These Affordable Apartments Show How We Can Rethink Home Design To Fight Rising Rents

Crazy thought: What if affordable housing also looked nice?

Modular micro-sized apartments in cities like Tokyo and Seattle are getting both more popular and extremely tiny, as residents struggle to afford these cities’ sky high rents. New Yorkers, who have always taken pride in their small living spaces, were starting to get jealous.


No longer. This summer, New York City has jumped onto the bandwagon. Its first micro apartment building, consisting of 55 prefab units that are all well below the city’s regulated minimum apartment size of 400 square feet, is up and running on Manhattan’s east side.

Cornell Tech Residences – Handel ArchitectsHandel Architects

To get it built, city officials waived regulations. They did so in order to experiment with new designs that create more affordable housing in a city that sorely needs it. Today, more than half of city households devote more than 30% of their income to rent, which is the threshold for affordability as defined by federal guidelines. A family would need to make a minimum income of $114,000 a year to afford the median home price citywide (and a lot more in Manhattan). As a remedy, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to build or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments over 10 years.

That mandate has architects and engineers thinking about their role in meeting affordability challenges. Famous architects of the past, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, used to understand that design played a big role in affordable living. But that’s been lost in the debate, says Marc Norman, the curator of a new exhibit by New York’s Center for Architecture called “Designing Affordability.”

“A lot of the focus on affordable housing today has to do with numbers, of units and rents,” he says. “That’s one element, but it’s not going to solve the housing crisis. You can only build so many units given land available and government subsidies. The architects can come in and think about how to lower construction costs and rethink the way we live.”


The show features a number of strategies that engineers and architects can deploy, as well as 23 case studies of buildings around the world in the conceptual design, construction, or completed phase that illustrate each concept.

Modular housing is one strategy, and the show features three housing projects, including the New York City micro-apartments mentioned above (called My Micro NYC) and a stunning low-income project in Los Angeles called Star Apartments. Both show the promise and the scaling challenges to this type of housing. “Every single one of them goes in with the notion that they can be built quickly and cheaper. And I think every one took just as long as conventional housing and cost the same or more,” says Herman. “But each one teaches us a lesson.”


Another strategy is to build simply or return to traditional building methods: See the 100K House in Philadelphia, a building that is both green and affordable, simplified by a reduced footprint, efficient layout, and basic, stripped down finishes. Deploying technology can help, such as with the City Home project from MIT’s Media Lab, a tiny apartment that makes good use of space by allowing residents to change the layout and furniture with a wave of their hand. The exhibit also suggests designers, city officials, and property owners can look to leverage existing, unused land. The Alley Flat Initiative in Austin, Texas, is doing just that: building affordable, smartly designed apartments that are off the street, accessed by Austin’s underused network of alleys.

Norman, who is also a fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, says that city policies need to support these affordable ways of thinking. “If you save 20% on your construction costs or you have 15 more units than you would, any sort of developer would put the savings in its pocket. The city has to mandate that affordable units are required,” he says.

More broadly, he feels that many cities are now approaching a moment where every day citizens–not just developers and architects–are interested in talking about these solutions. “Everybody talks about affordable housing in a way that they didn’t before,” he says. “A lot of people used to think that affordable housing was just public housing, but I think the audience is broadening.”


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire