Pity the poor millennial. Caught between mountainous student debt loads and starting salaries that haven’t recovered from the last recession, record numbers of young adults ages 18-34 are living at home with their parents.
But a new housing phenomenon is pointing the way out of the parental basement for those trapped between the longing for independence and the realities of modern housing costs.
Micro dwellings have been defined as fully equipped self-contained housing units that are somewhere around 350 square feet in floor area. The idea got its start in high-demand urban areas in both the United States and abroad, where housing pressures and skyrocketing rents have a long and grim history.
Now the trend has come to south St. Anthony Park. In July, the Ray, a new 79-unit apartment building, will open its doors. Named for nearby Raymond Avenue, the Ray will occupy the site of a century-old repurposed warehouse at Carleton Street and Charles Avenue.
“We like to think of the Ray as offering ‘naturally affordable’ studios,” says developer Bard Johnson, chief manager of Ray Residential. Sixty-nine of the building’s 79 units will be in the micro-range with an average floor space of 372 square feet. The building was constructed with private financing and does not meet official definitions of affordable housing. Monthly rents will start at $890.
To put the apartments’ size in perspective, consider that a good-sized 20-by-20-foot living room in a vintage St. Anthony Park house occupies 400 square feet. Into a slightly smaller space, the Ray will pack living, dining, kitchen, bath, laundry and closet space.
Johnson is unabashed. “We’re not trying to hide our size,” he says. “We try to make maximum use of space. If you can give up on square footage, we offer every [other] luxury.” That means designer touches like high-end countertop finishes, hardwood floors, 9-foot ceilings, balconies and more floor-to-ceiling windows. A choice of 12 floorplans allows potential tenants to choose among open plans, alcoves—even walk-in closets.
“You get a feeling of spaciousness where you don’t actually have space,” he says.
Reinforcing the attractions of the individual units are the common spaces. On the roof, there will be a bar, grill and fire pit, as well as a dog run for occupants who decide that 372 feet is not too few to share with Man’s Best Friend. At this point, anyway, the Ray has placed no restrictions on the size of its future canine tenants.
Indoors there will be a secure, code-operated delivery system for incoming packages, as well as a library featuring books, study space and room for “vinyl” (records). What about tenants with no place to go for holiday meals? When a resident wants to invite guests to a sit-down meal, there’s a generous-sized, well-appointed private dining room and professional kitchen that can be booked in advance.
For tenants whose housing concerns are energy and technology–related, there will be individual high-efficiency packaged terminal air conditioning (PTAC) units providing A/C and heat. “Residents will be able to program and control their individual PTACs via mobile device,” Johnson says. “So the units can automatically turn off or down when a resident leaves but turn back on in time for the resident to come home to a comfortable temperature. And, you can turn up the heat or A/C from anywhere, without getting up from your chair.”
As for prospective residents, Johnson says the Ray is aimed at people who “make too much for subsidized housing, but still need affordable places.” Johnson’s company also hopes to “appeal to people who care about transit.” The building lies within a block of the Raymond Avenue Green Line LRT station. It’s also near an HourCar ride-sharing auto pickup point and a Nice Ride public bike station.
The neighborhood’s growing retail business climate is another attraction. The Dogwood Café sits directly across the street from the Ray. Dogwood Café manager Jessica Shearer is excited to welcome new customers, and she’s also pleased at the improvements the Ray plans for the immediate neighborhood, whose overall esthetic is probably currently best described as post-industrial.
“Right now, this area doesn’t look like a street so much as a warehouse parking lot,” Shearer says. But the Ray, will “develop the whole block with trees, lighting and sidewalks.”
Johnson agrees that the Ray’s curbside amenities will introduce a softening touch to the landscape of former warehouses and light manufacturing plants. New bright, street lighting as well as the trees they intend to plant will give “the whole corner a residential feel,” he says. “We’ll be a safe, comfortable spot in the bigger urban village.”
While most of the Ray’s future tenants are likely to be on the youthful side, Johnson thinks the building will also attract those with “mobile lifestyles, who just need a place to crash,” as well as those undergoing “a status change to divorced or widowed.” What they will almost certainly be is single. Although there are a few larger one- or two-bedroom units at the Ray, Johnson says that couples “would have to be very intimate to rent a studio here.” And that fills a niche when current demographic trends point to rising ages for marriage and childbearing.
Kate Zimmerman is a grad student in architecture at the University of Minnesota who is writing her thesis on topics related to micro dwelling. Projects like the Ray make sense, she says. “You can see cities increasing in density. We need smaller dwelling units.”
Unfortunately, lifestyle ideals have sometimes been slow to catch up with housing realities, Zimmerman says. “After World War II, the idea of the nuclear family [living in] the single family home really exploded,” she says. “But that idea isn’t holding up. The lack of affordable housing is increasing.”
And fashions in housing are finally changing.
Zimmerman, who lives in South St. Anthony, points to the Green Line as a magnet for the development of both higher-end and “artists” apartment-style housing in the area. Projects like the Ray can provide a foundation for what has become “a really hip lifestyle right now,” she says. “People don’t want to be tied down with a lot of possessions.”
As a young adult in her late 20s, Zimmerman knows firsthand the factors that are shaping the minimalist lifestyle of her generation. “My peers have lots of student debt … and a [sense of] increasing mobility,” she says. “[It] justifies staying in a place for only a couple of years. People still want to have families, but that comes later, after you’ve paid off the debts.”
For now, there are places like the Ray. Ten of the 79 units of the building have been rented in anticipation of the July opening date, according to Johnson. For more information, visit the Ray’s website at www.raysmartliving.com.
When she’s not writing about community news, Judy Woodward spends her time as a reference librarian at the Roseville Library.