Amid a national tidying trend, new interest in micro apartments

The Ray
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
“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.

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.

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.

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.”

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?

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 05/15/2019 - 11:52 am.

    $12,000 a year to live in a closet?

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/15/2019 - 01:24 pm.

    This is probably a “fad”, not a “trend”. “Trend” implies movement towards a more or less permanent or at least long term status.

    • Submitted by Wilj Flisch on 05/16/2019 - 06:17 am.

      From a historical perspective, a 4000sqft detached McMansion in the suburbs requiring automobile transportation will turn out to be the “fad,” not the other way around.

      And to your second point: any living arrangement involving a less energy-intensive lifestyle will make housing more affordable, although (as the case may be) the guy’s Model 3 will not..

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/15/2019 - 01:35 pm.

    Meanwhile I don’t see $1,200 a month for 400 square feet making a dent in our affordable housing crises.

  4. Submitted by Jeffrey Brenner on 05/15/2019 - 02:42 pm.

    “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.”

    All the residents mention how little they pay in rent. Those rents don’t sound cheap to me.

  5. Submitted by jody rooney on 05/15/2019 - 03:35 pm.

    Way back when, my college room mate and I shared a dorm room that was smaller than by horse’s stall. But the plumbing facilities were down the hall and the kitchen down stairs. Small has always been around.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/15/2019 - 06:16 pm.

    Welcome to the world of central city rents. All the new construction charges at least $1000 for a studio, $1500 for a one-bedroom, and $2000 for a two-bedroom.

    That’s not for high-quality construction, either. These places have thin walls, Pullman kitchens that take up one wall of the living room, and “balconies” held up by what looks like a bicycle chain. The closets and bathrooms are huge, but everything else is small. The stated rent often does not include utilities or a parking space.

    These kinds of prices are starting to appear in the suburbs, too. A lot of new places offer anywhere from one to three months free rent for a twelve-month lease, which tells me that they’re having trouble renting their units out, but God forbid that they should lower the monthly rent or that builders should revise their new construction to leave out amenities like saunas, swimming pools, gyms, party rooms, business centers, and pet exercising areas and make their units more affordable.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 05/16/2019 - 09:20 am.

      From what I have learned about the economics of apartment construction, the amenities you list are a very small part of the cost. Parking is a much larger factor, but it’s just the scale of construction that drives the price of the building. Whether or not there’s a room with a gym is chump change compared to the other development costs.

  7. Submitted by William Lindeke on 05/15/2019 - 08:16 pm.

    Honestly, I think you’re all missing the reality of the Twin Cities rental market, which has been very tight for many years and where rents have gone up and up and up. The fact that these buildings rent out immediately should be a sign that these in fact are affordable prices. None of these folks bought blindly; they all shopped around first. Rents are very high these days! It’s a problem.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/17/2019 - 10:36 am.

      Mr. Lindeke,

      I think you may be missing the fact that $1,200 for 400 square feet is very expensive. The fact that these rent out quickly doesn’t prove they’re “affordable”. What’s missing from your analysis is data about the affluence or lack thereof of those renting these units, what is the median household income for instance of these renters? Sure, the builders and owners are making money… that tells us they have a decent business model for the time being, it doesn’t tell us MPLS is turning into to Tokyo. This obviously a niche market.

      Look at any decade and you’ll find some kind of housing design that was popular or popular in certain circles at the time. These aren’t durable trends, they’re marketing fads of their era. How can anyone who “studies” housing fail to notice that?

      You guys always try to treat housing as if it’s a fluid dynamics problem rather than complex interaction within a population of actors with a range of financial prospects, resources, and motivations. Fluid dynamics might LOOK simpler, but it’s the wrong model. People aren’t going to just “flow” into micro apartments.

      If people can’t afford to live in MPLS, they just won’t live in MPLS, they have options. People aren’t going to rent micro apartments for the same price they can get a normal apartment somewhere else… just so they can BE in MPLS. How is that not obvious?

      So whatever, these things are kind of cool in their own way, and obviously some people with enough money are choosing to live in them… for now. But let’s not pretend a niche market is the future of civilization or even MPLS.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/17/2019 - 11:36 am.

        Tokyo is actually cheaper. You can get that kind of tiny furnished apartment for about $800 a month on a month-by-month lease.

  8. Submitted by Logan Quinn on 05/15/2019 - 08:19 pm.

    Anyone who spends more than $1.50/sq. ft. for a studio don’t know how to manage their parent’s money frugally.
    Student housing is sucking value out of student future lives by charging so much for studio apts., part of the reason student loans are insane. Class fees and books & supplies are the other insanity.

    Professionals who spend over this much are just plain idiots. They could buy a small condo for a lot less per month.

