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More units, less zoning? SF microapartments avoid "NIMByism"

San Francisco’s housing crisis is now legendary: the average rent for a 2 bedroom studio is $5000. To add housing stock fast, one developer has created the city’s first micro-apartment high rise (with units as small as 254 square feet).

Patrick Kennedy has been crusading for increased urban density for yeras, when I first met him in 2011, he was surprised there weren’t more people focused on the same goal. “San Francisco’s an interesting city: 42% of the population lives alone, much higher than any other American city, and yet there’s very little stuff that addresses the needs of a single person, especially something that can be affordable to a single person.”

Back in 2011 he had built a 160-square-foot unit inside a Berkeley warehouse to experiment with just how large a unit needed to be to be livable. “We built this prototype, it probably cost us a couple hundred grand, but we really needed to know if we needed to know whether we could make a room 9 foot 6 or whether it could be 9 foot 9.”

In 2012 San Francisco supervisors dropped the minimum allowed apartment size to 220 square feet and Kennedy began plans for the city’s first micro-unit high rise. “I want to build entry-level housing in the city”, he explained to us back in 2014, “sort of what Levittown did for single family homes in the fifties, I’d like to do for single people, urbanists in the 20-teens.”

In 2015 the building opened with units as small as 254 square feet. To fit 160 units on a 9000 square foot lot, Kennedy replaced car parking for a Zip car and the city’s “largest, climate-controlled bicycle parking garage” (with space for 200 bicycles). He also installed a heated “Uber bench” and a transit screen with real-time listings for available bike/electric scooter shares, Zip/Uber cars and bus/light rail schedules.

He had designed the tiny units for “garden-variety hipsters” like the employees from the Twitter headquarters across the street, but in the end, California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music leased the space for student dorms: rents are just under $12000/year for a shared double.