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NYC Planners Turning Toward Tiny, 'Micro-Unit' Dwellings (Bonus: 1-Square-Meter House)

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"We're talking about one or two people who want something they can afford, and they don't entertain or need big space."

(Image: YouTube screenshot)

NEW YORK (The Blaze/AP) — Here on The Blaze, we've been covering tiny houses and other unique dwellings for a while. Now, New York City planners are more formally catching onto the trend, thinking studio apartments measuring no more than 300 square feet might be attractive to a growing population of singles and two-person households.

(Related: See other Blaze stories regarding the tiny house movement)

And in a nation that's becoming increasingly populous and increasingly urbanized — and where people more frequently are creating a family of one — such downsizing may not stop here.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Monday invited developers to propose ways to turn a Manhattan lot into an apartment building filled mostly with what officials are calling "micro-units" — dwellings complete with a bathroom, built-in kitchenette and enough space for a careful planner to use a fold-out bed as both sleeping space and living room.

Watch Bloomberg's announcement:

If the pilot program is successful, officials could ultimately overturn a requirement that new apartments here be at least 400 square feet.

City planners envision a future in which the young, the cash-poor and empty nesters flock to such small dwellings — each not much bigger than a dorm room. In a pricey real estate market where about one-third of renter households spend more than half their income on rent, it could make housing more affordable.

Manhattan is the U.S. capital of solo living, with 46.3 percent of households consisting of one person, according to the 2010 census. City officials estimate that 76 percent of residents on the island live alone or with one other person — and such households are growing faster around the city than any other type of living situation. Officials attribute the trend in part to young professionals delaying both marriage and childbearing.

Around the country, more people are living alone than ever before. The solo living rate rose to almost 27 percent in 2010, according to the census.

In New York City, where long working hours can leave little time for home life, renters often sacrifice square footage to save money. The size of city apartments has been lampooned on television, with at least one sitcom showing characters living — literally — in a closet. Some New Yorkers, desperate for storage space and uninterested in the finer points of homemaking, turn their ovens into storage for clothes or other items.

Especially alone, paying New York City rents can be a challenge — and officials said they hoped smaller apartments would help ease the financial burden on residents facing average market-rate rents of $2,000 per month for a studio and $2,700 per month for a one-bedroom. Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Mathew Wambua said he expected the micro-units would rent for significantly less.

Similar programs have been proposed in other cities. In San Francisco, developers are seeking permission to rent out apartments as small as 150 square feet. Still, even these tiny apartments cannot necessarily boast to be the smallest. A Berlin-based architect Van Bo Le-Mentzel has created what is being called the world's smallest house if it can even be considered a house. Dubbed the One SQM House (it is only one square meter in size), the tiny dwelling appears more like a dog house than something for a human being, but it can sit and sleep one. And, as the designer points out, it is something you can call a home all your own.

Learn more about the house in this video:

How much does one of these 1-square-meter homes cost? You can build one yourself -- they provide building workshops -- for $300.

But back to New York City's plan. Ultimately, the program could be expanded to outer-borough neighborhoods where the apartments could provide safer options to the lower-income residents who are most at risk from the dangers of illegal subdivisions. With only 1 million studio and one-bedroom apartments available for 1.8 million one- and two-person households, the shortage is forcing low-income renters into illegal apartments that can become fire traps, Bloomberg said.

In recent years, small homes have been celebrated by design aficionados who argue that minimal space, less clutter and simpler living is both financially and spiritually freeing, but the idea of towers of tiny units raises the specter of an era in which poor residents were crammed into unsafe tenements where they could afford the rent.

City officials argued this proposal was utterly different from such wholesale warehousing of the poor.

"The tenement problem was big families in very small (spaces)," Bloomberg said. "We're not talking about that. We're talking about one or two people who want something they can afford, and they don't entertain or need big space."

Modern-day building codes and improved refrigeration and public health have changed what it means to live small, Bloomberg said. A typical mid-19th century tenement apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side might have been larger than one of the micro-units, measuring 325 square feet, but would have typically housed families with multiple children. The micro-units are to be leased only to one- or two-person households.

As long as living conditions are good, housing advocate Kerri White said she had no particular concerns about the program.

"The general attitude toward space and how we use space is very different in New York City," said White, a director for housing advocacy group Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. "People are used to living in smaller quarters."

The program is a design competition called "adAPT NYC," which requires submissions to its request for proposals by Sept. 14. Read more about the competition and adAPT NYC program here.

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