Could Micro-Apartments Ease Ithaca's Cramped Housing Market?

May 22, 2016

In a city where available living spaces are filled to capacity, micro-apartments are part of a larger effort to address the housing shortage and encourage commuters to move to Ithaca.

'Changing Your Relationship to Stuff'

In the Carey Building at the east end of the Commons, developer Frost Travis, president of Travis Hyde Properties*, is constructing a few floors of micro-apartments.

Each one is about 400 square feet. Picture a main room with your stovetop next to your kitchen sink, next to your desk, next to your wardrobe, next to your bed, with a spacious bathroom off to one side.

"The idea is that you're changing your relationship to stuff," said Travis, adding that the coffee table can double as a dining table. 

The micro-apartments in the Carey Building are still under construction. Developer Frost Travis points out where the two burner stovetop will be installed.
Credit Monica Sandreczki / WSKG News

He first got the idea when he was an exchange student living in the Olympic Village in Munich.

“Very reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange if you're familiar with that movie. Everything’s built in," said Travis. "We’re not going quite that far Back to the Future, but we are trying to keep a very sleek and Scandinavian look to the design.”

It's pre-furnished and looks a bit like a display on an IKEA showroom. Travis hopes it’ll be a crash pad for entrepreneurs and graduate students who live most of their lives outside their apartment.

'We Certainly Know We Have a Housing Shortage'

In the U.S., micro-apartments pop up in metropolises where ground space is expensive - San Francisco, Seattle, New York City.

It might seem unusual for a small city like Ithaca, but it's actually one of the most expensive places to live in New York State.

Monthly rent ranges from about $800 to $4,000, according to Phyllisa DeSarno, Deputy Director of Economic Development for the City of Ithaca. The micro-apartments in the Carey Building are going for $1225 to $1350, said Travis.

Living spaces in Ithaca are filled to the brim, too. The vacancy rate in Ithaca is about 0.5 percent. In a healthy city, it's more like three to five percent.

"We certainly know we have a housing shortage," said JoAnn Cornish, Director of Planning and Economic Development in Ithaca. "The biggest area we're seeing is in the affordable housing range. We've also found out from studies, [luxury apartments] is an area that we needed housing... We really need it at all levels."

Though the Carey Building project is not intended to address either of those areas, Cornish hopes it, along with other housing projects, including a micro-apartment development by Modern Living Rentals planned for Collegtown in August 2017, will help ease some of the tension in a cramped housing market.

The two projects are expected to house about 90 people.

Both the city and Tompkins County are in the middle of housing studies, said DeSarno, which are expected out soon.

'A Standard of Development'

"We are seeing a lot more interest in these micro-apartments. You can fit a lot more into a building, of course, and you can lower your price point," said Cornish.

That raises some concerns for Susan Saegert, professor of environmental psychology at the City University of New York.

"What would be a problem is if [micro-apartments] became a standard for development," said Saegert.

Cheaper micro-apartments may be intended for single graduate students or young professionals, but Saegert worries that over the years, these living spaces filter into the housing stock and have the potential to go the way of single-resident occupancy housing (SROs) in the 1900s.

"Even if it's marginally cheaper than other options, it's likely you'll have people who have a baby and aren't able to find another place or... people who are confined to their apartment all the time and it could easily become a prison."

However, if it's a temporary living space and people don't spend a lot of time there, Saegert said, "I think it could work." Travis intends for residents to rent for a year or two at a time.

The 'Simple Life'

Elena Gonzales lives on her own in Ithaca now. She said micro-apartments fit in with her personal philosophy.

“I like the idea of communal living, living in a smaller space," said Gonzales. "I always try to minimize when I move from one space to the next one. I don’t know if it would realistic way for me to live though.”

She just really likes some of her stuff. Victor Torres lives in Ithaca, too, and said his lifestyle demands a little more space.

"I'm a musician and have a lot of equipment. I play the keyboard, drums and I can even play accordion," said Torres. "I think it'd be a good idea for those that like to live a simple life, the ones that prefer efficiencies."

Travis Hyde Properties has signed about five leases for people to move in this summer.

*Travis Hyde Properties is a former underwriter with WSKG and two related companies currently underwrite with WSKG.