Developers are testing New Yorkers’ appetite for living small

Does size matter? Not according to these three developers, who are leading the city’s experiment in small-scale life (Think! Architecture, iStock)

For 25 years, developer Chris Cirillo has been trying to make something – anything – out of 244 East 106th Street.

At 27 times 100 feet, the East Harlem site has always been too small to develop. But in 2017, city planners upgraded his de-facto landfill. His hypothetical building on the vacant lot jumped from nine floors to 17, could cover more of the grounds and needed less parking. Finally, he had opportunities.

Cirillo’s success continued in 2019. Facing a housing crisis, the city raised the bat signal and asked developers to submit proposals for cohabitation projects where tenants can share kitchens, bathrooms and other areas.

The city’s previous experiment with micro-life, six years earlier, had resulted in Kips Bay’s Carmel Place, whose modular micro-units provided a lot of buzz, but not the low rents some had expected.

The new program, ShareNYC, was geared for ugly duckling packages – inappropriate reasons that were too small to sustain something worth building. As the one Cirillo owned.

His company, Ascendant Neighborhood Development, is now one of three developers building co-living projects that test how far – or rather, how small – New Yorkers are willing to go to solve the housing crisis.

Cirillo’s East Harlem development will have 10 floors and offer 33 units. The upper eight floors will be eight-bed duplex with shared double-height living rooms. Cirillo considered going with micro-units, but found that with a communal living arrangement, he could include fewer bathrooms and better communal facilities.

Ascendant works with the Ali Forney Center, a local nonprofit organization that helps LGBTQ youth find places to live. The development will include on-site offices for the center and a superintendent. In that sense, it’s a test of how co-living would work for supportive housing, which is already popular with developers for abnormal reasons thanks to zoning incentives.

To turn back time
Imagine an old-fashioned western where the piglet gunman rides into town and goes straight to the saloon. He swallows a whiskey, knocks down a silver dollar, and goes upstairs to a rented room. He stays there one night, one week, one month – as long as he needs it.

Homes in New York City used to look a little like that. By 1950, an estimated 200,000 single-room units were spread across the five boroughs, offering simple rooms to short- and long-term tenants. Typically, these cheap excavations were little more than a long hallway with a handful of private rooms and a shared bathroom at the end.

Some, like the Barbizon Hotel, were single-sex facilities, while others resembled a cross-section of the city. They were a cornerstone of the city’s low-income housing stock, but often fell into misery.

Then came the moral panic. In the 1950s, SROs were associated with dirt and cargo. The same-sex guest houses, which are popular with young people, were seen as a threat to housing for traditional families.

“There was a generic assumption that a nuclear family is the right way to live,” said Jessica Katz, CEO of Citizens Housing and Planning Council. “A group of single women together must not be for anything. A group of single men together – yikes! Not family men. “

Meanwhile, families fled to the suburbs, lured by federal programs. City politicians tried to stop the bleeding. From 1955 to the 1980s, they changed laws and building regulations to remove SROs. In addition to banning their construction, politicians J-51 created the tax cut, which encouraged owners to renovate residential properties to apartments with higher rents.

The seeds of the city’s housing crisis were planted.

In the 1970s, landlords converted more than 40 SROs a year. A 1982 city survey linked six fire cases on Upper West Side SROs with owners’ attempts to evict tenants. All six buildings became luxury apartments. Meanwhile, builders preferred larger apartments with multiple bedrooms and built-in facilities, ideal for families with funds.

None of the laws reduced the number of single New Yorkers looking for a place. Today, about a third of the city’s adults live alone, Katz said. Another 25 percent have roommates they are not romantically involved with.

“Even for a very, very traditional family, like most households in New York are not, you still need other housing options that are not designed for two parents and two children,” Katz said.

With land as expensive as ever, housing demand tight and a growing number of single adults, lots of people are willing to sacrifice a hob to save on rent. And now that the “sharing economy” includes everything from cars to office space, sharing washing and puttying no longer sounds so crazy, let alone immoral.

Slide the envelope
Even a studio apartment needs at least a kitchenette, a bathroom and a place to sleep. And even though a builder managed to get through all the bureaucracy that governs apartment size, there still lies the most basic metric: the bottom line.

“You really can’t place an apartment that is habitable in New York City for less than 300 square feet,” said Jorge Fontan, owner of Fontan Architecture.

The subdivision of the city determines how many apartments a building can have. To find the boundary of a building, planners rely on a metric called density factor. The lower it is, the more units can be crammed into the same square footage.

The city’s densest neighborhoods have a density factor of 680. In these areas, a 100,000 square foot development could have 147 units, averaging about 680 feet.

No matter how small the units are, 147 is the maximum. Developers may try to sell the undeveloped space as air rights to an adjacent parcel owner, but that is an uncertain proposition.

“It doesn’t work mathematically for a lot of people,” Fontan said. “If it was a good idea, you would see it on every block.”

Co-living represents a completely different possibility.

“The fact that you do not have to provide a kitchen and bathroom for each unit saves a lot of money on construction costs,” said Meredith McNair, a community planner at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation.

Her group is working on ShareNYC’s second pilot project, a complete update of an old SRO at 246 Lincoln Avenue in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. The nonprofit plans to convert these savings into lower rents for renters who want extremely low incomes.

Cypress Hills Local Development is planning a gut renovation that will restore the existing spaces and add two new room units, a kitchen and a common living room in the basement.

But it has not all been good news. The developer is still trying to set up a private mortgage to supplement HPD funds, but most federal lenders will not issue money for single rooms. The SRO rules also require an on-site property manager who takes a unit away from low-income tenants and requires a super willing to move into a shared residence.

Still, McNair says neighborhoods like Cypress Hills are ready for such modernized SROs. Her company proposed a new room with 15 units for a vacant lot of 25 by 100 feet. McNair says such parties are common in East New York, but annoying developers because of the limits of small packages. With loosened restrictions, affordable developers can start delivering the low-cost devices that community leaders often demand in new developments.

“It’s suddenly creating a viable type of development on these small plots, which are typically very difficult to develop and finance,” McNair said.

This is not only enticing for affordable developers; for-profit builders have found plenty of profits and demand in the shared-living model.

Common, the co-living company founded by Brad Hargreaves in 2015, caters to the young functionaries that you might associate with avocado toast or wearing beanies in the summer. It has just taken over 7,500 units from Starcity, a former rival. Starcity itself had recently acquired Ollie, the co-living company that designed Carmel Place, New York City’s first apartment building with micro-units. Common will team up with L + M Development Partners to build the third and most ambitious of the ShareNYC pilot projects.

The development, at 309 East 100th Street, in East Harlem will contain 254 units spread over two eight-story buildings.

“A tower is a lot … I would not say vanilla, but it’s pretty typical cohabitation,” Hargreaves said. The other will “push the envelope,” he said, offering micro-units with their own kitchens and bathrooms, as well as SRO-style co-living.

Hargreaves is not worried about finding tenants, whether it’s micro units or shared space. As he puts it, the shortage of such tenants is now a matter of regulation, not demand.

If the laws were not so restrictive, “there would be hundreds of thousands of micro-apartments in New York City today, and that would just be part of the city’s housing stock,” he said.

The development of Common and L + M will test the future of small homes, not just as affordable housing, but also for tenants with market interest rates. L + M declined to comment, and Common did not provide a timeline for the project. However, HPD expects all three ShareNYC projects to close next year.

“As with most things, if people can figure out a way to make money on it,” Cirillo said, “developers will find a way to make it work.”

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