An Open Letter to Fran Lebowitz

Let me start off by saying I think you're cool. Your wit, intellect and style are the embodiment of so many things that make the city I've called home for almost 30 years a rich, interesting place to live. But I am not writing to dole out admiration. I want to talk to you about housing and design.

I was alerted to some of your thoughts on housing while reading "Are Micro-Apartments a Good Solution to the Affordable-Housing Crisis?" in the New Yorker. Author Elizabeth Greenspan recounted your "memorable rant" from a couple years back. (I watched it. It was memorable.) Your rantees were NYU, Mike Bloomberg, real estate developers in general and micro apartments in particular. On that last topic, you said, "It's important that it's illegal to live in a place that small [under 400 square feet]. It's important because laws show the value of the country, of the city. So we say, we have a value: Our value is that people shouldn't live in a shoebox. It's not good for human beings."

I get your argument Fran. I really do. Wealth disparity is as bad as it's ever been. And it would seem like the city's lords and ladies, sprawled out in their One57 condos, are trying to stuff serfs in micro-apartment shoeboxes. And you're not alone in your estimation. An affordable housing coalition called "Real Affordability for All" recently threatened to pull an Occupy New York on de Blasio if he didn't stop his plans for lifting the restriction on building smaller than 400 square feet. From all reports, Bill was willing to take the measure off the table to stave off protests.

But I want to encourage you and others to consider something: that minimum housing size and affordable housing, while related, are not the same topics. Yes, the city government needs to ensure there is sufficient livable, affordable housing for New York's most dispossessed citizens. But that's not what micro-apartments are about necessarily. They are simple, well designed apartments that, because of their size, are more affordable than what's currently available. They will be mostly for singles and the occasional couple that want to live in such apartments.

But before I go too far, let me run through main issues around micro-housing:

  1. Size. Despite what many think, Moses did not come down from Mt. Zion decreeing, "Thou shalt not build smaller than 400 square feet." Many major cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and D.C. have much smaller minimums. And prior to 1987, the year this bit of zoning went into effect, New Yorkers were not living in some Riisian dystopia. The tenement laws that reduced deathtrap housing were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th century. The 400 square feet was part of 1987's Quality Housing Act, and had as much to do with encouraging the construction of squatter, mid-rise buildings (a counterpoint to the proliferation of towers that sprung up in the 60s and 70s) as much as establishing a size that exceeded the threshold for being a shoebox.

  • The status is severely lacking. Research done by the Citizen's Housing and Planning Council (CHPC), the same research that precipitated the pilot project that led to Carmel Place, found that there are 1,800,000 one or two person households, but only 1,000,000 studio and one bedroom apartments. This disparity in housing stock to household size implies hundreds of thousands of housing shares, many of which are illegally subdivided with considerably less privacy, space and luxury than these micro-apartments would afford. For these people, a 325 square foot apartment of their own with private bathroom and kitchen represents an immense upgrade in space and living conditions.
  • Options. In 1968, the year you moved here, there was more litter and crime and culture and compact housing. In addition to normal small studios, there were residential hotels, bachelor apartments and women's hotels. These places would make today's micro-apartments look like McMansions. They provided people an affordable place to land and meet other people in the same boat. Some, like the Martha Washington Hotel where you lived, were dumps. Others, like the Barbizon, were pretty fancy. There was a spectrum, just like today's rental apartments. Carmel Place, and hopefully its micro-apartment offsprings, are meant to fill this same vital spot in the city's real estate market, while being far better designed and more livable. These types of apartments didn't and will not replace larger apartments, but they will create more options.
  • Lighter living. Today's New Yorker needs less space than she did 50 years ago. People of all ages are ditching their stuff to live more mobile, lower carbon-footprint existences. When you can fit a library's worth of books on your phone and 100 times more movies than Kim's Videos ever had on your harddrive, your orientation to space becomes very different. You might not want more space than you absolutely need, and you certainly don't want to pay it.
  • Dollars and sense. The city is also way more expensive than it was in 1968. You told the Brooklyn Rail that your real first apartment cost $121 a month. In the West Village. That's $760 today. Tiny or not, most New Yorkers would kill for that kind of deal... in the farthest reaches of the Rockaways. Sure, this trend sucks, but it's reality. I don't believe limiting housing options will help.
  • Listen, I'm not a neutral party on the topic. I am the co-founder of Resource Furniture, the country's largest purveyor of transforming and space saving furniture. Many of the pieces in Carmel Place are from my company. Our whole mission is to make space go further. Our most basic wall bed adds 30 square feet of usable floor space when folded away. In a city where property values start around $1,000/square foot ($1,500 in the East Village where you live), this is a big deal. But more than economics, it's about ingenuity. It's about making every space you rent or own do as much as it can and with style -- what could be more New York than that?

    I love New York City just like you do. I wish that anyone that wants to live here can live here. It's one reason why my company is donating furniture for the 12% of Carmel Place units to former homeless vets. Giving these folks the opportunity to live in the world's greatest city is one small step toward rebuilding the diversity that made it great in the first place.

    And micro-apartments are not the solution to New York's housing crisis, but they could be part of the solution. There are many people young and old who will want -- and dare I say prefer -- these types of apartments.

    Micro-apartments are about having options (another New York virtue). An option for the 20-something that needs a basic place to land. An option for the 30-something who wants a career change and doesn't want to be weighed down by her apartment. An option for the recently divorced 40-something who's rebuilding his life. An option for the 50, 60 or 70 something empty-nester who wants just wants a zero maintenance space near the Film Forum.

    Housing options should be as diverse as we New Yorkers. And while New Yorkers generally sacrifice a certain level of comfort to live in the world's greatest city, I don't think this point should be overstated in relation to modern micro-apartments. These are nice places with high ceilings, lots of light and air and smart design and furniture. If you don't believe me, I would love to show you around Carmel Place. Drop me a line!