite interesting. Particularly the discussion of wood-frame buildings (though the discussion is all about “5 floors” and “5 plus 1” when actually the illustration is of 7 floors –an extra-height ground floor plus 6 extra floors). This is discussed in relation to changing existing regulations that restrict heights to less than this (not clear to me if that is total of 5 floors incl. ground or 6 ..) because it is exactly the kind of discussion we should be having in Australia for much of the densification occuring in Oz (instead the developers are driving it and getting their hi-rise or their 12- or 16-floor “low rise”). I hope you agree with the overall intention of the discussion?

    It is interesting about timber construction (apparently the 5+1 which appears to be actually 6+1 !?, is currently allowed in Seattle but not SF) being so much cheaper than all concrete+steel. Of course that in itself is height-limiting and right in my favourite sweet zone (a little bit lower than 8 but the reality is most Parisian/Barcelona etc structures are 6 to 7 floors; Ile St Louis is mostly 6) so you can I particularly loved that discussion.

    Also it resembles the Woolstore apartment building (and Teneriffe district) I live in. The building has a massive brick outer wall but almost no original walls internally and all supported by massive timber piers (and steel sawtooth roof with steel cable ties). My building is unique amongst the Teneriffe woolstores in that when converted, they poured a concrete floor on top of the existing timber floors (these floors were designed to hold thousands of tons of wool bales) so it makes it particularly solid and insulating. (I’ll be sad to leave my woolstore which I feel bound to do before too long. I’ve not seen anything quite as good elsewhere in Oz.)

    Buildings like this are no more at risk of fire than an all concrete one (because the main hazard is smoke from all the furnishings burning). Of course for SF, timber framed lower buildings are more earthquake resistant (or at least a lot cheaper to build than concrete+steel to meet the high building standards of California).

    But I couldn’t see any “even smaller apartments” you mentioned. Everything seems bigger than the micro-units proposed by Bloomberg? And if there were really apartments for $60k to $75k, I would buy one! Of course they would be reserved to locals (and families at that) which would be fair enough. I lived in SF (up on the UCSF medical campus on Parnassus) for 3 months and it is a fabulous city and probably the most cycle-friendly and cycled city in the US (Portland & Seattle may try for that mantle but their weather works against them).

    michael: Sorry, wrong link. Reference to 220 sq m apartments is in a related article. There’s a current proposal for a timber framed apartment building in Melbourne – didn’t take note where, but saw it in The Age a few weeks ago. I went to a seminar at Fed Square about three years ago which included a presentation on a built UK timber building around ten stories.

    And why would you want to leave such a wonderful neck of the woods? I lived on the other side of Teneriffe hill in the 2nd half of the 90s and loved it. AD

  4. Alan Davies

    Affordable by Design” – even smaller apartments in San Francisco.

    Then there’s “the world’s smallest house” at just 1 sq m.

  5. Wiz Aus

    I don’t see all that much point in having regulation *purely* on size, but as citizens of a first world country, we should be able to buy or rent any dwelling with the reasonable expectation it will be a safe and healthy environment to live in. Presumably part of that would be having sufficient square footage per person – if 100000 individuals freely choose to pack themselves into tiny apartments with only shared facilities leading to predictable physical and mental health consequences (not to mention likely fire or structural hazards etc.) then there’s obviously a case for regulation. But the worst outcomes surely stem from lack of alternatives (whether due to inflated land values, or the simple fact that some members of society are unable to be economically self-sufficient) which isn’t something regulation is going to fix.

  6. Dudley Horscroft

    “A sofabed is a terrible thing to have to live with day after day no matter what the bloke in the vid says.”
    With respect, no. I have lived on 2 different ships for a total of about 59 months in a cabin with a sofa/bed, one which folded down as shown. The back of the sofa folded down as part of the box containing the mattress. And the bedclothes had to be restrained by two stout leather straps to ensure the ship’s motion did not upset them – also a catch to ensure that as she rolled the back did not flop down. Very comfortable.
    And each cabin had its own toilet space, just room for lavatory pan, shower and washbasin. The bunks had underneath them drawers for clothes, etc. Naturally, there were the other facilities such as saloon, galley, for the use of all, and a lounge, plus the ship’s office.

