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Amid a national tidying trend, new interest in micro apartments

It’s not just stuff. For some people, homes themselves are becoming simpler and smaller.

The Ray
“The Ray” began renting new “micro apartments” near the Instagrammable coffee shops and faded industrial warehouses of the West Midway in 2017. The smallest units are just 374 square feet, and the largest weighs in at 504 square feet.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

It’s safe to say that the Japanese writer and lifestyle guru, Marie Kondo, whose book became a bestseller back in 2016, has been steadily changing lives ever since. Calling attention to the surplus of stuff that pervades people’s lives, she asks the question about whether material possessions really make people happy. Or what, as she puts it, “sparks joy?”

As a result, all over the country, thrift stores are receiving more bags of old clothes, boxes of books, or rarely-used doo-dads, as little by little people simplify their lives, thanking and saying goodbye to things they don’t need.

And it’s not just stuff. For some people, homes themselves are becoming simpler and smaller.

Back in 2017, I grew intrigued by a new apartment building that had popped up on the back streets of St. Paul’s South St. Anthony Park neighborhood. It’s a four-story story building called “The Ray.” Advertising “modern, connected, smart living,” it began renting new “micro apartments” near the Instagrammable coffee shops and faded industrial warehouses of the West Midway. The smallest units are just 374 square feet, and the largest weighs in at 504 square feet.

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It seems small, but, well, why not?

“I probably had some of those same trepidations at first about it how small it is,” Ray resident Thor Underdahl told me.

Underdahl has been living in The Ray for a year and a half — in the second smallest unit, for the record — and one of the reasons he picked the apartment was that it had a very convenient charging station for his electric car, a Tesla Model 3 that he bought after years of driving a beater around town.

“A 450 square foot studio is relatively small, but I think after you live in it for a while you accommodate yourself to it,” Underdahl explained. “It’s like it pretty much doesn’t feel small any more.”

The main downside for Thor is that he doesn’t often entertain socially, choosing to spend more time out in the city instead. Though if he does want to have people over, he added, Underdahl could always rent the building’s party room or, during warm months, hang out on the rooftop.

Tūla Apartments
A floor plan of one of the apartments in Tūla at Holmes and West Lake Street in Minneapolis.
The reduced space requires bit of creativity.

“It’s a studio with an alcove, so there are creative ways you can help define spaces,” he explained. “I’ve put up those Japanese wardrobe-changing-folding things, and breaks up my space so it feels like I have a separate bedroom.”

“It’s nice and tight and compact, less people on top of each other ” Underdahl told me, comparing it to larger new apartment buildings in Minneapolis. “I found it to be very positive, and obviously you’re saving a bit of money as well too on the other side of that.

Larger homes, fewer people

More people opting for smaller living is a trend that flies in the face of generations-long changes in U.S. housing patterns. It represents a sort of “re-set,” back to a simpler lifestyle after generations of larger homes.

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For example, since 1970, the average size of a new US home doubled when it reached over 2,500 square feet in 2015. Meanwhile, the average household size in the country continues to shrink. In 1960, household size was 3.3, but today it’s down to 2.5 thanks to fewer people having fewer children, an aging population and more people choosing to remain single.

Add these dynamics together and it means that fewer people have more space to themselves. That’s not necessarily a good thing, as bigger homes and apartments mean increased energy costs, more sprawling cities and more room for the kind of clutter that Kondo suggests might not make us any happier.

micro apartment
Around the University of Minnesota you can find a 340 square foot studio for $1,190 a month. But it’s not just for students.
Given the tight and increasingly expensive housing market in the Twin Cities, perhaps building smaller apartments might not be such a bad thing.

Not just a phase

“My first micro apartment, if that’s how we’re defining that, was my military barracks,” explained Micheal Foley, a web developer who lives in St. Paul with his wife, Jen Dolen. “I was in the Marine Corps, and stayed in the barracks, and that got me ready for living small.”

Before coming to the Midwest, Foley spent a few years living in Seattle in a small apartment — “a little bit bigger than a parking space” — but it had a nice view of Lake Union, and inspired him to think a bit differently about what he needed.

“I’m not a minimalist type person,” Foley said. “I have some minimalist aspects that I like, but for me I like living simply. That allows me to live cheaply, which allows me to spend my money in ways people might find extravagant. For example, I didn’t eat at home very often because I save so much money not having a car and spending little on rent.”

The layout of the 600 square foot apartment where Micheal Foley lives with his wife and cat.
And it’s not just a phase. For Foley and his wife, they make it work together sharing a smaller apartment in St. Paul.

“Where I’m at now feels like a luxurious 600 square feet,” Foley told me. “My wife moved in with me after we’d been dating for a while. We’ve got 2 people and [a cat] in there too, and it’s just fine. There’s no problem with that.”

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For both Foley and Underdahl, the small space reflects a philosophy of simplicity and city life. In his 450 square foot apartment, Underdahl, also had to pare back on clutter. He’s got mixed feelings about it, occasionally yearning for his “high school knickknacks” and the like.

“This trend lately with Marie Kondo,” Foley explained, “people are becoming aware that they have too much stuff. They reason they have these giant houses is because they are accumulating too much stuff that they are not even interacting with. I don’t have that stuff in my life, I keep things real simple.”

Living in a small apartment is not for everyone, sure, but it’s probably fine for lots of people, especially those that are more social and value neighborhood over their private space.

“The only thing I say you’ll miss a little bit is that you don’t have a lot storage space,” Foley said. “I miss a little bit a little extra storage space for odds and ends. But that stuff you hang on to is stuff that doesn’t necessarily spark joy. You hold on to it because you hold on to it. I haven’t really missed anything I’ve had at my parents house.”

The Ray is just the beginning in for micro units in the Twin Cities. Around the University of Minnesota, they’re an ongoing trend, and you can find a 340 square foot studio for $1,190 a month. But it’s not just for students. You can rent a 378 square foot apartment in Uptown for $1,395, or a 387 square foot studio in the North Loop for about $1,600.

Meanwhile, it’s about $1,200 for an apartment in The Ray, where Underdahl still hangs his hat and his electric car.

The second story floor plan for The Pitch, a proposed apartment on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul near Allianz Field.
The second level floor plan for The Pitch, a proposed apartment on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul near Allianz Field.
As he says, “[The Ray has] a pretty perfect location, on the Green Line, on the Raymond Avenue stop, and and with all the exciting stuff coming up in St. Paul like Allianz Field.”

Speaking of which, there’s a new six-story microunit apartment in the works on Snelling Avenue, one of the first market-rate apartment projects in the area in decades. If approved, it’ll have six-stories and 175 apartments that range in size from 430 to 815 square feet.

More importantly, they’ll be right across the street from the brand new Allianz Field. After all, when you’re living in the heart of the city, how much space do you really need?