Earlier this past spring, I attended a lecture given by The Center for Real Estate and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board (GBREB) entitled “Micro-Housing: Rethinking Urban Living.” As the third event in the Building Boston 2030 series, the lecture was co-sponsored by Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School and the GBREB, and comprised a robust, well informed panel including the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Chief Planner Kairos Shen.

Anyone in or around the design, construction, and real estate development of urban housing in Boston can tell you the current hot topic on the street is micro-units. The subject of smaller living units, first formally introduced to the City through the Mayor’s initiative to authorize innovation units in the Seaport District, has become a central point of discussion, and has raised new questions and posed challenges and opportunities for the way we envision urban living.

At the lecture, panelists spoke on the subjects of affordability, the ideal urban environment, and what amenity and support spaces are needed to make these units work. Judging from the crowd in the room, limiting the development of micro-units to the Seaport District seemed like a safe bet, though the units were briefly posed as one of many solutions to begin to address the city’s larger housing shortage for young professionals and middle-class families. Questions about appropriate living standards and whether these units will actually lower costs and allow more people to live in the city remained unanswered.

As this early stage of micro-units coming to Boston, we have more questions than answers. Among them are the following three that we at Arrowstreet has been pondering over the past year as we work on residential projects in both the Seaport and South Boston Innovation Districts.

Question 1: Would you prefer to pay more in rent each month for amenities within your building, or save your money and rely on your local neighborhood network? Assume that you’re the single tenant of a 350 – 400-square-foot micro-unit in the South Boston Innovation District, with a base rent of $1,300 per month. Would you prefer to pay $300 – $400 more in rent to have amenities within your building (such as a fitness center, club room lounge, café, and media room), or would you prefer to save that money, sacrifice those amenities within your building, and utilize those types of services in and around your neighborhood (assuming most are within a 10 minute walking distance)?

Question 2: Can micro-units appeal and thrive as multi-generational living spaces? Much of the focus has been geared toward young professionals when it comes to micro units; they are designed for fast-paced, self-motivated young socialites with an entrepreneurial drive and soul for the city. Not much emphasis has been placed on middle-aged or senior individuals who might want to occupy these spaces. Is there a market out there for the senior generation or empty-nesters looking to move back into the city without the need for lots of storage, who are looking for a smaller, more affordable, attractive urban setting to call home?

Question 3: If micro-units don’t perform as well as predicted, what could become of these built spaces within multifamily residential buildings? At this point in Boston’s development of micro units, not enough of them have been built, occupied, or are even on the market for an in-depth analysis regarding their long term viability and sustainability within the city’s housing mix. If it turns out these units, for whatever reason, do not sell as they’ve been predicted to, what could become of these built spaces within buildings? Micro-units typically average 400 square feet, too small to qualify as a studio in the city (studios currently average between 600 – 650 square feet). One approach that Arrowstreet has looked at is taking the standard module of an 800-square-foot one-bedroom unit and subdividing it into two micro-units at 400 square feet each. As long as the unit-dividing wall is not load bearing, it can be removed and the space converted back to a standard one-bedroom unit with minimal impact to the building’s structural system.

We look forward to your thoughts on the subject in the comments below.

Topics: Residential, Urban Design