    But surely the point is that different people have different requirements. As such, there must be a large variation in the size of the dwellings available. The nonsense of only 3 bedroom houses being built has been decried. Some need 5, some 4, some 3, some 2 and some 1 bedroom apartments. Some need very small space at low rent – students come to mind, and I would say that 4 small apartments, 10 – 15 sq m, each with all facilities, could be far better than 4 living in a four bedroom house and sharing everything except the bedrooms. Others could want such a place for the “city pad” used M-F and home on the weekends.

    This is a case where the free market should reign. NO regulation! You can bet your bottom dollar developers will not build anything they don’t reckon will sell or rent. In fact, developers are probably far too conservative – hence the prevalence of 3 bedroom houses!

  7. michael r james

    AD, I did see your agreement about 20 m2. Just thought I would restrain my natural snarkiness–it was enough to see the agreement!
    And methinks you are attempting to rewrite history, because you actually wrote (here, many other examples from your blog if I wasn’t such a lazy sod to look for them):

    “I think the effectiveness of his proposed regulation on maximum soft drink serving sizes is questionable” (my view: nothing else has worked so let’s see if this does something).

    “we’ve a long history of paternalistic regulation in Australia”

    “In the past, high minimum sizes for dwellings and lots have prevented some households from making their own decision”
    FWIIW, I have developed a theory about regulation (of human affairs) based on organic or biological regulation: we barely understand even the simplest set of biological processes that are controlled by mind-bogglingly complex regulatory circuits, yet alone truly complex stuff of higher functions like human brain function etc. It is a case of ever increasing regulation, everything is regulated by something else within positive and negative feedback loops etc etc. When neo-liberal economic rationalists talk (vacuously) about Darwinian forces being allowed to apply freely, they are correct, just in a very different way than they understand and of course over a timescale they would rather not contemplate.
    You could try thinking about it in this way: it means regulation is simply inevitable so the sooner we grapple with it and allow it to evolve into a “natural” set of systems that self-regulate the sooner our society will stabilize into something sustainable. By contrast laissez faire economics will result in catastrophic collapse which only by luck might give rise to a more stable system (a bit the way the world escaped the Great Depression until its lessons were forgotten after half a decade).
    Incidentally my comment about la Sloan was made before I saw that Dyer & Keane dissected her in today’s CDM!

    Michael: Ridiculous to take those three comments as evidence of an anti-regulation ideology! To form that conclusion you must think all regs are perfect and anyone who questions the quality of even a few must be a hard-line libertarian. Preposterous! AD

  8. Alan Davies

    michael r james #16…#21:

    “your various ideological tracts against regulation”

    Michael, good to see you leveraging the single issue of tiny apartments to make a much wider point! But no, I’m not anti-regulation. In fact I think markets almost always fail and regulation is a necessity in a whole bunch of situations, esp in cities (BTW you weren’t looking but I agreed with you at #12 that a 20 sq m minimum for dwellings seems about right for Australia).

    But I don’t share your faith that a centralised, regulatory elite with a monopoly on power does better than decentralised markets. History suggests otherwise. Both are imperfect but both are essential. I get the feeling that you might be the ideologue on this one – you’ve more in common with Sloane than you imagine!

  9. michael r james

    So, Alan, I posted all those examples to slam home the unavoidable lesson from one particular example (Hong Kong). It is that enlightened government regulation has solved a terrible problem. And that the experiment of leaving it to the “free market” not only has not solved the problem but allowed it to get much worse than it ever needed to get, and across all societal strata. HK property has continued to inflate so that the vast middle classes struggle to meet housing costs. The lower strata are put into unbearable penury in one of the richest societies on the planet.

    The free market does not want to serve the lower strata–not enough profit margin–and uses it power (in a Faustian bargain with Beijing to do its bidding as long as they are given free reign to profit by their despicable speculation by which everyone suffers except a very few at the top).

