Diminutive digs designed by doctrinal developers

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Suffolk University hosted a Building Boston 2030 forum at the Modern Theatre on Tuesday morning, in order to highlight the issues and changes in regard to Boston’s economic development in the coming years. Tuesday’s forum highlighted micro-unit apartments – the newest wave of development to hit Boston’s blocks.

Micro-units are essentially studio apartments with 400 sq. ft. or less of personal living space, and they’ve already been commonplace in many of Asia’s most-crowded cities for years. In places such as Manhattan, where housing is scarce and rents are astronomical, zoning regulations typically prevented such units from existing. Struggling to meet demand in New York City, developers have recently and successfully attempted to change or bypass laws limiting their ability to shrink the size of new units.

While micro-unit apartments certainly have some role in Boston’s future and can potentially satisfy a niche market, the forum felt disingenuous and seemed out of touch with the city’s actual development environment. Right off the bat, attendees were staring face to face with a fierce marketing campaign attempting to convince them that micro-units were the new “in” thing and a necessity.

The phrase “Small is Sexy” in big, bold letters immediately caught my eye – I couldn’t help but feel as though I was being sold something by some company’s marketing department. Clever phrases were repeatedly inserted into the conversation by city leaders, including such misnomers as “Innovation Housing” and “Creative Units.”

Suffolk’s President McCarthy was the first to speak as he introduced the event, and quickly quipped about there being a precedent for micro-units: in New York City. While Boston may certainly have some commonalities with New York City, there is one major difference as far as building new residential units. Boston has a plethora of vacant, undeveloped, and underdeveloped parcels of land littering the city which means that the market for decently priced normal-sized units can easily be satisfied.

Kairos Shen, Director of Planning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, insisted that micro-units were merely a market response to Boston’s housing situation. Shen, however, never once acknowledged that the city continually gets in the way of significant development and places onerous regulations on new construction.

For example, parking requirements for downtown units – which have prime transit access and are within walking distance to ample amounts of amenities – make no sense and drive up prices unnecessarily. Meanwhile, haphazard building height caps continue to reduce what developers can supply. While these are typical of just about every city, Boston is arguably still one of the most restrictive cities and requires a great deal of political clout and connections to get proposals approved.

Tamara Roy, Senior Associate Principal at ADD Inc., recommended that the key to reducing rents was to simply shrink units. It is incredibly perplexing that rather than continually adding on to our zoning codes, each panelist suggests we continue to complicate our codes and attempt to centrally plan how new residential developments are going to look in order to keep rents lower. Then, in complete contradiction to the reduced rents statement, Roy went on to say, “[Micro units] aren’t cheap, but they’re the cheapest we have.” To me, this highlights a major problem: micro units are supposed to be cheap!

ADD Inc. had also determined that the city needed to encourage universities to house more of their students in order to dial back the demand for units. The city was absent, however, when Northeastern University recently struggled for months to get construction started on a dorm. If the city truly wants to reduce rents and benefit residents instead of the connected developers, there needs to be a massive attitude change at City Hall and an overhaul of how new project proposals are processed, in addition to simplifying and relaxing zoning codes.

The forum wasn’t a total loss though, as Kairos Shen introduced the theory that successful micro unit buildings require a vibrant neighborhood, rather than lavish-albeit-cramped units. Shen also touched upon the lack of three-bedroom apartments for families, stating that there was a need to increase supply and reduce rents for all unit types across the board.

While the overall impression from the forum was that developers are using clever marketing to pull a fast one in order to “pack ‘em and stack ‘em” and turn over more profit, there were many important issues highlighted. Although it is disheartening to think that micro units could become the mainstream rather than a niche market, it was great to see the tremendous efforts which some were making in order to innovate and improve the city.