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Inside the Rush to Build Very Tiny, Very Expensive Apartments in Los Angeles

By now, Los Angeles's dire need for more housing is fairly common knowledge—rents are seriously unaffordable to the average person and many are wondering how much worse it's going to get for renters. One proposed solution: microunits. Developers seem to think these small, 400-square-foot-or-less apartments are the wave of the future. Smaller units mean relatively lower rents, making deeply unaffordable places like Santa Monica slightly less unaffordable for some. They also offer advantages to developers—the units cost more to build but ultimately make more money. Renters, meanwhile, sacrifice space, but maybe gain more living options. With all those Millennials to house and all that money to be made, tiny unit madness has started to break out in Los Angeles—and it is indeed madness, as the the LA Business Journal found talking to the developers who have caught it.

—First off, let's establish that microunits "provide just enough space to do life's most basic tasks – and even that can be a stretch." For a little bit of perspective on how big 400 square feet is, that big, fun elevator at LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum—the one with the Barbara Kruger installation—is approximately 189 square feet. (It's 21 feet wide by nine feet deep, according to an old museum release.) Two LACMA elevators would be about 378 square feet, but keep in mind that the elevator also has 16-foot-high ceilings, which might not be too common in a microunit. So that's the space a microunit renter is working with.

—A "bungalow-style" apartment building in Highland Park is being renovated as microunits. (Highland Park is described as "a short walk to a pedestrian-friendly downtown Los Angeles and mass transit.") When complete, the roughly 400-square-foot units will rent for around $1,800 a month, which is a steal, says a rep for a firm that helped finance the renovation, because a "comparable" standard apartment in the area would cost anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000 a month.

—That same Highland Park project backer, explaining the allure of small units, says people want to live near amenities and fun things to do, but "they don't want to pay enormous rents so they are willing to live in 400 square feet. It's what gets people excited."

—Being near those amenities is kind of a necessity when you live in such a compact apartment, because there's not a lot of superfluous hangout space in the actual residence. "It's really critical there's a walkable downtown involved because if you're in a microunit, you don't want to be in the microunit that much," a senior vice president for seasoned microunit developer High Street Residential tells LABJ. "It's more of a lock-and-go place – a launching pad."

—An example of this would be the Elevé Lofts and Skydeck in Glendale, where studios are 375 square feet (that's just shy of two LACMA elevators), but amenities include a huge roof deck, barbecues, "hot and cold tubs," a dog park, and cabanas with outlets and WiFi. It's sort of like living in a super nice apartment with hundreds of roommates.

—Microunits are apparently more expensive to build overall; many developers put in fancier finishes and the ceilings have to be at least nine feet tall. But there's a break in the long run, that prolific mini-unit developer explains: "Rents are going to be lower on a per-unit basis, but rents on a per-square-foot basis will be higher because you're providing less square footage," he says.

—Sobering fact of the day: "a 375-square-foot unit at the Gibson Santa Monica on Seventh Street rents for $2,200, but standard-size units there go for nearly $4,000." That microunit cuts the price of living in Santa Monica almost in half, but one person paying more than $2,000 in rent alone is still pretty expensive, especially for such a tiny little place.

—Santa Monica and West Hollywood, identified by microunit builders as prime for this kind of high-density development, still have restrictive policies in place that keep the number of tiny apartments in check. Santa Monica, for instance, only allows about 15 or 20 percent of total units in a new complex to be micro; WeHo restricts the number of total units "based on square footage and parking requirements." But, says the Highland Park project backer, "Cities aren't completely closed to it, just slow to warm up."
· Developers Big On Tiny Units [LABJ]
· How Much Does Los Angeles Have to Build to Get Out of Its Housing Crisis? [Curbed LA]
· See How Los Angeles Keeps Getting More and More Unaffordable For Renters [Curbed LA]