    So, perhaps you understand why I get so assertive/aggressive in comments when you wilfully ignore such lessons and continue to stubbornly propose similar “removal of regulation” as if it would magically solve housing and other society-wide and national (transport, health etc) issues, that history shows have never been solved by so-called free markets. Indeed the problems have been caused and/or exaccerbated by unconstrained market forces.

    IMO Australia needs a huge dose of regulation in urban development, transport and mortgage & rent laws. We have stupidly and fecklessly inflated the cost of our property (in the most empty country in the world!) to world-beating (or defeating) levels, locking up trillions of dollars into utterly unproductive and dangerously value-less “value”. The “freedom” of unregulated mortgage and property markets is simply the freedom to impoverish our society in a false-wealth trap. The proposition that 7 m2 rat-holes at outrageous rents is a “solution” deserves nothing but contempt.

    (My anger has been fanned this morning by just finished reading that lamebrain ideologue Judith Sloan’s Tuesday column.)

  10. michael r james

    And one of my favourites from Crikey:
    And which, incidentally puts to the torch your various ideological tracts against regulation (in one of the freest bastions of free-market-capitalism in the world)–and please note that rather mild government intervention is subverted by the greed of property speculators. As I have written in Crikey myself, ignoramuses like Joe Hockey and various other complacent Australian business interests and commentators who sing HK as the best example of laissez-faire, it is not quite what their room-temperature intellects see (eyes wide shut as usual except to the immense wealth of their speculator class).

    Friday, 20 April 2012
    Hong Kong resident David Parker writes: Apropos of your article on Joe Hockey’s advocacy of utilising Hong Kong or other Asian models for welfare entitlement, while it is true that pension-type entitlements (either for retirees, unemployed or people suffering from ill-health or disabilities) are very limited here in Hong Kong , it should be noted that Hong Kong people have substantially greater welfare entitlements than Australian residents in the areas of :
    housing (where fully half of the population is accommodated in government-supplied welfare housing at very cheap rates);
    • health (where a substantial public health system provides near-free health coverage, including access to GP-type treatment at public hospitals, and free or heavily subsidised pharmaceuticals)
    • public transport which, while all privately owned, is regulated as to pricing , and is clean, safe, cheap and plentiful; and where one can easily (maybe more easily) live life without a car
    • an Employment Ordinance [Act] which provides substantially greater protection to (for example) pregnant women (at the expense of the employer, not the government/taxpayer) than does theFair Work Act in Australia]

  11. michael r james


    Hong Kong under pressure as poverty levels rise
    Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world, with average property prices some 40 per cent higher than London’s. But underneath its glittering skyline, almost a fifth of the island’s population is now living in poverty.
    By Malcolm Moore, Hong Kong7:00PM BST 10 Oct 2011
    On Belcher street, in the city’s Western district, Fan Weibin, 35 and his wife Tsang, 32, were celebrating their daughter’s second birthday. …All four of them live in a room that measures just six feet by 10 feet; barely big enough for two bunk beds and a cabinet. At the end of the corridor is a shared room that doubles as kitchen and bathroom.
    “Actually, the rent per square foot for this room is much higher than for Hong Kong’s luxury apartments,” said Mrs Fan. “The worst thing is that the man in the cubicle next to us is mentally ill. He does not wash and often goes to the bathroom in his room. And he bangs on the walls, waking up our little girl”.
    Mr Fan works as a shop porter, hauling crates of tinned and dried seafood, while Mrs Fan’s mother is a street sweeper. Altogether, they earn just HKD9,000 a month (£740) and immediately shell out over 40 per cent of that in rent.
    Their large tenement building is a maze of what have become known as “coffin homes”, apartments that have been subdivided by slumlords into tiny plywood boxes, some too small for anything other than a camp bed.
    Hong Kong has always had a largely hidden underclass. But in the 14 years since the island was handed back to the Chinese, the number of poor has increased by a staggering 50 per cent to 1.26 million, according to the government.
    For Mr and Mrs Fan, as well as for 150,000 other families on the waiting list, the dream is to be allocated low rent public housing. They have already waited for four years.
    “Housing is the worst issue, because they have almost stopped building public housing,” said Eddie Tsang at the Hong Kong Council of Social Security.
    Last year, the city only built under 14,000 units, despite the island having a huge amount of land available. Critics suggest that the government, which once promised to build 85,000 units a year, is in thrall to the island’s property tycoons, who are keen to keep apartment prices high. Prices have risen 76 per cent since 2008.]

