Yes, Apartments Are Getting Smaller. But Here’s Why That Could Be a Good Thing.

published Apr 12, 2023
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Love seat sofa with a gold and marble topped t.v stand in a studio apartment. Gold framed bed nearby.
Credit: Chinasa Cooper

In the summer of 2021, Sarah Keats pulled off the kind of move that most people only dream of: cross-country, with two dogs in tow, escaping the rainy Pacific Northwest for a small desert town near Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

A lifelong renter, the ex-New Yorker and ex-Oregonian found herself looking for a home post-breakup, and decided she was ready for a change of pace. She found it in a 400-square-foot casita on her friend’s remote property (or, as Keats calls it, “on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere”). All of a sudden, small-space living was her new reality. 

“I had to completely start over,” she says. “I was literally Marie Kondo-ing my life down to like, What can I fit in this tiny house? I got rid of almost everything.” 

Increasingly, this is the new reality for a whole lot of other Americans, too, who are moving into smaller spaces than ever before. According to a new report released by RentCafe, apartments are steadily shrinking in size. The trend is nationwide, but cities like Seattle (where 82 percent of new apartments are now either studios or one-bedrooms) and dense areas like Queens, New York, (which saw a 46 percent decrease in size over the past decade) are most affected. 

Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Keats
Keats' casita

One explanation for the shrinkage could be a decline in roommate culture post-COVID, according to Los Angeles-based architect Jeff Zbikowski, who is the founder and principal of JZA Architecture. Zbikowski notes that remote working is the new norm for lots of people (like, millions), and some renters are willing to compromise on unit size in exchange for more amenities.

“From a renter’s perspective, it could go two ways, right? You could either be thinking you’re getting less for your money, or you could be thinking, you know, why am I paying so much for 1,000 square feet when I only need 400? I have all these other spaces within the building that are essentially free to use.”

Those aforementioned amenities are the key to getting prospective renters in the door, and it’s easy to see how the perks — like gyms, pools, co-working spaces, and shared courtyards — could make up for other shortcomings. In a sense, it’s a more communal alternative to the isolation that often comes with living and working in individual apartments.

“Finding ways to utilize amenities in the building to become a true extension of one’s home is a great way to make ‘smarter’ decisions when it comes to leasing,” says real estate agent Adie Kriegstein. “For example, a full-service building with lots of amenities can offer tenants a way to work comfortably out of their home but still not in an office setting. Plus, having the free WiFi and a few areas to use within a building can further let one invite peers or colleagues over to collaborate on projects.”

Of course, when you design a building with smaller units, builders get more bang for their buck (you might end up with 7 units instead of 5, for example, therefore boosting the rental income generated). But higher housing density is a good thing for cities — especially considering the nationwide housing crisis that was only exacerbated by COVID-19. For Zbikowski, the design challenge is an interesting one. 

“It puts more pressure on us to be careful with how we plan the space,” he says. “In a smaller unit, you have to maximize efficiency. I think you’re seeing a lot of projects right now that are a little cookie cutter — you know, they’re taking something they’ve used in the past and just applying it to a smaller scale. But it doesn’t always work that way.” 

Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Keats
Keats' casita

For renters, moving into a smaller home that necessitates a closet clearout can be a cathartic experience, says Keats. Stuff is often burdensome, especially when you have a lot of it, and aside from the fact that moving is expensive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming, it can also be a chance for a fresh start. 

Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Keats
Keats' casita

“I had to ask myself, why would I pay money to move stuff across the country that I literally haven’t used in two years anyway?” Keats says. “So I loved that part of it. I loved the purge and then the kind of reconfiguring and being a little bit more selective about what objects do I actually need? Do they fit into this tiny little life?”