Under the micro(housing)scope

Is Nashville ready to embrace large apartment buildings with tiny living spaces?

One hundred years ago, residents of large U.S. cities lived in small apartments because they didn’t have a choice.

The pre-World War II-built brick-and-stone apartment buildings of, for example, Chicago and New York offered units that were purposely smallish, as the average citizen could afford only so much space — and likely didn’t own much stuff to fill a larger space anyway. Also, transportation and lifestyles patterns were such that both building and people density were necessary. The average urban American had no choice but to live modestly.

Back then, and not surprisingly, folks called a 350-square foot apartment “housing.”

Today, it’s called “micro-housing,” and many urban Americans — particularly young people who are more interested in spending time immersing themselves in cities’ museums, live music venues and restaurants than in holing up in big houses or oversized garden-style apartments in the suburbs — are seeking such small living quarters.

The trend never lost favor in the aforementioned Windy City and Big Apple but is now gaining traction in smaller cities such as Boston, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle. Miami is considering altering a zoning code that does not allow apartments smaller than 400 square feet.

It all sounds interesting, if not a bit romantic — living mentally and physically uncluttered in a small space that is easy to clean, close to the action and environmentally friendly (because it requires minimal energy to heat, cool and light).

But is Nashville ready for such apartment living?

“It’s really hard to predict, but as Nashville continues to grow, you’ll continue to see [micro-housing] as an opportunity,” says Joe Cain, director of urban development with the Metro Development and Housing Agency. “I don’t know that you’ll see a large apartment building full of micro-units, but I do think you’ll see some buildings with a stack of them.”  

Micro-housing is typically driven by young singles who don’t want (or need) a large apartment. Given Nashville is seeing a continued population increase in that demographic — thanks to twentysomethings moving here to be part of the “It City” energy or staying here after graduating from one of the area’s many universities — a large potential tenant base exists. Indeed, Nashville has long been home to young, trendy urbanites who would have gladly lived in 350- to 400-square-foot dwellings — had such places existed.

TK Davis, a University of Tennessee architecture professor and a former design director at the Nashville Civic Design Center (2004-08), says developers, to date, have had minimal incentive to opt for micro-housing in Music City.

“Land costs in Downtown Nashville are, of course, not as extreme as in New York City, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco — all cities that have enthusiastically embraced micro-housing in recent years,” says Davis, who taught a 12-week course this past summer at the NCDC, with the thrust on micro-housing. “Also, the Southeast development market may not be, by nature, an early adopter, and developers and lenders are reluctant to invest in products that are not ‘tried and true’ with local comparables. 

Interestingly, the Metro building code already allows a single person to live in a unit as small as 150 square feet and two people to live in a unit as small as 200 square feet.

Because such a model is allowed — and because many of the city’s empty lots within the urban core are being infilled — there is reason to be optimistic, Davis says. He points to Denver and Portland as models.

“Portland has just built a handsome 150-unit building of micro-housing, which rented out 100 units almost immediately,” he says. “The City of Denver has just run a design competition for a micro-housing project that they intend to build.”

And is Davis concerned micro-housing could be a macro-bust if done in Nashville?

“I have tracked the Internet traffic on micro-housing for over a year, and I know of no failures,” he says.

MDHA’s Cain says the type micro-housing Nashville eventually will get will not be on the same tiny scale seen in cities, for example, in Japan.

“The trend is in the 300- to 500-square-feet range,” says Cain, who has overseen MDHA post-2000-developed residential buildings Nance Place, Ryman Loft and Uptown Flats, each with relatively modest-sized units on average (though none with spaces smaller than 500 square feet).

“It’s almost like living in a nice-size dorm room,” he says. “[Nationally], the trend will continue to grow. [Locally], you bring in mass transportation through The AMP [bus rapid transit] and you have people who prefer to not have much. They are not necessarily minimalists, but they are not like people living in traditional households. [Micro-housing] allows a transition into different types of housing. I don’t think you’ll see a strong shift toward it in Nashville, but it will be part of the market.”

Shelley James, president of the Nashville Apartment Association, predicts an increase in local micro-housing development.

“The demand has been high for studio units in mostly mid-rise developments,” she says of recent and current projects. “Just a few years ago, it would be rare to see an apartment community offering studios in Nashville. Now, it is common place for developers to add them to the unit mix [in buildings located in the city’s urban districts].”

For example, Note 16 in Music Row offers a floor plan with studio units of 488 square feet. Studios in Pine Street Flats in The Gulch span a mere 430 square feet. The soon-to-be-finished 12South Flats will have studios discretely consuming a modest 524 square feet.  

James cites a recently released survey that shows relatively newly constructed rental residential buildings in the city’s downtown and Midtown/West End corridor are an average of 489 square feet for studio units, yielding an average of $2.40 per square foot. In contrast, the survey shows one-bedroom apartments average 687 square feet and an average rent of $2.06 per square foot and two-bedroom units average 1,091 square feet and an average rent of $1.92 per square feet.

The space compared to price verifies that there is strong rent to be generated for those developers willing to tackle an apartment building with small units.

And James says developers are responding.

“We are seeing a trend toward smaller apartment units in the more urban Nashville core where building footprints are much more dense,” she says.

Cain echoes James, noting, “[Apartment sizes have been coming down. In Ryman Lofts, the units are not much more than 600 square feet.”

But smaller is one thing, while “very small” is something entirely else. James says if Nashville is to see a true boom in buildings with micro-units, those who embrace minimalism, environmentalism and minimizing-money-spent-on-rent-ism will fuel the movement.

“It is a lifestyle choice,” she says, “for folks who tend to want to be where the nightlife and entertainment venues are.”