JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. Population in America's big cities is surging, and more people are choosing to live alone. But where? As the demand for housing rises, some renters are opting to downsize their belongings and move to smaller spaces - much smaller. Imagine a single room no larger than many American closets and a community kitchen shared with multiple residents.
But even such tight quarters can come with hefty price tags, and these buildings full of miniature abodes are not always popular with the neighbors. If you live in a tiny space or in a community where this is happening, give us a call and tell us what works, what doesn't. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address: email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Alicia Partnoy, a former prisoner during Argentina's Dirty War. But first, micro-housing. We begin with Felice Cohen. She's a professional organizer who took on a huge challenge living in a 90-square-foot apartment in New York City, and she joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
FELICE COHEN: Thanks, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: So which is bigger: the studio you're sitting in right now, or your former apartment?
COHEN: Oh, the studio.
LUDDEN: Why did you decide to squeeze yourself in such a small space?
COHEN: Well, I wanted to try living in Manhattan, and I didn't want to go broke doing it. So I looked around and, through a friend, I found this tiny apartment. And she said, you know, if Michael Jordan were to stand inside and put out both arms, he could touch both walls. And she wasn't kidding.
But the price was right. The location was great. It was on the Upper West Side, where I wanted to be, and I wanted...
LUDDEN: What was the price?
COHEN: It was $700.
LUDDEN: When was this?
COHEN: I moved in in 2007, and I moved out last year.
LUDDEN: OK. That's only a good price in New York, I think.
COHEN: Yeah, average for that area is about $3,000.
LUDDEN: And what was the biggest surprise once you moved in?
COHEN: Well, it was the bed. You know, in the video - there's a video of it on YouTube, and you had less than two feet from the top of the mattress to the ceiling. That took a little getting used to, and it didn't have...
LUDDEN: No sitting up in the middle of the night when you wake up from a dream.
COHEN: No, none of that. You had to - no spicy food before dinner. But it was also - there was no kitchen. So that took a little adjustment. But I made it work, and I loved it. I only planned to be there for a year, but it ended up being four-and-a-half.
LUDDEN: Huh. Now, there is, as you mentioned, a video of your apartment - it went viral. What was that like?
COHEN: You know, the woman had contacted me to make a video. I didn't have any idea what would happen. I figured a couple people would see it. And when it went viral, just - I just got emails from people all over the world, just either loving my space, wondering how I did it, asking for advice or where they could find a small space in New York just like it.
LUDDEN: Did you get any negative responses?
COHEN: There were some - yeah, there were a few negative. I tended not to read those, but there were. People just said, you know, for that much money, you could have a huge house in Indiana. And I said, well, that's great, but I kind of want to be in New York right now. And it was worth it. You know, it was - my priority was to live in Manhattan and to be part of that culture.
LUDDEN: Did you know other people living in such a small space?
COHEN: Not as small, no. I mean, as an organizer, I've worked in the city, and I've seen all kinds of places, but none were as small as mine. But, you know, I knew when I first saw the apartment, even though it was crowded with the woman's stuff before me, that, you know, you have to go up in New York, just like the buildings. And I knew, you know, how to store. And then it was about getting rid of stuff, stuff you don't need.
LUDDEN: Well, being an organizer, any tips for those who are out there in micro-housing? What are your top three make-it-fit tips?
COHEN: Unless you can eat it, use it or wear it, get rid of it. That's - and then go up and really, you know, storage has to go up.
LUDDEN: Now why did you leave?
COHEN: I was evicted. With all the media attention, the woman who was subletting to me apparently wasn't supposed to sublet, and the landlord said bye-bye. You have to go. And so I figured, OK. And it actually worked out well. I bought - I ended up buying a place. You know, I'd been saving for years.
LUDDEN: Well, I guess you did work up a lot of savings, then.
COHEN: I did. I did. It was great. It's in the same neighborhood. So it worked out.
LUDDEN: I mean what do you - what larger purpose do you see this kind of housing fulfilling?
