As Apartment Rents Climb Skyward, San Francisco Considers Downsizing Apartments

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Artist's Rendering of Smartspace Unit Courtesy of Panoramic Interests

The development firm Panoramic Interests is building about two dozen "micro-apartments" in San Francisco. The company is poised to offer even smaller units if the city approves a proposed new minimum size of 220 square feet.

Thirty-one-year-old Andy Huang moved to San Francisco from New York City a couple of months ago and, although he has a good job in tech, he's living with three roommates in a two-bedroom apartment.

His roommate, Leo, lives in what was probably once a pantry.  The other two roommates have the real bedrooms. And, once upon a time, Huang's room was a living room.

"So, as you can see there's no closet," Huang laughed.

Clothes hang on a set of parallel bars in the corner.  Contact lens cases, deodorant and other toiletries adorn the fireplace mantel.  There's no sofa, no desk -- a laptop sits on the bed.

"Yeah, this is definitely not for everyone," said Huang.  "People would be frustrated by the fact that this room has no closet, and there's four guys sharing a bathroom."

City Supervisor Scott Wiener authored a proposal going up for a vote next month for people in Huang's situation.  The proposal would allow newly-constructed units to be as small as 220 square feet.

Wiener says he wants to help people who would prefer their own space but can't afford the city's sky high rents.

"We have a housing affordability crisis in San Francisco, rents are through the roof," he said,  "And if we can give them an option that's smaller for $1,200, $1,400 or $1,500, that's a good thing."

The proposal has many critics, especially among those who advocate on behalf of low-income families.

Amanda Heier is Executive Director of Raphael House, a shelter for San Francisco families.  She said that, with not enough subsidized housing to meet demand, she's worried people with children will try to live in the tiny units.

"Obviously it's not sustainable for a family to be doubled up in housing where there's not enough room for children to have their own place to sleep," Heier said.  "Parents aren't able to create a sense of family connection and safety for their family when they're living in those substandard ways."

Land use attorney Sue Hestor is concerned that if microunits catch on, those rents will increase and so will land prices,  making it harder for nonprofit affordable housing developers to build units serving low and moderate income residents.

"If the only people who can afford to be here are people who make $200,000 a year, that is who we will serve," Hestor said.

Supervisor Scott Wiener says he's negotiating with critics and may try to pass his ordinance as a pilot program.

In the meantime, micro-unit developers are optimistic that city leaders will find a compromise.

Patrick Kennedy is building about two dozen apartments close to downtown San Francisco. At 300 square feet each,  these are slightly larger than the city's minimum, but Kennedy says he could easily go smaller, if city leaders approve the micro-unit ordinance.

"We have a window seat with a table that goes up over there in the corner," Kennedy said, pointing toward the bay window.  "We have a dining room table that converts to a Murphy bed over here. We're going to have a loveseat there.  A desk, flat-screen TV over there," he added.

As for Andy Huang, he says he's not sure he'd choose a micro-unit over his crowded two bedroom. He says it's worth giving up some privacy to live in the city's popular Mission District neighborhood.

And, anyway, he grew up in China,  where sharing crowded spaces is a way of life.

How tough is it to find an affordable apartment in San Francisco right now? One couple tells their tale.



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