Small talk: Inside the aPodment controversy 

Real estate, Money

APodments may be the one craze in America that isn’t supersized. These low-rent micro-dwellings, typically the size of dorm rooms, are popping up in major cities across the country.

What are aPodments?

Often referred to as 21st-century boarding houses, a typical aPodment building might be a four- or five-story dwelling built on a lot big enough for a single-family home, with as many as 40 or 50 residents occupying individual micro-units no bigger than single-car garages. Units can be as small as 150 square feet and may include a bed, bathroom, microwave, small-scale fridge and sink. Full-size communal kitchens are often shared among residents. Many units do not even come equipped with closets.

Rent is generally commensurate with size, with the tiniest aPodments going for as little as $500 a month in urban areas where rents can be in the thousands for standard studio or one-bedroom units.

“Mini-sizing” has long been popular in Japan and Europe, but it is a new phenomenon here in the U.S. While Seattle has become the epicenter of the aPodment controversy, the closet-sized dwellings are gaining popularity in other cities across the country.

Cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Austin all have aPodment buildings recently completed or in the works.

Are they legal?

As aPodment construction ramps up, many are wondering how city building codes allow for so many people to dwell within such limited square footage.

In Seattle, where aPodments are among the tiniest, construction is permitted due to a loophole in regulations that counts housing units by kitchens, rather than by bedrooms, front doors or living space.

Since a single aPodment building can have, say, eight communal kitchens shared by some 50 residents, it is counted as an eight-unit dwelling even though dozens of individual micro-units may exist within the structure.

Other cities, like New York, already have codes that allow for extremely small dwellings, while still other major urban centers have revised or are currently reviewing their building codes.

Pros: It’s a small world after all 

What’s so great about micro-living? Plenty, say proponents of aPodments, who are primarily students, single professionals and retirees.

  • Affordability. In San Francisco, for example, where studio apartments can rent for over $2,500 a month, the city is testing 300-square-foot aPodments that rent for a more affordable price of $1,800 per month. Plus, forget heat and water bills. Most aPodments factor the cost of utilities, including Internet, into the rent.
  • Freedom. Many aPodments come with month-to-month leases. Making a short-term commitment to a space gives aPodment-dwellers the freedom to try out a neighborhood while searching for a more permanent living space.
  • Environmentally friendly. Small units require less energy to heat and cool. In addition, most aPodments are built in walkable communities near mass transit, making cars unnecessary.

Cons: Curb your enthusiasm 

Not everyone is ready to endorse micro-living. APodments have some big detractors, many of whom share the following concerns:

  • Overcrowding. Although studies show that only about 10 percent of aPodment renters own cars, opponents worry that the influx of residents will impact traffic and the availability of street parking. In addition, detractors worry about population density putting a strain on infrastructure like sewer systems.
  • Safety. APodments can have hallways just 36 inches wide – not enough space for two people to pass in stride under normal circumstances, let alone safely and calmly in the event of a fire or natural disaster.
  • Lack of community. Neighbors worry about the transient feel aPodments can give communities. While many aPodment dwellers are young, educated professionals or college students saving for a better housing situation, some residents worry that month-to-month leases and comparatively low rents will attract a less-than-desirable crowd. 

Why aPodments now? 

Micro-housing is nothing new – New York City, for example, is famous for its tiny studio apartments – but builders say the demand for affordable city housing has become more urgent since the recession.

What’s more, say experts, aPodments simply reflect a cultural and demographic trend in America. Families are getting smaller, millennials aren’t becoming homeowners at the same rate as previous generations, and living alone is more common. In fact, single-person households increased from 8 percent in 1940 to 27 percent in 2010; that number reaches 40 percent in some cities, such as Atlanta and Denver.

“[APodments are] an accelerating trend in the industry, especially where space is at a premium,” Ryan Severino, senior economist at the New York-based real estate firm Reis Inc., said in USA Today. “You’re seeing an urban renaissance.”