The de Blasio administration is pursuing two zoning changes that could make the city a denser place without increasing the size of buildings.
The city hopes to allow more so-called micro apartments, or units smaller than 400 square feet, and give developers leeway to carve up buildings into more apartments.
The modifications—which would only alter a building’s innards, not size—are buried in a citywide proposal called Zoning for Quality and Affordability, which is currently making its way through the public-review process. That overall proposal includes a number of other changes to the way buildings will be constructed in New York City.
However, these two changes are geared toward tackling a simple housing problem that housing advocates have called on the city to address for years: the dearth of apartments for single households. Nearly 50% of the city’s population is estimated to be single people, spanning a wide range of ages and demographics, according to the nonprofit Citizens Housing and Planning Council. Yet only about 7% of the city’s housing stock is made up of studios, and about 35% are one-bedrooms, which are units also eyed by couples.
“You can’t deny the data,” said Sarah Watson, deputy director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, which has been advocating for more flexibility in unit sizes for years. “This mismatch causes all sorts of economic distortions.”
Here’s how the zoning changes would address the issue: Currently, there is a cap on the number of units allowed to be constructed inside a building in New York City. The limit varies by district and neighborhoods, but in parts of the Upper West Side, for example, a 6,800-square-foot building is limited to a maximum of 10 apartments by something called the density factor.
The rule was designed to limit the density of a given building. It’s the reason, for example, that developers can’t build an entire complex consisting of studios. The de Blasio administration is seeking to relax this limit in areas of the city where buildings are roughly 12 stories or higher, which were hitherto forced to be less dense than some of their smaller counterparts.
In practice, a 72,500-square-foot building in Long Island City, for instance, might currently be allowed a maximum of 101 units. But if the rules are changed, 106 apartments could be built. In the most extreme case, a building could contain a maximum of 15% more apartments than currently allowed.
While many developers don’t even hit their maximum allowable density (meaning they stock their buildings with larger units), Watson believes that giving them more flexibility in deciding the makeup of apartments is a step in the right direction to addressing the shortage of small apartments, though she would like to see the city give developers even more leeway. The shortage is a problem because, when singles can’t find their own place, they find roommates and take over larger apartments that would have been taken by a family.
“It’s far better to do this in an upfront way and allow denser housing, rather than having hidden density on the inside of these buildings,” she said. “Otherwise you get into the issues of not being able to plan for education or transportation, because you need to understand where people are living.”
The other major change sought by the administration would be to eliminate the current 400-square-foot minimum apartment size that still exists but is seen as outdated.
In fact, there has been an industry consensus that smaller units can easily provide desirable living conditions, and that minimum room sizes and other specific measures are already dictated by the city’s building code and provisions in the Americans With Disabilities Act, among others.
With this in mind, the Bloomberg administration in 2012 commissioned a contest to build a micro-unit pilot project to increase the density of units allowed inside a building. That pilot has resulted in a 11-story modular housing development in the Manhattan neighborhood of Kips Bay called Carmel Place, with studios as small as 260 square feet, which is set to open later this year.
The proposed changes would not allow for a building as dense as Carmel Place, which had its density requirement completely waived instead of modified.