Affordable Housing Models: New Micro-Apartments at Museum of the City of New York

Making room 1

It was not difficult to fathom this city’s need for more affordable housing amid the human crush on Saturday’s tour of Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers (open through September 15) at the Museum of the City of New York. But this is an exhibition dedicated to uncovering ways to inhabit the city more densely. So then it was appropriate that we were squeezed like sardines in winter coats, craning our necks to catch snippets from guest curators and architects Deborah Gans, Stan Allen, and Rafi Segal.

In July 2012, the City of New York challenged developers and architects to rethink the Manhattan apartment tower for a 21st century tenant, namely the single-person household. The winning team would be tasked with designing, building, and operating the city’s first micro-unit apartment building for affordable housing, where units would be smaller than the current legal minimum of 400 square feet. The competition generated quite a bit of interest, with 33 teams submitting proposals.

One architect’s proposal for a micro-dwelling tower

Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers showcases five models for affordable housing, including the winning submission, a proposal by a team composed of Monadnock Development, Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation, and nARCHITECTS. Their design, called ‘My Micro NY,’ contains 55 units sized between 250 and 370 square feet, with a number of communal amenities including performance space and a roof garden. It will be built using pre-fabricated modules assembled on the Brooklyn Navy Yard and has an expected delivery date of September 2015.

But the exhibition asks viewers to imagine all kinds of new, compact affordable housing typologies, like backyard additions for grandma, and SROs with shared kitchens for artists. And because New Yorkers aren’t the first and best at everything, as we sometimes need to be reminded, we’re introduced to some clever micro-dwellings that have been successfully developed elsewhere, in places like San Francisco, Montreal and Tokyo.

“Making Room” is informative, provocative and fun

Making Room also presses us to swallow the full extent of the dilemma. “There are 1.8 million one- and two-person households in the city and only one million studios and one-bedrooms to meet this housing demand,” laments the wall text. Visitors are introduced to some archaic New York City housing laws, such as one that many of us are probably unknowingly breaking: it is illegal for more than three unrelated adults to share an apartment unit.

The pinnacle of the exhibition is a 325-square-foot walk-through affordable housing model unit designed and built by Resource Furniture and Italian architect Pierluigi Colombo. The unit boasts micro-dwelling mainstays like a Murphy bed, as well as some innovative surprises like an ottoman that morphs into four stools, and a dining table that slides out from under the kitchen counter. The unit is reminiscent of an Ikea model room, and I even overheard one visitor ask the attendant, “$85,000 for the whole thing?” as if he was about to sign for it then and there.

Visitors inspect Resource Furniture’s innovative micro-unit

A video demonstrates the unit’s architectural quirks

The sheer number of visitors on Saturday was proof that New Yorkers are curious about the prospect of living even more densely in America’s densest city. Not all of them were enthusiastic about these changes however. “Dorms for adults,” sighed one visitor, shaking his head. “Bloomberg is Caesar,” scowled another. But I think we can all agree that unless we want America’s most expensive city to keep getting more so, something’s gotta give.

Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, will be speaking at the Museum of the City of New York on February 7 at 6:30 pm. Get your tickets here.