COHEN: I think it's great. I think the people especially who come to cities like, you know, New York and San Francisco and Boston where they want to do this, people come because they want to make it in something, whether it's finance or writing or theater or art. People who come to these cities are motivated to try to do something.
And it's not about, you know, living in a big house, or - and I - when you're in New York, you don't really spend that much time in your apartment, anyway. So you really just need a place to sleep.
LUDDEN: So this is good, perhaps, for people who, as you said, want to make it, haven't made it yet, are sacrificing for some dream.
COHEN: Yeah. I wouldn't call it even sacrificing, because for me, you know, when - it was about, you know, wanting the experience of living in Manhattan, wanting to be near the theater and the museums and the park and the people. And so I didn't feel like I was sacrificing at all. You know, there were times I wished I had a little more space, but, you know, you go outside, and you get over it.
LUDDEN: All right. Let's bring another voice in. Jeffrey Cook is a resident of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle, the other side of the country. He serves on the community council there. The council passed a moratorium on micro-housing development. Mr. Cook joins us now by phone. Welcome to the program.
JEFFREY COOK: Thank you. It's nice to be here.
LUDDEN: So, in Seattle, they have these small things they call aPodments, which makes it sound like it should be in Boston. Tell us why you, on the council, objected to the development of these very tiny units.
COOK: Right. The aPodment, by the way, are a trademark name. That's just one brand of them. But there's - we just call them micro-housing out here. And so I'm with the community council. We're a volunteer organization that represents citizens' concerns and interests, and we carry those forward to city council for consideration.
And I want to stress that we didn't pass a moratorium against micro-housing. We passed - what we passed was how they're being developed in our cities. So some of the standards of what we're talking about in this city might be very different from New York.
People don't come to Seattle to have a New York living experience, right. You do that in New York. So we're - Capitol Hill is - it's a very populated, eclectic mix of housing styles, and a range of people living there. But you can't just move in and tear down whatever you want and put up whatever you want. There's zoning standards, and there's development standards, you see.
So what's been happening is that these micro-housing units have been skirting the zoning laws because they've been basically misrepresenting themselves to the city for what they are. So we went back to the city, and we said we want a moratorium on these kinds of developments until you can clean up the development language and get all of these buildings built in the same way that other apartment buildings are being built in. Then we can move forward with a conversation.
But it's just anarchy right now. There's dozens of these buildings popping up all over the neighborhood, and they're not falling into the zoning laws.
LUDDEN: And how is that? How are they able to skirt the zoning laws?
COOK: Well, they're misrepresenting themselves to the city, and this really has come out to be a fact based on some dogged questions by City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen in particular, and a few other councilmembers. Because of the way the zoning laws are written in Seattle, they only count a dwelling unit if it has a kitchen with a stove in it.
So one stove, one kitchen, that's a dwelling unit. But then there's up to seven apartments, separate leases, can use that one kitchen, and those seven units are just still counted as one unit because of the kitchen. And this was done to encourage people to do some communal living in some of the larger, older homes in our neighborhood. But developers have said well, if seven units and one kitchen is one unit, then 49 units and, you know, seven kitchens is seven units.
So they went to the city and got approval for developing a seven-unit apartment, or seven-unit townhouse. And then the next thing you know, 49 or 56 or whatever people are moving in right next door to a small, little single-family home in a block of single-family homes.
So this misrepresentation has really put a bad taste in people's mouth for micro-housing, which is unfortunate. It should be an option. But it can't be done like this. There needs to be fair standards. These buildings need to go through a design review process, because a lot of the buildings in our neighborhood are historic, 1900s homes, and people are particular about how things look.
And all the other apartment buildings have to go through design review. So should these buildings. They need to come to the same standards. And there's - frankly, there's some safety violations going on in these buildings, too, because the city thinks it's only seven units, but it's 50.
LUDDEN: OK. So a lot to chew on there. Let's bring a quite caller in. John is in Alameda, Oakland, California. Welcome to the program.
