As rents increase and household income stagnates, more people are turning to micro-living as an alternative to pricier options. On Tuesday, June 28, at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A., KPCC reporter Josie Huang met with a panel of experts to discuss the viability of micro-units as a response to L.A.’s affordable housing crisis. Panelists discussed the recent trend in the development of micro-units – typically apartments that are 400 square feet or smaller. Topics covered included the affordability and sustainability of the units, their impact on the racial and socioeconomic composition of neighborhoods, and the cultural and economic trends whose pressures they reflect.
What is a micro-unit and who wants to live in one? This is a question that kicked off the KPCC In Person conversation on micro-living. And there was no clear answer among panelists.
Alan DiBartalomeo – a principal at Urban Developers, a luxury real estate firm that developed a high-rent high-rise in Glendale featuring 15 percent micro-units – explained that micro-units allow people to live close to theater, public transport, restaurants, and markets, at lower rates than they would pay for larger spaces. At the same time, DiBartalomeo was quick to point out that the micro-units he develops are “as fully appointed as any apartment” in terms of wiring and plumbing, and as such cost more per square foot than a larger unit. A 375 square-foot-unit in downtown Glendale runs $1850 a month.
Sissy Trinh, executive director of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance, said micro-units are an old idea being rebranded to appeal to a younger, wealthier, and more upwardly mobile demographic. To afford a luxury micro-unit, Trinh calculated that “you have to make between $65,000 and $85,000 a year,” a small fraction of Los Angeles’s population and not the socially vulnerable demographics feeling the housing crunch most acutely. Trinh also said micro-units “have been around for over a hundred years” under different names: single-room occupancy hotels, efficiencies or, more pejoratively, flophouses. Citing Korea and Japan as examples, Takako Takima, an independent architect and lecturer at USC, agreed, saying micro-living is not a new phenomenon: “In other countries, what we call micro-living is just living.”
Mimi Zeiger, architecture critic and author of two books about living small, lived in a 350-square-foot unit in Brooklyn. She suggested having less space allowed her to simplify and redesign aspects of her life. Audience member Dawn Davis agreed, citing time for self-reflection and a strong motivation to shed unnecessary possessions as advantages of micro-living. Davis said she is lucky, though, to live in a rent-controlled micro-unit that costs only $909 a month.
Panelists and audience members during the Q&A struggled to reconcile vexing issues of class, race the socially vulnerable with the realities of micro-living. While DiBartalomeo said he saw micro-units as a potential boon to aging baby boomers, Takima said luxury micro-units are unsustainable: The millennials who rent them due to meager post-recession salaries will not be willing to raise families in them. Trinh agreed, seeing micro-units as the thin end of gentrification’s neighborhood-changing wedge. Takima and Trihn said the new interest in micro-units would entice a wealthier and more upwardly mobile demographic into lower-income neighborhoods and residents, while Zeiger countered that well-developed micro-units could provide a beneficial environment for the poor and recently homeless. Trinh said the city would need to step in and aggressively regulate development to protect the needs of the poor and homeless in light of the recent boom.
The panel also pondered the cultural shift represented micro-living’s popularity in Los Angeles – a place that has historically been associated with access to space. Zeiger called this shift “a critique of the supersized American dream.” She offered Los Angeles’s history of architectural experimentation as a beacon of hope in the current crisis. “There hasn’t been planning to understand that we’re a city that is densifying at such a rapid rate. But I think now that we’re recognizing it, we come from a history or really interesting design experiments,” Zeiger concluded, “There are amazing possibilities that could happen over the next few decades.”