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Are micro-units an affordable housing policy?

July 23, 2012

“Microunits.” New Yorkers are already familiar with the concept – we have the least living space per capita in the United States of America. But since we’re always looking for a good housing deal, maybe even smaller units are the answer – if the price is smaller also. Right now zoning codes generally don’t provide for apartments smaller than 400 square feet to be built, leading to a fewer number of larger apartments being built rather than a greater number of smaller apartments. Policy makers point out that that this doesn’t accurately serve our demographics, specifically not allowing for enough units to house the growing number of single-person households. New York City has come up with a new innovation to address this, leveraging its zoning authority in order to come up with a different type of housing stock – “microunits,” smaller units consisting of 275-300 square feet. This is an interesting rezoning and development policy – but is it an affordable housing policy? “Affordable housing” needs to have affordability restrictions and below-market rents, otherwise it’s just “housing.”  This is especially true considering that single person households are the lowest-income households in the city, with a median income of just $30,698. Right now, despite the fact that the pilot program is being built on city-owned land, the city has not committed to any specific affordability level or rents for these units – in either the pilot program or the microunit program in its entirety.  It does no good to build smaller units in reaction to a lack of affordable housing for single-person households, if these smaller units won’t actually be any more affordable.  While microunit housing may be an innovative and needed rezoning and development policy, it’s can’t in good faith be called an “affordable housing” program if the pricing is left solely up to New York City’s already brutal rental housing market.  

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