Do Small Apartments Really Pose a Health Risk?


In today's economic climate, there are a lot of advantages to living in a smaller space -- affordability, potentially better location, in addition to consciously paring one's "stuff" down to the essentials. But could smaller apartments -- especially in cramped, urban areas like New York City -- be detrimental to one's health?

A recent piece in The Atlantic raises this very question, focusing on a recent micro-apartment development of units ranging from 250 and 370 square feet that will be located on a city-owned site at East 27th street in Manhattan. Made possible by the waiving of certain zoning laws, the units have been designed with 10-foot ceilings and Juliet balconies by Brooklyn-based firm nARCHITECTS. The city's pilot project has been described as one possible solution to NYC's growing housing crisis, characterized by a shortage of affordable housing and a booming "underground housing market" (illegally converted lofts, basements and apartment shares).

Great for singles, but not families

Some observers are, however, skeptical about how effective micro-units might be in alleviating the crisis. Though the project's target demographic is young professionals in their twenties, if micro-units like these are to be NYC's wave of the future, some experts believe that there may be negative mental health impacts of living in a small space, especially for older adults or families with children. Says Dak Kopec, director of design for human health at Boston Architectural College:

Sure, these micro-apartments may be fantastic for young professionals in their 20's. But they definitely can be unhealthy for older people , say in their 30’s and 40’s, who face different stress factors that can make tight living conditions a problem.


How small is too small?

It's a valid debate that is bound to happen sooner or later: some of these single, young professionals will be having families of their own, and living in a small space with kid(s) would probably pose a huge challenge. Yet, it begs the question of how small is too small; this can vary from person to person and also from country to country.

Design matters too: these micro-units certainly won't be the cramped tenements of NYC's once-infamous slums either; the building will be well-situated, well-lit, and its modular design places an emphasis on shared community areas to compensate for smaller living spaces, boasting a rooftop garden, gym and shared lounges on almost every floor. Hardly the squalid cubicle apartments of Hong Kong.

It's really about affordability

Of course, micro-apartments should not displace housing stock intended for families, but it seems rather tenuous to link mental health risks with a micro-unit design that incorporates generous common spaces to improve the overall living experience.

But Susan Saegert, a professor of environmental psychology and director of the Housing Environments Research Group, rightly highlights the possibility that "ground rent" (dollar per square foot that developers earn from their investment) might actually increase with micro-apartments. The Atlantic explains:

So over time, New Yorkers may actually face more expensive housing, paying the same amount to rent a studio in the neighborhood where they used to be able to afford a one-bedroom. With the gradual erosion of zoning rules, the micro-apartment could very well become the unit of the future, the only viable choice for a large number of renters.


It's something we've discussed before: how micro-apartments may be small, but rents are not. It seems then, that the issue is less about the size of the apartments -- as New York already has a sizeable population (33 percent) who are singles living alone, who might actually not mind living in a micro-apartment -- and more about long-term affordability of housing.

This is a particularly sobering point emphasized by a recent report by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHP), which found that in half of the city’s community districts, the majority of affordable units are, in fact, too expensive for the average income of neighborhood residents.

As ANHP policy director Barika X. Williams explains in the New York Times:

Starting in 2017, the city will begin losing an average of 8,500 affordable units each year because of expiring short-term affordability limits. The city cannot continue to give developments public financing, zoning or tax incentives if they do not produce permanently affordable units. We should return to the Koch model of working with community-based nonprofit developers who achieve long-term affordability and provide the greatest neighborhood benefit.

There's no doubt that New York needs more housing, as more and more people are wanting to live there, and with limited real estate, new apartments are inevitably going to be smaller. Of course, regulations are needed to oversee future micro-developments, to avoid coffin-sized apartments. But as we've seen in dense European and Asian cities, good design can actually make small spaces quite agreeable, but good design cannot replace sound policy.

What do you think -- are micro-apartments too small to be healthy? What else could be done to address the issue of affordable housing in cities like New York?