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June 29, 2016

Big Thoughts, Small Spaces

John Sheehan

We’ve been singing the praises of the small, but beautiful Archer Studios – Studio E’s 42 unit single-room-occupancy (SRO) development near downtown San José, California, since its completion earlier this year, and now others are beginning to catch on: Archer Studios is highlighted in a three-part feature (part 1, part 2, part 3) in this month’s San José edition of The Business Journal (subscription required).  The feature includes quotes from our very own John Sheehan, and focuses on the subject of micro-unit apartments – rental dwelling units that are 300 square feet or less in floor area.

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Designed for local non-profit developer Charities Housing and the San José Department of Housing, Archer Studios consists of 42 such micro-units.  Although quite small, the units are designed to maximize efficiency while maintaining a feeling of spaciousness and volume: ceilings are over 9 feet in height, windows are generously-sized, kitchens are compact but well-appointed, extra storage is provided wherever possible, and many units enjoy private balconies.  The units are a comfortable hybrid of studio apartment, loft, and cruise ship cabin.

Irony aside, one of the bigger emerging ideas in urban residential development is the micro-unit apartment.  As cities from San Francisco to New York consider altering their zoning laws to shrink the minimum allowable size of rental units to accommodate a growing demand for the lower rents that these diminutive spaces make possible, a new niche of market-rate housing is being created.  Indeed, one such market-rate project recently broke ground in San Francisco.  The calculus is relatively simple – take a general demographic shift toward one- and two-person urban households, combined with rapidly-escalating rents and a relative shortage of conventional rental units within the most desirable city centers, and demand for a new, smaller, entry-level housing type is created.  The argument is that an increased supply of smaller, lower-priced units serves to relieve some of the upward pressure on the more conventional housing stock – affording people of lesser means the option of living on their own, instead of teaming up with roommates and competing for increasingly expensive and scarce supply of family-sized rental housing.

To sweeten the pot for those considering living in less, micro-unit apartment developments are commonly outfitted with generous common areas and amenities that help to expand a tenant’s domestic life beyond the four walls of their apartment and alleviate some of the psychological brunt of downsizing.  At Archer Studios, this is manifest in several ways.  A playful lobby lounge greets residents with super-scaled icon signage and jazzy furnishings that give the project the feel of a chic boutique hotel or European pied-a-terre apartment building.  Once inside, the community boasts an ample list of amenities including a large community meeting room with full kitchen, computer desk, a TV lounge, on-site laundry, management & social service support offices, and a 1,300 square foot garden terrace atop the roof of the parking garage.

Archer Studios’ combination of convenience and amenities has certainly been noticed by prospective renters; in addition to serving the target population of service workers at the nearby airport and hotels, the community has attracted a high number of single women and mothers among the applicant pool for an SRO.  The units leased quickly, with demand so great that the developer has had to close the waiting list.  “That’s part of the hook”, says Sheehan.  “They could say, ‘I’m willing to live in this many square feet, but I also have access to all this other space that’s sort of mine as well’”.