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Micro-living in LA: Could you live in less than 400 sq. feet?

Actress Dawn Davis lives in 380 square feet apartment in the South Park neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles. Dan Tuffs for KPCC

Actress Dawn Davis says living in a 380-square foot apartment in downtown Los Angeles took some adjustment.

She sleeps just feet from the couch, her desk, the television. Underneath her bed is a table that she unfolds when guests are over and covers with a tablecloth.

"I’ve had maybe three people in here at one time," Davis said. "You could probably smush four if you’re really good friends."

Staying neat in such a small space means constant decluttering, regular visits to Goodwill and hard decisions like throwing out boxes of yearbooks and photos — after she digitized her favorites, of course. (When she needs to get rid of stuff, she draws inspiration from the podcast The Minimalists.)

But in a city where residents with some of the least affordable rents in the country, living in an apartment the size of a garage can be a godsend, especially in desirable spots like downtown L.A. Davis pays $909 a month and gets to live alone.  

"I’m a woman of a certain age," Davis laughed. "I’m single. I don’t really want to have a roommate."

What used to be called a studio is now referred to by builders as a "micro-unit."

There's no defined size though microunits are typically under 400 square feet. Because these mini-apartments take up less space, more of them fit into a housing complex. And that’s intrigued cities with housing shortages like Los Angeles. One proposal before the City Council would ease zoning restrictions on developers who build microunits.

In Los Angeles, many of the tiny apartments are in older buildings like Davis’, where the management has been rehabbing studios. Another planned project downtown would convert former single-room occupancy hotels into buildings full of micro-units, with an average size of just 277 square feet.

A growing number of luxury developers are also building brand-new micro-units from the ground up in and around L.A. — and renting them for double what Davis pays. In Santa Monica, the NMS corporation has four buildings with micro-units, according to the city. A 362-sq. foot unit rents for $1495 a month.

Los Angeles is catching up to other cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, which has the highest concentration of micro-units in the country. Housing experts say rising demand for tiny apartments is no surprise: More people are living on their own than ever before, said John Infranca, a professor at Suffolk University who’s studied the rise of micro-units since he was a fellow at NYU Furman Center.

"That’s due to people delaying marriage longer," Infranca said. "That’s due to people getting divorced at higher rates."

Infranca said changing demographics are coming at a time when attitudes about owning things is shifting. 

"Technology has kind of limited our need for a large collection of books or large music collection or other things. And so that means we need less space," he said.

Developers are eager to fan the micro-unit trend. A complex of micro-units is more expensive to build because each one needs a kitchen and bathroom. But developers can more than make up the cost.

"They command the highest rental rate per sq. foot," said Bill McGregor, the developer behind the One Santa Fe complex in downtown L.A., where about 10 percent of the 438 apartments are micro-units.

A 343-square feet apartment there rents for $1,915 a month. McGregor said what the mostly millennial residents give up in square footage, they make up in communal space such as yoga and Pilates studios, outdoor theater and a saltwater pool.

He said he has two other micro-unit developments in the works. Other developers such as Kasita are also planning projects in Los Angeles. But some affordable housing advocates are far from excited.

Sissy Trinh of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance said a micro-unit building boom won't alleviate the city's housing shortage. She notes that newly-built micro-units are too expensive for the average renter and "only works for a very specific subset of people."

"Micro-units are great if you don’t have a family, if you don’t want to live with a partner," Trinh said.

Trinh predicts as more micro-units pop up, there’ll be more demand for larger apartments, and that will drive up their rents.

"Because the thing is, if you’re only building micro-units, then you’re not building two and three-bedrooms," Trinh said.

That was a concern in Santa Monica, which has been a top magnet for micro-units in the last several years. The city responded by passing a law that limits micro-units to just 15 percent of any building.

The city's planning director David Martin said that way, "there’d be opportunities for people as they get older and maybe get married. They can actually stay in the community."

But others argue micro-units are actually good for the overall housing market. Infranca said people who rent micro-units actually keep housing affordable.

"If [single people] were not renting a micro-unit, the individuals would likely be joining with two or three other young professionals and renting a two- or three-bedroom. As demand increases, that drives up the cost of those housing units for working-class families," Infranca said. 

Davis said had she not found her apartment, she would have had to consider living somewhere less expensive, like the San Fernando Valley. But she found a great deal with her apartment, which is also where she works as a voiceover actress. She uses her closet to record commercials and audiobooks there.

She'd like an extra 150 square feet, but she said she's happy with what she has. (It's certainly more comfortable than living in 90 square feet.) Davis said the best part is that at the end of the day, she can go out and enjoy downtown, a place she’d never be able to afford if not for her mini-apartment.   

"You can take more time for yourself and be more of a person," Davis said.

A person, she said, with a lot less apartment to clean.