JOHN: Thank you. When I was in college, I dated a woman who lived in a quad, which is similar to what you're talking about, essentially a bedroom, like a dorm room, with a common kitchen with four different residents. And that worked for them. I also lived in a men's co-op, which was in an old 1920s sorority house. And there were up to 50 of us sharing a common kitchen.
And one of the things we have lost in the United States is a sense of community. And one of the things that, in a very small way, these pods with a shared kitchen can do is help restore, on a very small level, the kind of community that we need to restore to rebuild the social fabric in our cities that are going to help - and it's going to help things like gun violence and crime and the sense of alienation that many of us feel when we're locked off in our own separate, little zones - whether they're single-family residences or apartments, and I've lived in all of the above.
However, I also acknowledge the - your fellow from Seattle who just spoke. The zoning regulations and developer behaviors need to be transparent and accountable, and the zoning regulations do need to clearly state what is required for the good of the public. I go along with that need entirely, but not on a NIMBY basis - which I don't think is what he has in mind - so that we know what we're going to get, and that the full impact of these housing developments are accounted for, and developers cannot hide behind the numbers, which developers love to do, because they're greedy.
LUDDEN: All right, John, thank you so much for the call. Felice Cohen, you don't live in the micro-apartment anymore. Would you move back to such a place?
COHEN: I don't know. I loved it when I lived there. I think, you know, now, I've just fallen in love with my little apartment that's just a little bigger. It's just under 500 square feet.
COHEN: Yeah. It's huge, compared to my last one. It depends on the situation. I think in this time in my life, it worked for that point in my life, and now I think I've moved on a little bigger, but definitely not a huge space, again.
LUDDEN: All right, Felice Cohen, author and professional organizer, she joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much for your time.
COHEN: Thank you.
LUDDEN: And Jeffrey Cook is going to stay with us. He's a Capitol Hill community councilmember, and is on the line from Seattle. And we'll also be hearing from an urban planner in New York, who is - which is planning to build more of these micro-houses.
Do you live in an uber-tiny house? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Or drop us an email. That address is firstname.lastname@example.org. More in a moment. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Living in small spaces is becoming more popular, and New York City isn't the only place in the country where these tiny units are being built. In Boston a new Wharf Tower will have units as small as 450 square feet. In November, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a law to permit 220-square-foot units there.
But not all communities are embracing the tiny abodes. In Seattle, one neighborhood council has pushed back against micro-housing development. What are your experiences living in or near micro-housing? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's start off with Christopher, who is in Boulder, Colorado. Welcome to the program.
LUDDEN: Hi, go right ahead.
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, hi. So I recently, about a year ago, built a tiny house, which is a freestanding micro-structure, and I've been living in it part-time since then and actually deciding this month to transition to living in it fulltime. And I also have spent the last two years traveling around the country and making a documentary film, a feature documentary, on people who live in these types of structures, and it's actually making the festival circuit right now.
So I've had a bit of experience looking into this, and I actually think that they're overwhelming positive developments. And granted, we were looking at specifically stand-alone tiny houses, but I think micro-dwellings in general actually really enhance communities and makes them more diverse and allow for different socioeconomic background to kind of all inhabit one place, not to mention all the benefits that they provide to, you know, individuals.
LUDDEN: So - but I mean it's something clearly maybe not for everyone. Is it a time and a place or a certain time of your life?
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, definitely. I would agree that, that it definitely appeals to, you know, individuals or couples, sometimes small families, there are a number of small families who live in 200 square feet, and also older people as, you know, they're growing older, mother-in-law apartments, things like that.
And it's not for everybody, but I think that the overall message that they send is an overwhelming positive one, that we should all be looking at, you know, our size - the size I would choose to live and actually look at what we need versus what we want, and really like think about how we live. And I think that sometimes these housing codes that we have, and perhaps what the gentleman was referring to in Seattle, you know, I think they're a little outdated.
And maybe going around them isn't the proper way, but if we had some sort of mechanism to update them, there would be a lot less people trying to do that.
LUDDEN: All right, Christopher, thanks for the call.
CHRISTOPHER: Thank you.
