Can Micro Apartments Ease Boston’s Housing Crunch?

"It's so unaffordable for most working class people nowadays," said Vivian Girard, who runs home.stead bakery & cafe in Dorchester

Before the sun rises over Fields Corner in Boston, Stephanie Suryana is hard at work.

She tucks her bicycle into the back room at home.stead bakery & cafe and prepares for the morning rush, brewing coffee, popping muffins in the oven and stacking oatmeal flax cookies onto a platter.

Suryana, a 24-year-old grad student, spends the next three hours behind the counter. Then she's off to meet with clients for her second job as a youth mentor.

Even with a full work schedule, living in Boston stretches her budget. Suryana bikes around the city and shops at a discount grocer to cut down her expenses. She moved into a condo in Dorchester with roommates to help afford rent.

Still, there isn't much left over at the end of the month.

"It all piles up," she said.

Dorchester was long one of Boston's most affordable areas. But as rents climb, many low- and middle-income workers here are feeling the squeeze. A typical one-bedroom in Fields Corner goes for around $1,900 per month -- more than triple Suryana's budget.

Her boss at the bakery, Vivian Girard, has seen the economic toll that Boston's housing crisis takes on his workers.

"It's so unaffordable for most working class people nowadays," he said.

Girard, a native of France who is also a general contractor, is testing whether one solution to Boston's housing crunch could be to build small.

City officials gave Girard the green light earlier this year to build 14 compact apartments on a small plot of land on Westville Street. The units will be no bigger than 280 square feet -- tiny compared to conventional housing, but big enough for a kitchen, a bed and other necessities.

Units will rent in the range of $650 to $850 per month.

The project is one of about a dozen new buildings proposed under Boston's Compact Living Initiative, a two-year pilot program launched by the city last year to gauge the benefits and drawbacks of micro units.

So far, developers have floated plans to build more than 300 tiny apartments and condos through the initiative, which promotes efficient building designs with shared common areas and easy access to public transportation.

Under the city's guidelines, compact studio apartments can be no bigger than 450 square feet. The biggest micro units with three bedrooms are capped at 950 square feet.

City officials say compact units serve a range of owners and renters, from young professionals to graduate students, empty nesters and retirees looking to downsize and people with disabilities who benefit from living close to services in the neighborhood.

"We definitely understand that compact living is not for everyone," said Taylor Cain, director of the city's Housing Innovation Lab. "There are certainly folks who are open and excited about living in this way, and we want to increase and expand the options that are available to those folks."

Micro housing could ease the pressure on Boston's housing stock, which is seeing demand from an influx of new workers. The region added more than a quarter million jobs in the last five years alone, with technology and life sciences companies in particular drawing scores of well-compensated workers.

But the housing stock hasn't grown fast enough to keep pace. And much of the new construction on display around Boston fetches luxury prices, leaving many residents in what planners call the "missing middle" -- people who can't afford market-rate housing, but make enough money that they don't qualify for subsidized housing.

"Those can be teachers," Cain said. "Those can be firefighters. It can be graduate students. They can be older adults on fixed incomes. It really captures a large swath of Boston's populations."

Roughly half of all renters in greater Boston now pay more than a third of their salary for housing. Experts say people in that situation have trouble affording other necessities, such as food, clothing, transportation or medical care.

According to one report, a Massachusetts resident would need to make about $34 an hour to truly afford a two-bedroom apartment. Someone making $12 an hour, the state minimum wage, would need to work 91 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom.

To address the housing shortage, the city is waging a campaign to rapidly boost its housing stock, adding some 69,000 units of housing across the city by the end of the next decade.

City staff will now assess whether compact units like the ones under construction in Dorchester will be part of that mix, helping workers like Suryana stay in the neighborhood.

"I really love where I am and I care about the community and I want to be a part of Dorchester and add to it," she said.

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