    It disturbs me that some people don’t understand that tiny home living is more than just simply living with less stuff, but also about frugal living. Allowing them to either save more for an early retirement, or work for less to meet their expenses.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/16/2019 - 08:42 am.

    Not to go off an a tangent or anything but once again, I think we see how “urbanism” and/or urban studies or whatever reveals itself to be little more than a form of affluent fantasy. It like were all living in an episode of “Seinfeld” or “Friends”.

    This is why these guys simply cannot for the life of them produce a coherent conversation about affordable housing, they think if THEY can afford it, it must be affordable. Then they start babbling about supply and demand is just goes downhill from there. These guys literally predict that 100k people are going to move into MPLS in the coming decades and pay $2,000 a month to live and raise their families in micro apartments and little houses in other peoples back yards… because… “density”. Whatever.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/16/2019 - 12:59 pm.

      Supply and demand is the central tenet of economics. You can’t begin to understand the affordable housing problem without it.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/17/2019 - 10:06 am.

        Supply and demand is simplistic myth. You can’t begin to understand affordable until you stop thinking in terms of magic.

        We have entire housing industry that manages inventory in order to keep prices rising. The magic theory of supply and demand is that inventory is beyond control and developers just build until prices collapse. You can’t promote that scenario and claim to the economics expert in the room.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/17/2019 - 11:58 am.

          I’m not talking about being an economics expert. I’m talking about having a basic understanding of a simple and critical economic concept.

          The reason there is a housing shortage and that prices are too high, is that developers have not been allowed to build. That NIMBYs have pushed restrictive zoning laws that have artificially constrained the supply of housing. The population has grown, but the supply of housing has not kept pace. The result of that is higher prices, something which is true whether you are taking about housing or avocados.

          Developers can charge so much for a tiny apartment because of the demand. if there is enough housing to go around, that won’t be the case anymore.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/18/2019 - 08:34 am.

            Developers haven’t allowed to build? Have you even been to MPLS lately? Or any of the first ring suburbs? We got what? 40k new units? Have you ridden down the Greenway from Hiawatha to Bde Maka Ska?

            The real estate and building industry collect all kinds data on a regular basis, vacancy rates, new building applications, new and existing home listings and sales etc. etc. Why do you think they collect all of that data? Builders use it to throttle development and keep vacancy rates around 5% which is what they think an ideal vacancy rate is to maintain price increases. It’s not a coicinkidink that vacancy rates have hovered around 5% +/- 1% for the last 10+ years, THAT’S inventory control. Vacancy rates have actually been BELOW 5% since around 2012- that’s not because we don’t let builders build, builders have a business model and low vacancy rates are part of that model. This is why these supply/demand fantasies are so bogus, they assume actors in economies just keep producing something until markets collapse because they can’t help themselves. The idea that if we “let” them builders would just build and build and build until they start losing money is simply ridiculous.

            There was a actually an article on the Streets MN website, referencing a Strib article about vacancy rates and their relationship to affordable housing last year. The Met Council releases housing trend reports every year and that report concludes:

            “…market-rate construction will not be enough to meaningfully change the Twin Cities affordability picture.”

            And:

            “More units alone will not ease the region’s growing housing affordability issues.”

            This is because the “market” will always seek to maintain low vacancy rates and the profitability that those rates provide.

            Here’s a link that Streets article: https://streets.mn/2018/08/21/chart-of-the-day-twin-cities-rental-vacancy-versus-average-rents/

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/19/2019 - 09:17 am.

            “I’m talking about having a basic understanding of a simple and critical economic concept.”

            I guess to be more succinct, while supply and demand is certainly a simple concept, it is in fact nowhere near the “critical” concept so many economic dilettante’s claim it to be. S&D is actually a rarely significant factor in pricing that only functions in a limited number of scenarios… housing is NOT one of those scenarios for the reasons explained above. No actor in a capitalists economy seeks to over-produce and drive prices down, that would directly conflict with the profit motive. The profit motive IS a critical concept. We sometime see price competition, but that not about supply and demand.

  10. Submitted by Elizabeth Council on 05/16/2019 - 08:55 am.

    I’m confused. Is this an ad?
    All this article does is extoll the virtues of micro-apartments, making claims about affordability that on their face seem absurd, without any data to explain why $1200 a month for a small studio is considered affordable.
    I also found it funny that the guy with a Tesla, eating out for every meal, living in what I would deem an expensive apartment, thinks he is living cheaply. Everything is relative, I guess.

  11. Submitted by Michael Hess on 05/16/2019 - 09:17 am.

    A benefit not explicitly highlighted is that if you have these small spaces you spend less on stuff. Less furniture, less nick knacks, less art on the walls, no furniture for the perennially empty guest bedroom… these are real costs.

    I wish the quote about location hadn’t highlighted the lost opportunity when Minneapolis leaders turned Allianz field away though- how we could have had another attraction for people to want to live near…

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