LUDDEN: We have an email from Nick, who writes: I'm listening to your program at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I moved into a 1991 Winnebago Warrior micro-mini motor home with my cat two and a half years ago, have not looked back since. It's very low-cost, he writes. I use solar and wind power to generate electricity. Despite the cost of gas and the 30,000-plus miles I've driven, much more affordable than living in the city.
Jerilyn Perine is the executive director of New York's Citizens Housing Planning Council. She joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome.
JERILYN PERINE: Thank you.
LUDDEN: So your organization started a program called Making Room that deals with micro-housing. How did this come about?
PERINE: It really came about not so much because we were starting with the idea of creating micro-units but rather because we were looking at the data that really describes our population in New York and in America more broadly. And in New York there's a significant single-person population, and about a third of our housing units are occupied by a single person living alone. In Manhattan that number is closer to half.
And we saw this increase in the single-people population coming into our housing market who are forced almost exclusively to seek housing in the informal housing market, and that housing market in fact has many of the problems that Jeffrey Cook was talking about in Seattle, and in fact in New York it's pretty extreme.
And this market is unregulated, people often don't have the legal right to be in that apartment. They can also put themselves at risk of fire safety and other concerns. So clearly there was a need, but the population didn't have enough choices in the housing market to find legal, safe housing.
So we began to look at alternatives, and one of them certainly was a smaller unit that was not permitted under our existing zoning and building code.
LUDDEN: So your idea was we'll make it legal and we'll control it?
PERINE: Exactly, regulate it, make it safe, make it legal, bring it into the light of day and really put more choice out there. And for us it's not just about micro-units, it's also about looking at how to make safe and legal basement apartments that can be converted and be fire-safe as well as creating units for single people to share, because as the caller spoke about, that sense of community, that also comes from single people sharing.
And we're seeing more of a trend of that in New York as well. And we think that there should be more choices for people.
LUDDEN: Jeffrey Cook in Seattle, you've raised a lot of objections to this micro-housing unit in a very, you know, single-family residential neighborhood. I mean, do you see it as part of the future for Seattle at large? And where does that kind of development stand?
COOK: Right, well, I will return to my first point, which is that this needs to be done through legal standards, and there is a process for how to do it. It doesn't have to be haphazard. But Capitol Hill isn't just single-family homes. We have apartment buildings from the '20s. I live in a condo built in 1980. So there's 12 units in my building, and there's lot of community there.
We're always getting together. We don't have to share a kitchen to have community. If that works for some people, that's great. That's not what we do. It's also nice to go to somebody's house who has a house down the street and have a garden party or be outside and so forth.
But, you know, if people are finding community in them, that's great. In Seattle, these places, a lot of them are under 200 square feet. So they are very small. They're starting at about 600 and going up to $700 and above. So they're not necessarily all that affordable. And they're really only for some people.
They're for singles; you cannot have even a single mother with a child in them. They're only for young singles who are healthy. There's no elevators. It's just, it's a very particular type of person who's able to go live in them. We've heard from some seniors who are living in them, if they're able-bodied. If you're in a wheelchair, there's not a lot of units available for you. So it's a very specific kind of person who can and will live in these, which is great, but we want variety in our neighborhood.
We want to make sure that we're not losing our older homes where seven different people are renting a room in an older home, tearing that out and then putting in a place where only, you know, 49 young people can live, or 50 or 60. That's what's happening. So we want a range, and this doesn't really give us that kind of range right now.
LUDDEN: All right, let's get another caller on the line. Scott is in Phoenix, Arizona. Welcome to the program.
SCOTT: Thank you. I'd like to put an entirely different twist on the conversation. I am a piano tuner and a musician. And I wonder, if this were to become something very popular and widespread, what would the impact be on the arts in terms of just physically having the space for the instruments for people to learn how to play and enjoy music?
LUDDEN: No grand piano in this.
SCOTT: Exactly. And I'll take my answer off the air.
LUDDEN: OK, thank you very much.
SCOTT: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Let's get another call. We have actually - let's see if I can dump that call there. Greg is in Seattle in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, I believe. Hi Greg.