  12. michael r james

    AD, you asked “Those ‘cage houses’ sound awful but have to be seen in the local context and in terms of what the alternative is.”

    There is no mystery as to how to solve the problem as it was solved in the past when HK had an even bigger housing problem when it was poorer and had a bigger refugee and lower-income strata. Funny how government regulation and intervention in the housing market didn’t stop HK becoming the richest Asian nation (and by some measures richer than Australia–by the artificial measure of GDP per capita). The GFC and Beijing-control has produced a meaner less enlightened government.

    Here are a few recent articles pointing out the obvious:
    […in the 14 years since the island was handed back to the Chinese, the number of poor has increased by a staggering 50 per cent to 1.26 million, according to the government.
    Hong Kong under pressure as poverty levels rise
    Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world, with average property prices some 40 per cent higher than London’s. But underneath its glittering skyline, almost a fifth of the island’s population is now living in poverty.
    By Malcolm Moore, Hong Kong7:00PM BST 10 Oct 2011]
    Hong Kong offers free rent to council flat tenants
    More than 700,000 families living in council flats in Hong Kong will not have to pay rent for two months as the island tries to improve conditions for the poor.
    By Malcolm Moore, Shanghai12:33PM BST 12 Oct 2011]

  13. michael r james

    [Wiz Aus Posted July 17, 2012 at 8:33 am
    …. it seems pretty obvious regulation isn’t the answer …]

    Huh? You think regulation against such cages wouldn’t be a good idea (in fact not sure those things are legal in HK, and certainly not in Australia).

    Of course regulating against poor practice does not represent by itself a solution to the underlying problem. But I wouldn’t worry too much about HK’s tax payers as they are amongst the world’s most lightly-taxed people. Despite thei light taxation HK has managed, in the past (alas not today), to have one of the world’s most successful public housing programs (which of course heavily involved the private sector). Today, under the pretext of hard and uncertain times under the shadow of the PRC takeover (ahem, 15 years ago), HK’s developers put short-term profit over everything else, and alas, HK’s government is not as enlightened as previously. The real estate speculators have suppressed HK’s housing assistance programs so that the housing scarcity continues to drive HK real estate further into the stratosphere (already the world’s most expensive). And, follow the logic, if more public assisted housing relieved the problem, the flow on would be more affordable housing for everyone, something the speculators hate. (These are exactly the same forces that will rage against Bloomberg in NYC and anywhere government tries to ameliorate housing crises.)

    The solution of this problem will be a significant test of the newest (and effectively Beijing-appointed) head of government, who happens to be a real estate billionaire. Yes, just the person to solve such a problem (not)!

  14. Wiz Aus

    Having seen those awful pictures of the HK “cage homes” it seems pretty obvious regulation isn’t the answer – the only realistic way to ensure people aren’t living like that is to ensure affordable alternatives are available. Nobody would choose cages homes unless the alternative was sleeping on the streets (indeed personally, I’d rather take my chances living in a tent).
    The cost to HK’s ~4 million or so other taxpayers to ensure the least fortunate 100,000 have a decent space to live in would strike me as fairly minimal – and further I’d wager that many of those 100,000 would be more likely to contribute positively towards the economy if they were provided with living conditions that enabled a decent sort of existence.

  15. Jillian Blackall

    Jonathan: ‘These small apartments are likely to be temporary solutions, and will not foster establishment of a community’. Not necessarily. I’m a huge believer in small spaces. I have spent the last 10 years living in small spaces and have now established myself in 22 square metres where I intend to stay for possibly decades.

  16. Smith John

    Agree that the man is the video is an extreme case that few would want to emulate – but remember his dwelling size is less than a third of Mayor Bloomberg’s target.

