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Pay top dollar, live in a dorm? The growth of 'micro apartments'

Shrinking square footage

Imagine living in less than 400 square feet of space, and paying top dollar for the privilege.

While hard to believe, it's becoming the norm for renters in cities across the country such as Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C. In key metropolitan markets, those places certainly don't come cheap: In San Francisco, rent can run as high as $1,700 a month.

"It's a national issue where there's a housing shortage in dense cities, and there's just an overall general desire to live in cities," explained nArchitects Principal Mimi Hoang.

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New York City, which has prohibited developers from building such tiny apartments since 1987, is looking to hop on the trend with its new My Micro NY apartment complex, which nArchitects will design.

The edifice will be a 9-story building in Manhattan that will comprise of 55 rental studios, ranging from 270-370 sq. ft. It will include amenities such as a gym, outdoor terrace and storage; roughly 40 percent of the units will be subsidized while the rest will be rented at market rate, which in new York can easily surpass $3,000 a month.

It's a pilot program that, if successful, the city hopes to replicate throughout Manhattan to help alleviate the housing demand among city dwellers battered by sky high apartment rents.

Hoang, the architect behind My Micro NY, says the problem stems from simple demographics. There is a growing population of singles, and a shortage of apartments to accommodate them.

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"More and more people are living alone, and that's due to the fact that we are marrying later. We are also unfortunately divorcing more," she said.

Interior of a unit at Switch Building, an apartment and art gallery in New York City.
Source: Narchitects

That means that in places like Manhattan, "almost half of the population lives by themselves. So this project is in response to a change in demographics," Hoang added.

According to the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, several cities such as Atlanta, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are also seeing singles make up close to half of their households. That will likely put a strain on apartment rents, and could lead to the proliferation of more micro apartment projects.

Hoang says it's not impossible to live in such small quarters, as she and her husband occupied a tiny rental for five years. For some, the convenience outweighs the lack of space, she said.

"It's a lifestyle choice for some people who are very enticed by urban living, to be close to amenities, and to cut down on their commute time."