Busy with her career and friends, weekend travel and walking the lakes, Aditi Jariwala didn’t need much from an apartment — just a place to sleep, shower and hang her clothes before she dashed out again.
“I’m a minimalist. I don’t want a lot of space because I don’t have a lot of junk,” said Jariwala, 24. “Keeping things clean with no clutter gives me a clearer mind.”
When Minnesota’s stay-at-home order was issued, instead of taking the bus downtown for her job in banking, Jariwala joined the legions of workers who left the office to labor at home.
For her, there’s no spare bedroom, den or basement alcove. Jariwala’s apartment totals 374 square feet.
“I moved my monitors on my table so I use it like a desk. If I have a call, I sit on my plushy armchair,” she said. “Now I eat at my coffee table.”
Jariwala lives on the fourth floor at Tula, a two-year-old building in Uptown Minneapolis, where her rent runs $1,250 a month, plus $100 for utilities and internet. She’s among the scores of tenants of a new style of teeny-tiny apartments that have popped up like so many miniature mushrooms.
Often called micro units, they are downsized studio apartments located in upscale buildings in desirable, walkable neighborhoods — Uptown, Dinkytown, North Loop, Northeast and along the Green Line in St. Paul. Tenants augment their own tight quarters through common spaces like snazzy co-working spaces, fitness centers, party rooms, dog runs and rooftop gardens where they can socialize, relax and work.
“Generally speaking, we see that all of the newer apartment units have gotten smaller — the one- and two-bedrooms as well as the studios,” said Brent Wittenberg, vice president of the Twin Cities office of Marquette Advisors, which tracks trends in market rate apartment inventory in the Twin Cities region.
There’s no exact definition for micro units, but as a rule of thumb, they are apartments that measure 500 square feet or smaller and are classified as studio units.
Marquette Advisors found that while 7.5% of the 200,000 apartments in the seven-country metro region are studios, the share of one-room units is shooting up. Their research compiled in the first quarter of 2020 noted a 33% hike in the number of new studios over the past five years.
“The micro units started in Minneapolis and now they’re branching out. We’re starting to see units under 500 square feet coming to the suburbs, too,” Wittenberg said.
Smallest of the small
The smallest of the small apartments arrived about a decade ago in the U.S. cities long known for high density and soaring rental costs. Sometimes whittled down to a mere 220 square feet, early micro units gained traction among renters in Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Boston.
As housing availability tightened nationwide, micro units became a popular alternative in most other metro areas. The reduced-size dwellings are currently being studied as one solution for housing the growing number of homeless people.
In the Twin Cities, the shrunken spaces appeal to single professionals 40 and younger.
“Small apartments fit with the millennial mind-set, which is all about maximizing the experiential components of life. It’s not things that define you; it’s your experiences,” said Lisa Walden, a workplace and generational consultant with Minneapolis-based Good Co.
Micro units “buck the baby boomer idea that homes give you status. Millennials don’t want to be tied down like that,” she said.
Walden, 34, a millennial herself, thinks the green aspects of a small footprint also appeal to younger tenants.
“From an environmental standpoint, using less is appealing, from the construction materials to cost of their utility bills.”
Cramped or efficient?
One person’s cramped and claustrophobic is another person’s compact and efficient.
Micro units are the Swiss Army knife of apartments, cleverly designed to maximize a floor plan’s every square inch with floor-to-ceiling or oversized windows and higher ceilings that give an illusion of space. Even furnishings pivot; some dwellings of 350 to 450 square feet have hideaway Murphy beds and convertible tables that fold up to add to living space.
“Balconies were considered impractical in the Twin Cities because of the weather but we started adding them. Everyone wants that indoor/outdoor element to extend their space, put out their herb pots,” said developer Curt Gunsbury, whose business, Solhem Companies, has in the past decade developed more than a dozen Twin Cities apartment buildings featuring micro units.
He builds his micro units with walk-in closets, full bathrooms — code requires them to be accessible, meaning large enough to accommodate a wheelchair — and a kitchen equipped with a stove, refrigerator and dishwasher.
“Large dining room space is no longer valued; young people don’t want them. They work on their computers so they’re looking for a place to perch,” he said. “TVs used to drive the space but because flat screens are shallower, you can shrink 2 feet from the living area.”
During the pandemic, the Solhem buildings added rules and guidelines to keep the much-prized community spaces open for tenants and spare them from cabin fever.
In the era of social distancing, groups were forbidden from gathering in common areas. Furniture in lounges, lobbies and libraries was rearranged to discourage the very coziness the areas once promoted. The distance between exercise machines in building gyms was widened. Cleaning crews come in more frequently, armed with hospital-grade disinfectants.
Not scared away
There’s little doubt that the many restrictions brought on by the pandemic will linger. The course of the coronavirus has proven unpredictable, and some public health officials warn that a second curve is coming and may disrupt workplace routines again later this year.
But the risk of a rebound doesn’t seem to be scaring renters away from their pint-sized urban apartments.
“It’s not going away. We’re still bullish on the micro trend and city living,” said Wittenberg. “After 9/11, a great exodus to the suburbs was predicted. The reverse happened.”
With five new apartment buildings now under construction or on the drawing board, Gunsbury has not backed away from the number of micro units that will be included in the mix of rental options, along with one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. He admits he is “slightly surprised” that so few of his tenants have opted out of the micro units since the shutdown.
“We’ve had more people extend leases than we expected. Not a single one has said they’re leaving because the place feels too small,” he said. “Typically, tenants transition because they’re ready to buy a house or they have a job transfer. Right now, people who have jobs are sticking with them.”
But Aditi Jariwala will be moving from her 374-square-foot unit when her lease is up later this summer. She’s decided to bide her time and move back to her family home in a St. Paul suburb.
“In the old world before the pandemic I would have renewed. But the rent was going up, and it didn’t make sense to sign on at a higher price for the Uptown life without all the bars and restaurants and shopping,” she sighed.
“Maybe it would be fun to try a different neighborhood when things get back to normal. But I still won’t want a big place.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis freelance writer and broadcaster.