    Jonathan: ‘These small apartments are likely to be temporary solutions, and will not foster establishment of a community’.

    I think sense of community arises mostly from the demographics of the people (people with children get to know each other more etc) and the opportunities for interaction created by good design of the public realm. I can’t see that the size of the dwelling behind the closed door has much to do with it.

  17. michael r james

    Alan, I am telling you and other commenters that, having actually experienced living in sizes that probably few Australians have, there is a minimum that I believe should be mandated/regulated. I simply don’t believe that the vid bloke is either being truthful or honest with himself.

    You can waffle about “mediation by various factors” but the minimum livable space that is sustainable over a period of years does have a floor independent of any other factor. You would leave it to the market (which means giving developers free reign) but you are wilfully ignoring that that very experiment has been performed in every major city at various times during the last century or so, and was been an unmitigated disaster. (HK has slacked off its previously successful public housing program that alleviated truly shocking housing situations, attributable to developer pressure, and they have undone a lot of the good progress they had made.) We are a rich society–one of the richest ever in the history of the planet–and we don’t have to put ourselves (or certain unfortunates in our society) through that again. We also do not have any true shortage of space, even in desirable convenient locations–as we have argued many times on this blogsite. (But the solution is not hi-rise either as developers dishonestly argue and you apparently support too.)

    And besides you are not arguing consistently or rationally as the so-called micro-units of NYC are actually a bit bigger than my minimum. And they are real apartments not just rooms in a doss house. (And as to analogies, the fire and health risks cannot.be.avoided if you allow 7 m2 rooms without proper provision for cooking.)

    Michael: I’d accept a minimum – your 20 sq m sounds OK by me for our cities. Increasing densities in sought-after locations should reduce the pressure to make units super small. However the minimum in a place like HK would be different. Those ‘cage houses’ sound awful but have to be seen in the local context and in terms of what the alternative is. AD

  18. Alan Davies

    michael r james @ #9 & #10:

    How small is appropriate for a particular individual is mediated by various factors like whether it’s voluntary, temporary, if residents have easy access to public places (which in turn depends on income), what is the space standard for the particular society, and what housing/location options residents would otherwise have access to. What size that man in the video is happy with is a different call from what would be a minimum acceptable size for social housing. How small is acceptable will also depend on what cost if any it imposes on the broader society – if it does (perhaps because of the fire hazard you mention) then there’s a case for regulation (which is why your Trabant example is irrelevant).

    However any regulation that sets a minimum size should be promulgated with a full understanding of the consequences. What, for example, would you do about the Hong Kong cage homes?

  19. michael r james

    Actually the proposed NYC micro-apartments “which are expected to measure approximately 275 to 300 square feet. These efficient, self-contained units will include kitchens and bathrooms. The RFP design guidelines encourage the development of a mixed-use building with apartments that have substantial access to light and air to create a sense of openness.”

    So the smallest is 3.5 times the size of the bloke’s room in the video, and pretty close to my minimum, stated in my earlier post, of about 20 m2.

  20. michael r james

    Hewson Peter Posted July 16, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    I think I was quite clear: the room is not an independently livable situation. It requires other elements (bathroom, toilet, kitchen).

    So, with your logic then you would also be happy with a bunch of 8 Chinese living in the same space (4 deep bunk beds, two sets in room), and with no sanitation–so they use a bed pan or perhaps just use the laneway outside. And then of course, no window to the outside. Such things have existed both in places like HK and in fact in most major world cities as they went through their hyper-growth phase. No accident that such things became progressively outlawed by regulation, always causing the slum landlords to shriek.

    We are not talking about what some/ or any people might tolerate, but what we want our society to set as minimums. Especially when we are talking for-profit entities making unconscionable profits.

    Your “thinking” and AD’s lamebrain neo-libertarian thinking just leads ineluctably to the lowest standards possible. Why not allow the cheapest cars ever made (Trabants or some Indian thing) and scrap all emissions and safety rules because you will always find people “happy” to go with it. Because they are risking other people, you say. Well, so do low standards of housing, not least public health and building safety (these things drove reform in NYC which had a horrible period of shocking unlivable housing).

