eyes on the U.S.

The Big Trend Of Living Small

From New York to Buenos Aires, more and more single people choose to live in tiny spaces. It's the marriage of economic forces and modern lifestyle.

A woman on her tiny balcony in Buenos Aires
A woman on her tiny balcony in Buenos Aires
Miguel Jurado
BUENOS AIRES — If you want to live in a big city, prepare to live in a tiny apartment. New York has gone crazy for the micro-apartment craze, particularly in the borough of Brooklyn. It began with one block of 55 prefabricated units, each measuring between 24 and 34 square meters (258 to 365 square feet), but more are in the works, with cranes piling up the units one over the other like boxes.
Some are saying that the apartments will be of use only to investors and awful for people. Others disagree, saying that with a larger inventory of smaller spaces, prices will fall and everybody will win.
Meanwhile, what are dubbed "micro-apartments" in the Big Apple, so small that it's almost shocking to Americans who don't live in cities, are often bigger than the affordable apartments in Buenos Aires.
To check, I asked architect Agustín García Puga, an expert in building norms and second vice president of the Central Society of Architects. "In Buenos Aires, the minimum surface area for a single-space flat is 29.3 square meters," he says. That's 312 square feet. "The living room-bedroom-dining space cannot be smaller than 20 meters (215 square feet), the bathroom 3.3 (35 square feet) and the kitchen, 6 (64 square feet). Oh, and there must be a balcony of 1.2 square meters (12.9 square feet)."
So far you might say that Buenos Aires mini-studios are at least midway between the 24 and 34 square meters of their U.S. counterparts. But as my friend García Puga says, the "devil's in the detail." In some neighborhoods, "Residential buildings can have a third of their units used as office space or professional workshops." And what are these? "Units that can have an area of 16 square meters 172 square feet with a toilet and no balcony."
Dubious honors
And here, we are a step ahead of the Yankees, because nobody can stop you from living in an "office" or "work studio" in Buenos Aires. Therefore, we can lay claim to having the smallest living areas on the continent. Take that, America!
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Urbanization is now a problem in Buenos Aires Photo: Juanedc

In the United States, new micro-apartments are a means of obtaining cheaper rental space in a city where it is almost impossible to rent even a pigsty affordably. Rental costs generally are between $2,000 and $3,000 a month.
To attract tenants, investors equip the spaces with foldable furniture and rolling tables that allow the same space to be a living room by day and bedroom by night. Americans have also discovered that the smaller the apartment, the more shared facilities they need. In Brooklyn and Queens, mini-apartment towers are increasingly being built with terraces, work studios, gardens, gyms and laundry rooms, bicycle racks and storage.
Americans argue that lowering minimum living space requirements is not a problem because most single New Yorkers are accustomed to living in small, shared spaces, while a growing number of people are living alone.
The same is apparently happening here without our even noticing. In 1980, one in 15 people aged 15 and up was living alone. In 2010, it was one in six people. Those living alone in the city today are primarily young adults between 25 and 34 years old and people over 65 years old.
This must be why apartments are being built smaller. Statistics show that in recent years almost 80% of construction permits were for buildings with apartments consisting of just one or two rooms.
Paradoxically, the constructed surface in Buenos Aires is growing as the population shrinks, which means that people will have more space per head. In 2001, the built-up space per Buenos Aires resident was 31 square meters and in 2010 52 meters. The first apartment I lived in had two spaces within 36 square meters. I was in my twenties and felt like the king of New York!
Yet the 52 square meters to which each person is on average entitled in Buenos Aires is just a statistic. By that measure, my wife, three children and I should be living it up in a 260-meter (2,800 square feet) flat, which is not the case by a long shot.
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