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

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New York City is notoriously crowded, and it's only getting more so. The city estimates it will have 1 million more people by the year 2030, many of them single. Where to place all these newcomers is a major challenge.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg has announced plans to put up an experimental building of micro-apartments that could be replicated throughout the city. And the Museum of the City of New York is looking at ways to make better use of the city's housing stock.

Walk around the back of a 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, lives there with three other men — for $300 each.

Hrishikesh, who didn't want his last name used, says he likes having the company of the other men, but it gets really crowded. The men have to sleep in shifts: two people sleeping, two people working.

Small But Illegal Spaces

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

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

Albrecht is curator of Making Room, an exhibition that looks at ways to fix the city's housing shortage.

Sarah Watson, the Citizens Housing and Planning Council's deputy director, 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.

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

The rules said apartments had to be at least 400 square feet, and 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. This in turn created a vast Craigslist culture of shared apartments and illegal rentals.

Watson says the museum exhibition looks at what can be done to correct this.

"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," she says.

Showcasing Space-Saving

The exhibit looks at ideas for smaller and more affordable housing. There are models of buildings with moveable walls and shared kitchens and bathrooms.

One model shows how a house could be converted into eight apartments, each with its own entrance. The exhibit's centerpiece is an actual 300-square-foot apartment that is a celebration of the art of space-saving.

Every inch of the apartment's space is utilized. Dining chairs fold up and hang under the kitchen cabinets. There's a drop-leaf table for four under the kitchen counter. A bed swings out of the wall.

But this kind of apartment couldn't be built in New York right now because under city regulations it's not big enough.

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.

"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," Watson says. "This is definitely a lifestyle movement that's not going away. So as a choice, we don't necessarily think everybody needs to live in that way, but you can maximize space using these new ideas."

This issue has become more relevant than ever.

Like many other 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 increase the number of safe, affordable places to live, and that means rethinking the way housing gets built.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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