British Columbia·Analysis

Micro-condos: tiny units with big challenges for married, noisy slobs

Developers are selling micro-condos to young people looking to enter an unaffordable housing market. But are buyers ready for the challenge of life in small spaces?

Vancouver's tiny home trend can be 'depressing,' according to experts

Despite retracting walls and fold-up beds, micro-condos can be challenging environments for the unprepared. (CBC)

Micro-condos are the housing equivalents of Swiss army knives: compact, brilliantly designed units that pack a seemingly unlimited cache of hidden space into 300 square feet.

But who beyond a scout would really want to tackle life armed with a penknife as their only utensil? And what kind of person, ultimately, could handle round-the-clock life in a micro-condo?

"I think minimalists and architects are the perfect people to live in these things," says Susan Saegart, professor of environmental psychology at the graduate centre of City University of New York.

"But you can just totally imagine having a two-year-old in that right? That would be really terrible."

Dangers of living in confined space

Developers pitch micro-condos as the solution to an unaffordable housing market, the perfect entry-level home for young people shut out of Vancouver's overheated real estate market.

But experts say buyers should beware the dangers of living in a confined space.

"You're really looking at people who are willing to trade off private space for public space," says Tsur Somerville, associate professor with the University of British Columbia's Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate.

"Whether or not it's hanging out in a cafe or being in a park, those kinds of public spaces have to be a bigger part of your life."

Saegart has studied the impacts of crowding in public housing. By contrast, she says, almost no research exists into the long-term effects of living in micro-condos.

Potential buyers eye a display suite at a promotional event for the Evolve condo development in Surrey, B.C. (CBC)

In theory, they make ideal homes for young, single people who spend most of their free time outside the home. But things can change.

"This is assuming a sort of a stress-free, constantly healthy young person," she says. "Someone who loses their job or is ill, or breaks up with their girlfriend, or whatever, might find this situation confining and depressing."

It's a little like living in an Ikea showroom. A magazine out of place becomes a clutter catastrophe. And a sleepless homebody feels like a caged animal.

And while a homeowner may start out single, what happens when they invite a partner to move in? Falling in love can be blissful — but in a micro-condo, there's also no escaping a new partner's irritating habits and bodily functions.

'No escape from the noise'

Lia Cosco enjoyed the year she spent living in one of 30 Gastown "micro-lofts" billed as the smallest, self-contained furnished rental apartments in Canada. But she warns about the hidden dangers of annoyances like noise.

"In such a small space, there's not a back room you can go to," she says. "So that was a little hard, there was no escape from the noise."

Cosco says the compact space suited her minimalist, active lifestyle. But she says it's not for everyone.

"I don't collect or keep or hoard," she says. "You're not going to have a good lifestyle if you like a lot of things, you have a lot of possessions and you feel a need to grow that."

Micro-lofts in Vancouver were touted as the smallest self-contained furnished rental apartments in Canada. (CBC)

At the time they were launched in 2011, the units where Cosco lived were unveiled as "affordable and much-needed, non-subsidized rental housing."

In the same way, Somerville says micro-condos cleverly fill a gap in Vancouver's market by targeting buyers willing to trade space for price.

"Being able to match products more closely and more successfully to people's preferences is a good thing," he says. 

Micro-condos benefit developers too 

But will they hold their value? 

"It's not as though any of these things are risk free," Somerville says.

"Particularly when you're looking at micro-units, it is a little bit more sensitive to the demographic mix. It's really hard to see two people, two kids in a 250-square-foot unit."

At the end of the day, Saegart says, micro-condos may be built for young urbanites but they also benefit another crowd: developers.

"Their interest is in building new housing and building more of it, and finding ways to sell it for better profits," she says.

"If there's a problem with affordable housing in a city, this is one of those devices which is likely to make that problem worse."

Of course, no one has to live in a micro-condo.

"It's a choice, it's a free choice," says Saegart.

"But choices become free or not free depending on what is out there in the housing stock and what you can afford."


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