Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How to make it more difficult for the poor to afford an apartment

Hudson's Common Council will soon vote on a proposal to establish minimum apartment sizes in the city. The proposed standards are 250 square feet for a studio and 500 square feet for a one-bedroom unit. The proposal presumably aims to protect citizens at the lower end of the rental market by guaranteeing more pleasant dwelling units and limiting exploitation by landlords. But on examination, the proposal does not appear to be rationally justified, self-consistent, or helpful to renters. If enacted, it likely will do more harm than good.

Screenshot from trulia.com
Most people would agree that a larger apartment is better, all things being equal. But in order to turn such preferences into law, we need objective evidence that people's health and well-being are compromised by living in apartments smaller than the proposed standards. Proponents of the measure have not provided this. If there is any evidence to be found, or at least intuited, on the subject, it indicates that the proposal will threaten the well-being of some individuals on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder by increasing the cost of renting an entry-level apartment.

Let's look at an example. Recently, the owners of a building at 949-951 Columbia Street proposed creating two apartments within the existing building shell. One is to be a 420 square foot, one-bedroom unit. This unit might be realized before a city-wide minimum is passed, but the situation will come up again, so it's a worthy example. 420 square feet is small for a one-bedroom unit, smaller than many folks would be willing to live in. But a pleasant, livable unit this size can be realized if it has a proper layout. I once lived in such a unit for a year and a half.

An informal survey of Trulia indicates that the average apartment in Hudson rents for 1.00 to $1.50 per square foot per month. Using a mean of $1.25, the 420 square foot unit will cost $525 per month. If increased to the 500 square foot minimum, it would cost $625. That's $100 more per month, $1200 more per year that the renter would have to come up with. Keeping in mind that such a unit would attract renters near the bottom end of the rental market, this is $1200 that otherwise might be spent on getting to work or clothing a child. I cannot fathom how forcing such a compromise is a good idea in a city in which around one in four people live below the poverty line.

Of course, someone priced out of the one bedroom market could shop for a studio apartment. But this presumes a studio would suit a renter's needs or personal preferences. Further, the proposal is self-inconsistent: In setting a minimum size for a studio apartment, it acknowledges that a person can live, eat, and sleep in 250 square feet. Reasonably, then, a renter can conduct two of these activities, i.e., live and eat, in less space; let's call it 230 square feet. Why, then, does the proposal insist that a renter who wishes to sleep in a separate room rent 270 additional square feet of space? (I am not saying the bedroom will have to be 270 square feet, only that the apartment would have to be this much larger.)

Landlords could face compromises as well. Returning to our 420 square foot example, the owner would have to: 1.) find 80 more square feet within the building; 2.) build an 80 square foot addition; or 3.) remove some existing interior walls within the one bedroom apartment to turn it into a studio. I suspect that at some point in this deliberation, the owner will wonder why city government has inserted itself into the question of whether a renter has a wall between where he sleeps and where he eats.

The proposal for a minimum size apartment ordinance in Hudson is not rational, self-consistent, or beneficial to the public it aims to protect. The Common Council should reject it.
CORRECTION, 10/15/2014: The proposed minimum studio size is 350 square feet. Please see here.


  1. From someone who works with clients trying to find affordable housing in the City of Hudson, I completely agree with you. I think the Common Council's collective eyes need to be opened to the real lack of affordable housing, lack of affordable public transportation and increasing homeless population in Hudson.

  2. Totally agree. Having moved up from NYC where I spent the first five years there raising two kids in a two-bedroom 250 square foot apartment I know it can be done not only successfully but pretty happily. My kids, now in their forties, remember the apartment as being "large".