GREG: Hi there. Yes, I am a property owner in Capitol Hill, Seattle, and also a former urban planning professor. And I generally support micro-housing. I think it's an excellent land use, and it's basically the opposite of sprawl. If you look at the demographics, people - the largest growing sector of households are single-person households, and a lot of those currently are occupying two-bedroom or larger condos, houses, et cetera.
And this really is just about choice. You know, I think that those who want to live in it should be able to if that's what they want to do. But I think one unresolved question that could make these a lot more acceptable to the neighbors would be, where are these folks going to park? Because they tend to be young professionals who have good incomes. They're going to want to have cars.
They may not even use them every day. And I'm wondering, has anybody looked at, you know, how do you deal with the parking issues in a dense urban environment, and is there a way to have them park offsite, have them park their cars three blocks away so that when they're going out of town they've got a place to go, but they're not going to use their car every day because they're living in a dense urban environment.
LUDDEN: All right, thanks so much for the call, Greg. We've got an email as well from Maria on Camano Island, Washington. She says: I live in a 300-square-foot cabin, been here five years. I love it. My bathroomette and kitchenette are each 30 square feet, and I can touch both walls at the same time. My living bedroom - living/bedroom/office are in the other 240 square feet. It works perfectly with my multiple sclerosis.
Like the former caller, when I feel like I need more space, I go outside and take pictures of the island - paradise on Earth, she says. Jerilyn Perine in New York City, I'm imagining a lot of people in your micro-housing units don't have cars there in the city. But are there other impacts that you have to gauge when you're packing so many more people into the same amount of space?
PERINE: Well, yes, of course. I mean, you know, you always have to look at the specific context for any building, but again, if you take the New York example, this population is already here. And so it's not like you're going to be increasing the population by creating these units. The population is here, but they are turning to an informal and often illegal housing market to obtain it. And so we just want those people to have a choice to be housed more reasonably.
You always have to look at questions of location, and, you know, parking is a good point. That's not a big issue, particularly for the adAPT pilot that Mayor Bloomberg is now doing with a developer in Manhattan, because you don't really need to have a car in Manhattan. And for the most part, in fact, we're finding this population is not a big apartment - not a big parking user.
The other thing to remember about issues like parking for people who are calling in from other cities is that, in fact, in a place like New York, there's no regulation. You could have a single-family home, and you could have five cars. And so there's nothing that is regulating that, either.
So the single population is here. They're here to stay. And I should point out that New York is actually 17th on the list of cities with a proportion of single-person households. So, in fact, this isn't just sort of a New York idea. Seattle and D.C. are way up on top. But a lot of cities that you might not imagine have a higher proportion of single-person households than New York, like Nashville and Milwaukee.
So this is an American issue. You actually see this same population trend happening in Europe, and it's here to stay. And so we have to think about a single population and how best to house them and how to give them the greatest choice and the greatest amount of mobility.
LUDDEN: All right. We have an email from Jake in Iowa City. He worries about micro-housing for two reasons. One, it's going to create subsidized micro-slums via Section 8 public housing, he writes. And, two, it's being presented as something new. Housing shortages and housing overcrowding has a long history in the U.S., especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Do we really want to repeat those mistakes?
Let's get a caller on the line, Luis(ph) in San Antonio, Texas. Welcome to the program, Luis.
LUIS: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
LUDDEN: Go right ahead.
LUIS: Well, I just wanted to mention about the small homes that you were talking about. I was in the U.S. Navy a long time ago. And after three deployments to the Persian Gulf, I came back, like many veterans, very depressed, and honestly, I was ready to end it. And one thing I did, I just got on my car, and I went to - I was stationed in San Diego, California. I went across the border to Tijuana, not knowing where I was going to end up. And amazingly I found this super-tiny apartments there. They were probably about three feet by eight feet.
LUDDEN: Oh, my.
LUIS: They were ridiculously - and I was just so depressed. I said, how in the world am I going to live there for now? And I just rented it, thinking, well, maybe just for a few days, and then move somewhere else. I don't know. I was too depressed to care. So I moved there, but amazingly, these settings were in a - everything was like a community. The kitchen was a community. The shower area - they were not all together, but there were separate stalls.
