Small dwellings fill a niche
Timm Freeman’s Santa Monica apartment has 17-foot ceilings, granite countertops and collector guitars hanging on the wall. He’s got a built-in microwave, dishwasher and central air conditioning.
All in 350 square feet.
Freeman’s coffee table is also his dining table. His desk is three steps from his sitting room. And three paces from his stove.
“Everything is within three steps of the next thing,” said Freeman, 40, a graphic designer.
Southern California, meet the Manhattan-sized mini-apartment. In a region known for its sprawl, diminutive dwellings are finding a toehold among renters who couldn’t otherwise afford to live in choice neighborhoods.
Freeman’s apartment may be smaller than many suburban master bedrooms, but rents in his Olympic Studios complex are comparatively small too — $1,110 a month at the low end — and the beach is just a mile away.
Prospective tenants need to sign up for a waiting list: The 165-unit Olympic Studios has been filled since it opened in late 2008. Its developers are now building a similar complex nearby, and a pint-sized apartment project is also planned for the Palms neighborhood of West Los Angeles.
The units are about the same size as a large recreational vehicle and have the same design imperative: Fit as many features as possible into a small space, but don’t make it claustrophobic.
“It’s like a Rubik’s Cube,” said Jim Andersen of NMS Properties, which built Olympic Studios. “It’s a geometry problem.”
Freeman’s living areas — kitchen, desk area and TV nook — flow from one space to the next, unimpeded by doors or hallways. The only interior door is to the bathroom. He climbs 14 carpeted steps to a landing big enough for his double bed and a closet. A wide ledge over his stove and refrigerator holds some of his paintings.
“It feels like more than it is,” Freeman said. “It’s just right for me.”
When Freeman’s 7-year-old son Gear visits, he sleeps on the fold-out couch.
“He’s got his own little space with dedicated shelves for personal stuff,” Freeman said.
Still, there are challenges. When Freeman hosted a rehearsal for his ukulele band, the Ooks of Hazzard the nine members took up the length of his apartment, from front door to window. The backup singers had to perch on the stairs.
“It was very full,” Freeman said. The close quarters made it “kind of fun,” he said, although he hasn’t hosted another practice since.
Freeman, who is recently divorced, also had to pare down his clothes and other possessions before moving in. Residents can rent a storage cabinet in the underground garage for $60 to $100 a month, but he didn’t feel the need.
“Getting rid of stuff I didn’t need helped me untether myself,” he said. “It was a gift, rather than a punishment.”
There wasn’t room to keep Freeman’s collection of 12 guitars in a closet, much less on stands on the floor like he used do, so he hung them on the walls. “It turns out I like guitars hanging up like artwork instead of hidden away in a closet,” he said. “I dig it.”
Nontraditional families like Freeman’s were in the minds of the Olympic’s architects. “Families are not two and a half kids and a dog anymore,” said Wade Killefer of Killefer Flammang Architects.
Creating the smallest possible units was a competitive game in the Santa Monica firm, Killefer said, with his fellow architects challenging one another to shave off a foot here or there on the design. They started by allotting space for the necessities.
“You’ve got to have a couch, a stove, a bed, a place for two people to eat, a desk, a closet and storage space,” Killefer said. “Then figure out where your dresser is going to go.”
Their presumption was that most tenants would be single, or a parent with one child, with a smattering of couples.
Mini-dwellings are at the frontier of a downsizing movement that’s embraced by environmentalists, and that challenges decades of a bigger-is-better trend in American homes.
While Olympic Studios is an extreme case, American dwellings are getting smaller. The median size of a U.S. home, which jumped from 900 square feet in the 1950s to 2,277 square feet in 2007, has edged down to 2,161 square feet in the first quarter of 2010, Census Bureau figures show.
The smaller units make most sense in places like Santa Monica, where the cost of land is high and there is an abundance of jobs and commerce. That means people want to live there, but may not be able to afford the rents that traditional apartments fetch.
For developers, small is beautiful because they can build more units per square foot of land. A 165-unit complex would normally not be possible on the site of Olympic Studios, but developers won permission from Santa Monica city officials in part by agreeing to set aside some of the units for people whose annual incomes are below the local median of $55,000.
Those residents pay $1,110 a month. Others pay $1,388, which is still about 30% cheaper than other new apartments in Santa Monica.
“As the price of housing rises faster than incomes for many people, you will see this being a small but steady and growing part of the market,” said John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute think tank in Washington. “How do you make units affordable to people in the middle-income workforce if they want to live in the city?”
One answer, McIlwain said, is to make them small but with upscale designs and finishes such as granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.
That offers a competitive advantage in Santa Monica, where much of the apartment stock is several decades old and sometimes not well maintained.
“I was like, wow, everything is new and working,” said Deja Prem, a massage therapist who shares an Olympic Studios unit with her high-school-age daughter Cecilia. “I can stay off the freeway and walk to the grocery store.”
Prem’s unit is Spartan. There is no television and no clutter. A small couch in front of an electric fireplace folds out to make her daughter’s bed. Upstairs under an image of Buddha on the wall, Prem sits on her bed to work on a screenplay on her computer. She often takes her meals there, too.
One of the few signs of personal possessions is a shelf full of shoes by the front door.
“Why lug around a lot of stuff like it’s going to be Armageddon?” Prem said. “I just like expansive spaces, because it opens up my imagination.”
Being in the middle of it all does have its down sides. Olympic Studios sits in a busy light manufacturing district served by heavy trucks and traversed by thousands of commuters.
“There is street noise when the windows are open,” making it harder to concentrate on school work, said Santa Monica College student Ori Dvir, who was attracted to Olympic Studios because he can walk to classes.
He sold most of his belongings when he moved from Chicago about six months ago, so fitting into his unit wasn’t difficult, he said.
“I like the idea of scaling down,” said Dvir, who is in his 30s. “I prefer small places. They are easier to clean and maintain.”