"Micro Apartments" and the Nefarious Rezoning of New York

I love me some Michael Kimmelman, even when he is profoundly wrong, in his new role as Times architecture critic, about how New York City does and should work. (Though when he’s right, he’s right! People should be rioting over the $4-BILLION World Trade Center PATH station!) He is a gentle and thoughtful soul. I will also point out that Kimmelman has published thirteen times so far this year, which, my goodness, that’s the last good job in America. So I suppose when I see things like his Twitter output today I recoil in horror, because, while I am perhaps a bit overly cynical about the rationale behind development in New York, even a fairly normal person might think that radical rezoning and the introduction of free-market “micro-units” of 250-square-feet is perhaps something of a dark sign!

Let’s talk about this touted micro-unit business!

Officials say there are about 1.8 million one- and two-person households in New York City, but only about a million studio and one-bedroom apartments—a sign, they say, that the city’s housing stock has not kept up with its changing demographics.

Those one- and two-person households include much of the City’s stock of middle class and well-off gays, for one thing. And rich singles. You can’t really shove small/childless households into a single demographic club. For another thing, it’s the larger households—particularly with children—who are more likely to be poor. And the un-rich singles form households out of roommates.

Young, single New Yorkers in particular can find it hard to find an affordable apartment as demand outstrips supply.

Hmm. It’s in part “demand” and “supply,” which certainly has an effect on vacancy rate, but what’s actually happened to force the vacancy rate to its current crazy breaking point is owner occupation, due to amazingly rising rents and low interest rates. When you do the math on mortgage v. rent, mortgage currently makes sense—if you’re well-off enough to put a lot of money down. But new owners is really what squeezed the rental market—not an increase in renters.

The mayor is calling for proposals over the next two months for a building containing about 80 micro-units, all of which must have kitchens and bathrooms…. The apartments, once built, will be sold or rented on the open market. The city will not be subsidizing the project. If successful, the pilot project could help usher in a loosening of the city’s zoning laws regarding minimum housing size.

That’s right: no subsidies, and welcome to the open market. So now we can introduce a stiff competition to get into a building of 250-square-foot apartments. The future is actually going to be worse than Blade Runner.

The mayor said the project is part of his plan to create or preserve 165,000 affordable homes in the city by 2014.

I believe that the Mayor believes in this plan. But no on else does, because they don’t have the incentive. (Also, let us never forget that the plan says “create OR preserve,” which is sort of like… okay so a baseline of success is zero new affordable homes? Okay!)

Let’s take 8 Spruce! That’s the Frank Gehry building downtown. (Which is lovely, by the way, on the inside! Though frankly, Mr. Gehry, I found the pool to be small.) As you may recall, the building got “$203.9 million in tax-free financing from the New York Liberty Bond Program,” and got a 20-year tax abatement by, instead of creating affordable units, donating 3% of their financing to the New York City Housing and Urban Development Council. (That’s how it works: either you cough up some cash, or you have to put poor people in your building.) Wouldn’t you cough up $6 million in exchange for being able to rent out $6400 750-square-foot one-bedroom apartments? (Though you get two months free rent on a 14-month lease! And amazing views! Plus no broker fee! Those apartments are really pretty, especially if you don’t own anything and/or are Patrick Bateman.)

As far as I can see, every bit of development and rezoning from Giuliani to Bloomberg has only served rich and upper-middle-class people, from the new garbage high-rise canyon that is Sixth Avenue in the 20s and 30s to the Williamsburg waterfront. The development, while adding needed dwelling units, has had profoundly negative impact on middle-class and not rich people. And it’s had a profound impact on neighborhoods: what happens to your rent when there are $6400 one-bedrooms all around you? Yup.

The pro-development agenda of the Mayor—which, yes, is part of the lifeblood of the City! Money is what makes the City go round!—cannot compete with the pro-affordable housing agenda of the Mayor. There is absolutely nothing about rezoning Midtown East and creating “free market micro-apartments” that will serve people who should have affordable housing, really it’s quite the opposite.