Making Room: Can Smaller Apartments Help New York City Grow? Some housing experts say the city's zoning code has discouraged the building of affordable housing by requiring that all apartments be at least 400 square feet. The city is interested in finding ways to rewrite the rules. An exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York looks at ways to fix the city's housing shortage.
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Making Room: Can Smaller Apartments Help New York City Grow?

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Making Room: Can Smaller Apartments Help New York City Grow?

Making Room: Can Smaller Apartments Help New York City Grow?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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New York City estimates it will have a million more people by the year 2030, many of them single. Where to put all these people is a major challenge. One solution may involve making living spaces much smaller. NPR's Jim Zarroli has this story about an effort by one New York museum to explore better uses of the city's housing stock.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Walk around the back of this house in Queens and you'll find a dingy basement apartment no bigger than 600 square feet. Twenty-seven-year-old Hrishikesh, a cabdriver from Bangladesh who didn't want his last name used, lives here with three other men for $300 each.

HRISHIKESH: (Foreign language spoken)

ZARROLI: He says he likes having the company of the other men, but it gets really crowded. The men have to sleep in shifts.

HRISHIKESH: Two people sleeping, two people working.

ZARROLI: This neighborhood is filled with illegal apartments like this, carved out of basements and attics. And Donald Albrecht of the Museum of the City of New York says many are firetraps.

DONALD ALBRECHT: Oftentimes, a small wall will be built. And this is a problem when if there's a fire, the fire department comes and discovers a wall that don't - they don't think would normally be there. So it's illegal, it's uncomfortable, and it's unsafe.

ZARROLI: Albrecht is curator of Making Room, an exhibition that looks at ways to fix the city's housing shortage. Sarah Watson of Citizens Housing and Planning Council says over the years, city policy has exacerbated the housing shortage. In the 1950s and '60s, New York was anxious to keep stable families from fleeing to the suburbs, so it shut down a lot of the single-room occupancy hotels and apartment hotels.

SARAH WATSON: The laws and codes began to really encourage a very standard kind of two-bedroom, three-bedroom floor plan that would support a family and - with an idea that if we create regulations that make this sort of home be constructed, whether it was a single-family home or an apartment, we'll maintain those families in the city.

ZARROLI: The rules said apartments had to be at least 400 square feet, no more than three unrelated people could live together. Watson says these regulations discouraged the construction of the kind of housing that's really needed by today's residents, many of whom are young and single. And this in turn has created a vast Craigslist culture of shared apartments and illegal rentals. Watson says the exhibition looks at what can be done to correct this.

WATSON: Our approach was actually looking at how government policy and how regulations can better support how people are really living than trying to enforce an idea of how they should.

ZARROLI: The exhibition looks at ideas for smaller and more affordable housing. There are models of buildings with movable walls and shared kitchens and bathrooms. One model shows how a house could be converted into eight apartments, each with its own entrance. The exhibition's centerpiece is an actual 300-square-foot apartment that is a celebration of the art of space-saving.

ALBRECHT: For example, this is a wall of storage, but with a touch latch, this becomes a desk.

ZARROLI: Albrecht takes me on a tour of the apartment. Every inch of space is utilized. Dining chairs fold up and hang under the kitchen cabinets. A bed swings out of the wall.

ALBRECHT: There's also a drop-leaf table, which is located under the kitchen counter. It comes out. It's hinged so that it's flops up, not down, and makes a table for four.

ZARROLI: This kind of apartment couldn't be built in New York right now because under city regulations, it's not big enough. Sarah Watson concedes that most people would find this place too small for comfort. But she says the city needs a lot more affordable housing, and changes in technology are making it easier to live in small spaces.

WATSON: It's just in the last five years that people are getting rid of their music collections and their bookshelves and putting everything on a tiny little laptop. I mean, this is definitely a movement - a lifestyle movement that's not going away. So, you know, as a choice, we don't necessarily think everybody needs to live in that way, but you can maximize space in, you know, using these new ideas.

ZARROLI: This issue has become more relevant than ever. Like a lot of cities, New York hopes to lure the kind of young, tech-savvy people who can help reinvigorate the economy. But to do that, it first needs to have more safe, affordable places to live, and that means rethinking the way housing gets built. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.




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