    Finally, if private developers cannot make such minimally conforming apartments economic then there is a case for government intervention. In fact of course everywhere in the world–whether London, Paris, NYC (including areas of highly desirable location in lower Manhattan) and Hong Kong and Singapore have all intervened in the “free market” to drag housing standards up and accomodate their poorer strata of society. (My Parisian studio was effectively rent controlled, and even under the French law that mandates a maximum of one third of one’s salary to be spent on rent.) So the other part of the strong regulation I would want to see is either rent control on such minimalist apartments built by the private sector, and/or provision of such accomodation by the state (ie. inevitably involving some kind of subsidy).

    As to the bloke in the vid, no I don’t believe him. It doesn’t tell us how long he has been living there, and of course you think maybe there was a little either distortion or self-selection when a video was being made about it? And having lived in very small space myself I reckon he is in danger of inducing some adverse health effects: he works in that room and it would have to be oppressive. (And his shtick about going out when he is not working…. in a New York winter? Where? Lingering around the big department stores for the heating.) No, totally unconvinced.

  21. Hewson Peter

    My question to Michael (above) why is a room not an apartment?

    If the space you live in whether it’s a ‘room’, a boat, a campervan, or a mansion is what makes you happy so be it.

    You denigrate lots of the features that he has told us he’s happy with. I’ll go with him and his practical experience rather than you us that he has it all wrong.

  22. michael r james

    So, having just watched the video all the way through I can confirm that I would not want this size or style “room” to be allowable in Australia as a saleable independent living space.

    First, even if some people might claim to be “happy” with sharing the tiny communal kitchen with 4 other “apartments” (who knows how many people that could amount to), the actual space is simply not enough. The 78 sqft is 7.25 m2 which is probably the smallest a college dorm room is. A sofabed is a terrible thing to have to live with day after day no matter what the bloke in the vid says.
    Second, despite the shared kitchen this vid shows what typically still happens: people get some basic cooking facilities in their private space. This bloke is vegie and is “happy” with just a microwave (in the same closet as his clothes! he more or less admitted it wouldn’t work if he ate meat) but many occupants will get a electric hotplate or even gas, both of which would probably be against regulations on Health & Safety but will be impossible to prevent.
    Third, the vid didn’t even show the shared bathroom–again, shared with indeterminate number of people. No thanks. It is one thing to do this for a few years as a student and everything controlled by the university or college, but in private accomodation at high “free market” rents, NO.

    And this is not just a case of saying that it is not for me to impose my requirements on everyone. It is a case of what we as a nation believe minimum standards should be. People who are “happy” to live like that shown in the vid can choose to live in what would be called a boarding house, and that will be subject to regulation. But I do not want our society creating a entrenched subclass of “owners” of substandard ghetto housing.

  23. michael r james

    I have mixed feelings about this, mostly because I distrust developers who have no qualms about selling inhuman boxes at inflated prices (one will find that small apartments are the most expensive per sq m.). I particularly distrust Australian developers because of inexperience and the fact that they control politicians more completely than any other country I have lived in.

    So my very first requirement would be for strong regulation. As usual it is beyond ridiculous to imagine that housing can just be run on a “free market” basis–which would lead ineluctably to the lowest common denominator and the Kowloon Walled City effect.
    Take the picture: this is NOT an apartment, it is a room, and should never be allowed to be built or sold as a free-standing living space. Possibly the illustration is of one room in a shared apartment but that is a very different thing and would fall within regulations. Also, a point about size: that room is about 6 sqm or less, and it is impossible to have a proper living space of that size–hence the need for regulation. There is no bathroom and no cooking provision. I do not ever want to see such things (with Soviet style shared facilities on the “landing” etc) in a city in which I live. Such things have disappeared from Hong Kong (though I do not know if they are outlawed–perhaps it is the free market?) with good reason.