LUDDEN: So you're in a three-by-eight foot space, but you're sharing common rooms with other people? That's what it was?
LUIS: Yes, yes. We shared all the other common areas. And amazingly, everything worked really well. And I credit that one place for giving me my life back, because just interacting with people every day, simply waiting them at the kitchen for your turn. You start talking about, hey, is anybody waiting to cook after you? Yeah, somebody else. But then you're next. OK. What are you cooking? And then you start interacting, and your life completely changes.
LUDDEN: Wow. So community housing - community living in a micro-house kept you from suicide, is what you're saying.
LUIS: Yes, yes. It definitely did. I recently watched a documentary called "Happy" on Netflix, and that documentary shows how, around the world, some of the happiest people are the people living in community housing, and I honestly can testify to that. It definitely opened my life. I'm so thankful for that.
Now things changed. I live back in Texas, where I'm from. I own a large home, but now I'm completely healed from that. I just live with my wife. You know, they have four bedrooms. But if it wasn't for that experience, I wouldn't be here.
LUDDEN: Luis, thank you so much for the call.
LUIS: Thank you.
LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Jeffrey Cook, that was quite a powerful testament to community housing there, but your concern is that it be carried out in the right way.
COOK: Well, absolutely, and I'm glad he had a good experience there. I know lots of people do. But now, of course, you notice he's moved on from there, too. I don't know that these are places that somebody can age out in. You know, we've had some of the seniors in our neighborhood move out because there were so many people all of a sudden crawling in all over next door to them, and it was like they were living by a hotel.
But if it works for some people, then that's great. I do worry about long-term sustainability issues. And people might be single while they're young, but then they want to meet somebody and start a family, or whatever. They're - you know, we need to have options for that, too. So there's nothing wrong with people having their own home. We need to make sure that that's done in the right way, too.
Previous callers have mentioned parking issues, which is a huge issue in Seattle. There's not a good transportation system here. People do have cars. And if only 15 percent of a 50-unit building have cars, then that's a lot more cars on a street where there's absolutely no space.
So a lot of these things aren't thought about in advance. It's just happening. People are rushing in, swinging hammers, and there are thousands of these units set to be built - many of which are already built - on the neighborhood of Capitol Hill.
So it's not like there's a shortage of these, you know. There's lots of them coming out. There's plenty of - this is still an opportunity for people. We're not taking that away. We want it done right, and considering the people who are going to live in them.
You know, just because someone's low-income doesn't mean that they should have to sacrifice life quality issues or safety issues. You can't even get a stretcher into a lot of these buildings, because the hallways and stairs are so tight.
COOK: And that's not the way to do it. They shouldn't have to live in an unsafe building or an ugly building. They should have the same considerations that other people have in those cities of - in terms of what standard of building we're going to have, and I'm not sure that that's being thought of.
LUDDEN: All right. We have another call from out - your neck of the woods there. Richard is in Kennewick, Washington. Hi, Richard.
RICHARD: Hi. Yes, I wanted to talk about a traffic in Seattle. According to recent news, it's the first - the fourth-worst in the nation. And according to the same news source, it's actually getting worse, and I think micro-housing is going to exacerbate that problem. Parking is terrible in Seattle. And one of the considerations, I think, for the city council should be tourism. I love Seattle, and I like to travel up there all the time. But I've decided I'm not going more. The traffic is terrible seven days a week.
LUDDEN: All right, we've got to leave it there. Richard, thank you so very much. There's lots more to say about the topic, but we'll just have to leave it. Jeffrey Cook, a Capitol Hill Community councilmember, joined us by phone from Seattle, and Jerilyn Perine with the New York's Citizens Housing and Planning Council from our New York bureau. Thank you so much, both of you.
PERINE: Thank you.
COOK: Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity.
LUDDEN: Up next, Alicia Partnoy, a former Argentinean political prisoner, on the death of Jorge Videla. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.