In New York City, how much space is too little?

September 18, 2017

Image © James Karla Murray / 6sqft

Walking through Union Square in late August, it was difficult to miss the new advertising campaign for Breather. Breather is just the latest space-by-the-hour option for New Yorkers who are in desperate need of space, even if it is simply a small room barely large enough to accommodate two chairs and a table. Of course, Breather isn’t the only company now selling space-by-the-hour to city residents. The market for shared workspaces also continues to grow, providing a growing army of local freelancers with access to desks and even soundproof telephone booths where it is possible to talk to clients without explaining a barking dog or screaming baby in the background.

That so many New Yorkers are willing to pay anywhere from $40 to $100 per hour for a small room where it is possible to have a thought or make a phone call without distraction may appear to offer profound evidence of the city’s space crisis. But are New Yorkers really lacking space, or is our sense of space simply unrealistic? Are we just too precious about the space needed to live and work?

Image © Angelica Vasquez / 6sqft

Square foot per person in New York City

On average, New Yorkers can claim 1,010 square feet per person (this figure refers to all spaces citywide and not to the average space one enjoys in their own home). To put this figure into perspective, in Manilla, Paris, and Tokyo, residents have access to much less space (as little as 250 square feet per person in Manilla). On the other hand, if you pack up and move west to Los Angeles, you will have access to about three times the space you currently have in New York. Indeed, L.A. residents enjoy a staggering 3,660 square feet per person.

Home sizes in New York and Los Angeles also vary accordingly. The medium size of all housing stock in Los Angeles is 1,488 square feet. In New York, the medium size of all housing stock is much lower but determining how much lower is also a challenge. As flexed apartments (one-bedroom apartments “flexed” into two-bedroom apartments and so on) continue to appear on the market, determining the actual size of New Yorkers’ apartments is becoming increasingly difficult. What is clear is that crowding is a growing problem. A 2016 report published by the New York City Rent Guidelines Board found, “Overall, 12.2% of all rental housing in New York City in 2014 was overcrowded (defined as more than one person per room, on average) and 4.7% was severely overcrowded (defined as an average of more than 1.5 persons per room).” Simply put, if you’re raising your family of four in a “flex 2” or bunking up with a roommate in a studio, you’re part of the city’s crowing crisis. But is more space necessarily better or even necessary?

On the one hand, it’s true that residents of Los Angeles do enjoy more space and generally live in larger homes. On the other hand, New Yorkers’ willingness to squeeze into packed subway cars, transform front hall closets into home offices, and even bunk up with friends well into adulthood does have some long-term benefits. Among other advantages, our compact city makes it possible to live without a car and smaller homes generally use much less energy. Living cramped can also mean living green, but none of this appears to be stopping New Yorkers from fleeing to Los Angeles in high numbers. According to LinkedIn’s August 2017 Workforce Report, New Yorkers continue to head to Los Angeles at a higher rate than Los Angeles residents head to New York. For every 10,000 LinkedIn members in Los Angeles, 7.3 have moved from New York City in the past year.

Image via PixBay

The average size of the American home is growing

While New Yorkers are often quick to criticize their counterparts in Los Angeles, when it comes to supersizing, Los Angeles residents are not alone. In fact, many other U.S. cities offer residents considerably more space. This is because supersizing homes has been on the rise nationwide for decades.

A recent report published by the U.S. Census Bureau found that the average new house is getting larger even as the size of U.S. families shrinks. In 2015, the average size of new homes in the United States increased to an all-time high of 2,687 square feet. Over the past 42 years, new homes have increased more than 1,000 square feet on average, ballooning from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,687 square feet in 2015. Along with this trend, most Americans now enjoy more space per person. Over the past four decades, square feet per person has grown from 507 to 971 nationwide.

While these statistics may make even the most dedicated New Yorker wonder if it is time to pack up and move to Utah and Wyoming where large homes are available to people on even small budgets, it is worth noting that except for Australia—where residents enjoy even more space and even larger homes—the American appetite for space is by no means the norm.

Image via jphilipg / flicrk cc

Feeling cramped? Try living in Paris or Tokyo

Unlike New Yorkers who enjoy 1,010 square feet per person on average, in Paris, residents only have 520 square feet per person. This small footprint is also reflected in the size of Parisian homes. Nationwide home sizes in France are about half the average size of homes in the United States. In Paris, however, few residents live in homes that even edge close to the national average of 1,216 square feet. In fact, over the past decade, there have been growing reports of working adults squeezing into micro units as small as 85 square feet. While an 85-square-foot rental is illegal in Paris, it is just under the city’s legal limit. Parisian owners may legally rent out 96-square-feet units and if the volume of the apartment exceeds 247 cubic feet, the actual floor space may even be smaller.

So, are New Yorkers really crunched for space? Compared to residents of nearly all other U.S. cities, there is no question that New Yorkers are already living small. As more residents start to work remotely but without the capacity to carve out office space in their homes, the space crisis also is becoming more visible (as evidence, one need only scan the amount of work and number of conference calls being carried out at their neighborhood coffee shop). However, compared to people in many other cities, including Paris, New York’s space crisis has not yet reached epic proportions. Perhaps, the best remedy for New Yorkers feeling cramped may be a short trip to Paris or to one of the world’s other micro apartment capitals.


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