Ron Barth Responds to New Yorker Article on Carmel Place and NY’s Affordable Housing Situation
March 4, 2016
A recent New Yorker piece entitled “Are Micro-Apartments a Good Solution to the Affordable-Housing Crisis?” by Elizabeth Greenspan reminded me of a quote I once heard: “[The person] Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” In order to understand the micro-apartment conversation, it’s essential to understand its historical context. Modern micro-apartments such as Carmel Place are not some new invention, but rather a modern take on urban housing for singles. I am certain this type of housing lined the streets of Jericho and Babylon. While Ms Greenspan does an excellent job of weighing the pros and cons of this form of housing, I’d like to address a few points brought up in the article that I think warrant more investigation:
With all due respect to Ms Lebowitz, her comments about the wisdom of establishing the 400 square foot minimum were/are completely out of sync with modern housing realities. In NYC and many other cities, extreme housing shortages force people of all ages to move deeper into the boroughs or do things like share bedrooms in order to afford the location they desire. Perhaps Ms Lebowitz is harkening back to the time she shared a cold water flat with Andy [Warhol, you know] on Mercer street for $50/month (a situation most 20-somethings would now kill for, hot water or not). Actually, when Ms. Lebowitz was a younger woman there were numerous affordable housing options, mainly in the form of residential hotels. They provided safe (mostly), affordable housing for people to get a foothold in the city–and their rooms would make Carmel Place look palatial! Their devolution into drug-infested SROs and subsequent expulsion from the city left a big gap for many people.
Ms Lebowitz comments are also ignorant of history. She seems to suggest that prior to 1987, immigrants were living on top of one another in some sort of Riisian dystopia. In actuality, most of the tenement laws that significantly reduced squalid housing were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th century. The 400 square foot number was part of 1987’s Quality Housing Act, and that number was as much about encouraging the construction of squatter, mid-rise buildings (a counterpoint to the proliferation of towers that sprung up in the 60s and 70s) as much as it was about establishing a size that exceeded the threshold for being a shoebox. Any New Yorker worth her salt has visited many great apartments in great neighborhoods, built pre-1987, that fall under the 400 square foot size. 400 is not, nor ever was a magic number. As Carmel Place demonstrates in spades, quality, not quantity of space is what makes it great and usable.
Ms Greenspan writes, “As I toured the model unit, the futuristic furniture seemed less like a high-end indulgence and more like an essential ingredient.” Call me a cynical, but I detect a hint of pity in that statement. It’s as if she’s saying that a truly livable space should be livable without the assistance of furniture. But I ask, if that furniture can significantly increase the functionality of the space, why wouldn’t you use it?
On this last point, I confess my lack of neutrality. As the co-founder of Resource Furniture, the country’s largest purveyor of transforming and space saving furniture, I have strong feelings on this topic. Many of our pieces are in the Carmel Place demo unit Ms. Greenspan visited as well as those that will be rented out in the coming months. More than a business owner, I’m a true believer in the value of what we provide. We make space go further.
Consider this: even our most basic wall bed adds around 30 square feet of usable floor space when folded away. In a city like NYC where property values start around $1000/square foot, this is a big deal. But more than economics, it’s about using smart design to make every space you rent or own do as much as it can. This matters whether you’re living in a 250 square foot micro apartment or 5000 square foot McMansion.
Listen, apartments like Carmel Place are not for everyone, and Ms. Greenspan does a great job of making that clear. That said, for the 50% of New Yorkers who live alone they make a lot of sense. And we at Resource Furniture truly hope that Carmel Place’s great design trickles down to not so luxurious apartments. I have lived in New York City for nearly 30 years and I have a deep love for the place. I wish that anyone that wants to live here, can live here. This wish is one of the reasons why my company is donating furniture for the 12% of Carmel Place units going to former homeless vets. Giving these folks the opportunity to live in the world’s greatest city is one small step toward rebuilding the diversity that made it that way. The fact is that too many people that want to live here, cannot afford to do so. Yet I believe that by building a greater volume of small spaces in our urban core, ones that meet demographic realities, ones that incorporate smart interior and furniture design, ones like Carmel Place, we can start shrinking the gap between supply and demand. And, despite what Ms Lebowitz believes, we can do so in an elegant, livable manner.