    In this context 25 m2 let alone >32 m2 is veritable luxury! The smallest independent apartment (versus college dorm room etc) I have lived in was 17.5 m2 and it was pretty nice. Other than location, location, location (on Ile St Louis in the very heart of Paris) the important features–and those which I consider minimal and thus should be mandatory by law–were separate bathroom (ie. with proper door, with shower/half-bath, wc, basin), separate (ie. with its own full size door) kitchenette (with sink, twin-hotplate cooker, fridge, and incredibly I fitted in a Miele washer/dryer with built-in table top) with its own little openable window to the courtyard. The main room had large windows at one end (a bit like the illustration but room was fair bit wider), a large built-in storage cupboard.wardrobe and the room was wide enough for a standard double bed at the blank wall end, with storage under).

    I have great memories of living there even if, after 6 years (never imagining I was going to stay so long in Paris) one starts getting cabin fever at times. Lots of friends from UK, Oz and USA stayed in it and also loved it. I wish I owned it today! (But obviously not as my principal residence.)

    Thus I think about 20 m2 is the lower limit I would condone for an independent apartment. They must have good air and light which could be provided by an internal courtyard of minimum size/neighbour separation but not just a tiny airshaft as recently described in that absurd Melbourne hi-rise that should never have got planning consent.

    Incidentally tiny rooms a bit like the illustration do exist in Paris and probably other Western cities as a result of legacy situations. They would be called Chambre de bonne (sleeping quarters for maids who worked in a bigger apartment below so, actually not for truly “independent” living) and today they would only be “popular” among third-worlders because who really wants to use a communal toilet outside the room and have zero cooking facilities (not to mention most are crammed under the roof which means they will be sweltering in summer, freezing in winter).

  24. Hewson Peter

    Last November I moved into my sub 50sqm unit. It has two bedrooms (each will take a queen bed), a separte bathroom and laundry and an okay kitchen/dining/living area. By dropping a bedroom and having a smaller living area (I have a lot of furniture crammed in) I could easily be comfotable in 20-25 sqm. I could go lower still (and will when I finally move into a retirement unit as my dad did).

    My unit would rent for $1100/mo in Penrith, outer Sydney: go figure that one!.

    It’s not especially well designed but I’m not about to play cricket in it. I agree though with marcusb: design, design, design is the secret. I have a friend who, with her husband, lived on a small yacht (not just small area but very low ceiling) and loved it: each nook and cranny used to max efficiency.

    Home (as opposed to housing), is in the eye of the beholder.

  25. marcusb

    To state the obvious, size is secondary to design quality. Small can work well if it is properly thought out. Integrated, built-in furniture and storage can make the tiniest space work beautifully, and there can be a special buzz to living in a tiny space. The problem comes when developers just shrink plans and expect occupants to shoehorn in ‘normal’ furniture layouts. Death to the ‘borrowed light’ bedroom!

  26. Jonathan Prendergast

    The well being of inhabitants of small apartments concerns me. In such an affluent country, is it really necessary to have such small living spaces?
    Additionally, an easy measure of success of an area creating a community is by seeing how long people stay in a place. Having some community can make people ‘sticky’, and likely to stay longer. These small apartments are likely to be temporary solutions, and will not foster establishment of a community. Don’t we want community ties to be stronger in our society? Is this not what we are working towards?

  27. wilful

    Regulating minimum sizes does seem a bit odd. Regulate the outcomes you’re seeking I would have thought. Safety and health.

    I reckon that student accomm in Carlton which is crap standard and has three or four asian students in one bedroom is a problem, but that’s nothing to do with the size of the apartment.

    We have a 41m2 apartment in St Kilda. Too small for me, but we have no problem getting tenants (couples mostly) in.

  28. hk

    The provision of more affordable living options is a requirement for central Melbourne to cater for the wide range of accommodation seekers such as students, the elderly and the underemployed. 25 sq m of living space for a sole occupant need not be mentally damaging providing fresh air and natural light are available to the occupier.
    It is understood that the availability of quality public space within walking distance is vital for the health and well-being of the studio dweller.
    Balconies, which can often be built at low cost, always add to the desirability of minimum size studios, making them more saleable and profitable for the developer. Particularly in Melbourne’s Mediterranean climate.

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