Big Living in Small Spaces
Big Living in Small Spaces

By Ellen Ryan |



6 minute read

Pictured above: Society Las Olas in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Smaller living doesn’t mean making sacrifices—amenities shine in these communities. 

The majority of entry-level workers cannot afford to live within striking distance of where they work. That’s a lot of what’s driving this,” says Susan Tjarksen, Managing Director of Cushman & Wakefield. 

“This” is the slowdown in new renters as beginning wages, inflation and often student loans can make it challenging to rent where jobs pay best. It also hints at a growing solution to the problem by builders and developers. 

 “After college, young people have long gone on to find apartments or houses to share,” says Brett Kaufman, Founder of Kaufman Development. “What’s new is building for that stage of life, with a nice gym and lots of peers around.”


One type of housing familiar to many recent students is the suite—several bedrooms clustered around a common living area. Student suites usually share a bathroom, but in an adult twist often dubbed “co-living,” 90% have private baths, says Tjarksen, whose company has financed or sold co-living deals totaling more than $1 billion.

Another twist is that all residents have their own lease agreements, which may be on different timelines. This is made possible by software advancements that have evolved to make this process akin to conventional leasing. 

“Co-living is the premise that you live in an entire building, not just the particularly defined space on your lease,” Tjarksen says. Apartments typically consist of three to four small bedrooms plus a living room, dining area and full kitchen—designed for Gen Z, with a bit more for takeout and storage than for multi-course cooking. 

Here’s how rents work in one such building: A resident can lease a studio, junior one-bedroom or one-bedroom for $2,241 to $2,795. Or, that resident could share a two-, three- or four-bedroom co-living apartment for $1,500 to $1,900. 

Plus—following the dormitory model—furniture, utilities, internet, cleaning supplies and limited housekeeping (or some combination) are generally included in the rent, most often in Class A properties. “Anything roommates would fight over,” Tjarksen notes. “It just makes sense to keep friction down.”

Society Living, the shared-living segment of Property Markets Group (PMG), describes its buildings from Denver to Brooklyn on its website this way: “We also made living with roommates [and co-living] easier by eliminating shared bathrooms, providing exceptional furnishings, finding great people to live with and splitting up the bills…. All at an attainable price.” 

There are several possibilities co-living can present.

“The increased building density of properties with a co-living component enables collecting significantly more per foot than traditional layouts,” says Ryan Shear, Managing Partner of PMG, which jumped into this concept along with Common, Ollie, the Collective and Domain Companies. 

“It also typically expands the potential renter base by lowering the entry-
level price point for a building,” he says. “We have seen that offering co-living unit types alongside market-rate units boosts retention and reduces vacancy by providing a path for residents to move within the building as their
needs change.” 

Young, early-career renters as well as empty nesters and other urban dwellers looking to contain costs while maintaining a high quality of life are discovering a second type of apartment as well: The microunit. 


Microunits are a reinvention of the single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel from 100 years ago, says Scott Shapiro, Managing Director of Eagle Rock Ventures, LLC—only “nicer, more efficient, meeting customer demand.” 

When nArchitects won the bid for Carmel Place in Manhattan, Principal and Co-Founder Eric Bunge told Multi-Housing News, “They have to be very humane, and it’s a huge challenge to make them livable.”  

His units averaged 300 square feet, with nine-foot ceilings and tall windows to maximize natural light. They featured overhead storage, full kitchens and built-ins to make the most of available space; residents had more in the basement. 

A report by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) described microunits as “a purpose-built, typically urban, small studio or one-bedroom using efficient design to appear larger than it is and ranging in size from as little as 280 square feet up to as much as 450 square feet.” 

“To put the size of a micro unit in perspective, a 300-square-foot micro-unit studio apartment is slightly larger than a one-car garage but considerably smaller than a two-car garage,” according to ULI.

Units nearly always include a fully functioning, accessible bath and kitchen. That kitchen may have a movable island and a gadget wall to maximize use of the space, and furniture is sized appropriately. Ceilings tend to be high and windows oversized. 

Residents put a premium on affordability, of course—most microunit rents include utilities, internet and the like—but also on location and experiences, which is why they find a fair balance in a minimal apartment with a maximum of nearby attractions (jobs, shopping, transit, parks, nightlife).

Still, not everything can be found beyond the walls—which is why developers often provide a common room with a large-screen television, a fitness room, reservable large kitchen and/or rooftop deck. 

Even with these amenities, can such tiny units appeal to active renters? “Nearly a quarter of renters in conventional apartments indicate they would be interested or very interested in renting a microunit,” ULI found in its study. Young professional singles, largely under age 30, appear to be the target market; so are folks trying out the job market or in a life transition. 


With specialized design, furniture and a few spiffy touches, microunits can be a bit pricier to create and operate than the conventional unit. 

Shapiro, whose rents are about two-thirds those of nearby studios, says what helps is offering no parking: “If the municipal government requires parking, we can’t build this economically. Some people don’t have cars or even a driver’s license.”

With both microunits and co-living units, one addition that helps bring in residents is “makerspace amenities.” Long a must in the co-housing niche, makerspaces are common areas outfitted for creative hobbies and activities, individual and shared.

In Columbus, Ohio, Kaufman’s project, Gravity—a multi-use community opening in phases—includes the Idea Foundry, 30,000 square feet offering classes, space and events for everything from woodcarving to 3D printing. Residents have free or discounted admittance. At 176 Lincoln, under construction in Allston, Mass., 252 total units—including 45 small studios—will have discounted access to the onsite Artists Asylum, a retailer offering classes and studio space.

Boston’s CBT Architects incorporates makerspaces into multifamily housing. “We’re focused on people’s lifestyles instead of just giving them another pool they’ll never swim in,” says Vickie Alani, Principal Architect.

In northeast Washington, D.C., her firm had a hand in the multi-use community Armature Works, where two apartment towers include 12 micro studios among one- and two-bedroom units. The mailroom houses a station for wrapping packages and making greeting cards—all materials at hand. Other makerspace examples: A utility kitchen for home brewing or dinner parties; a workshop outfitted with wood- and metalworking tools.

 Where are these trends going? Says Tjarksen, “Everybody thrives with more options.”


Ellen Ryan is a freelance writer for units Magazine.