This opinion-piece is a response to Nick Axel’s essay Cloud Urbanism: Towards a Redistribution of Spatial Value.
In his recent article, Axel puts forward a compelling argument for the (re)distribution of city-space according to use value: kickball trophies and absentee owners out, efficient use of space in. Distributing urban space according to use certainly makes sense. Along with unoccupied luxury condos that are nothing more than assets to the 1% and mostly empty vacation apartments, expelling (rarely accessed) back-closets to the suburbs frees more of the limited space in cities for people to actually live in.
When, however, this is stretched into a rationale for micro-apartments, the argument begins to thin. There is a big difference between arguing against large apartments, holding nothing but wealth, and arguing that 400sqft apartments (the current legal minimum) are under-used and inefficient. Axel is arguing that micro-apartments offer a design solution to urban inequality by seeing them “as a legal mechanism to distribute, through architecture and urbanism, standards of living.”
While he is perhaps right to acknowledge that for many people the current minimum floor area is “nothing more than an ideal,” lowering the standards we aspire toward will not make living conditions better and will, in reality, only legitimize more substandard-sized homes. Allotting residents apartments that are smaller than the current legal minimum may indeed allow for more of them to squeeze in, but can it really be argued that living standards are reducible to nothing more than their proximity to downtown?
The market-rate rent in the Carmel Place micro-apartments in Kips Bay—Axel’s case study—might be comparatively low for the neighborhood, but they remain more expensive than an average Manhattan studio that does meet the legal size minimum. A 302sqft apartment in the new building costs $2750, compared to a median studio rent of $2568 and an average of $2685, but the new apartments cost an astonishing $109.27 per square foot compared to an average of only $65.87.  These apartments are only good deal within a very limited framework.
The premium is arguably the product of a better location, but with half of Manhattan studios being at least $200 cheaper per month, it’s difficult to believe that the extra $43.40 per square foot is a product of location alone. More likely, they are charging for something else.
Reviews of the Carmel Place apartments report that they seem remarkably spacious. According to Amy Plitt at Curbed, “The first thing you notice when you enter […] is how big it feels.”  Carefully designed and compactly organized, the promotional material suggests that the minimum standard of living is facilitated by nothing more than a certain range of furniture – what the apartments lack in size, they make up for in retractable beds and expanding tables. With a couch that folds into the bed, a table that folds into the wall and expands and contracts, and a range of hidden storage units, the extra 100sqft becomes superfluous. The spaces use clever design to glamorize a sort of luxury substandard that can all too easily become a justification—or, more worryingly, a normalization—of substandard conditions for people who don’t have access to the same palliatives. The Clei-designed furniture that makes the apartment so versatile and so spacious is far beyond the price range of the vast majority of New Yorkers.
To further mitigate the limited spaces in the apartments, Carmel Place comes equipped with shared facilities including “a gym at ground floor level, a small lounge, den, community room and public roof terrace, bicycle storage, tenant storage room and separate storage lockers dispersed throughout the building, and a small garden.”  Even the marketing material acknowledges that the space afforded is inadequate—supplemental spaces are necessary to make 250sqft attractive.
What the apartments show is not the reasonability of micro-apartments as a typology, but the reasonability of living in these micro-apartments. Their cost is what provides for these additional facilities, thus their cost is what makes them habitable. In the same way that the quality of full-sized apartments depends on the quality of their context and components, the only lesson here is that even very small apartments can be well-decorated.
The ultimate difficulty with Axel’s argument is not his defense of micro-apartments – some people will surely love them. But these people are only a small portion of the population. At their best, micro-apartments might present a stopgap for well-off New Yorkers who want to live alone. What they fail to provide is a generally applicable standard of living.
Axel argues that it is “plain to see that the affordability of micro-apartments are first and foremost relative […] and so long as real estate value is at least in part determined by quantity, [he] neither see[s] their affordability going anywhere nor view[s] it as a model to be glossed over.” But even on a relative scale these micro-apartments are not affordable. Perhaps allowing micro-apartments will allow more people to live downtown, but the benefit is still unclear. If additional micro-apartments come with all of the amenities that have allowed the Carmel Place apartments to be rented at above average prices, they are also likely to be rented at higher rates. If the micro-apartments don’t come with those amenities, they will fail to provide a basic standard of living.
Good design may or may not be able to protect living standards, but we are unquestionably lowering our standards if we accept expanding tables and furniture that folds into the wall as a solution for inequality.