Micro housing advocates find big demand for living small

TAMPA, Fla. — When Omar Garcia announced plans to transform a vacant downtown office building into 120 micro apartments of about 300 square feet each, the calls and checks poured in.

“We got 90 reservations like that,” Garcia said, snapping his fingers at a Tampa Downtown Partnership panel discussion on micro housing, and 88 percent came from people who already worked downtown. “People were like, ‘Yes!’ “

But while interest in micro housing isn’t hard to find, developers said local regulations and the availability of financing are still catching up to a market that evolved sooner in some cities (Seattle, Nashville) than in Tampa.

In Garcia’s case, he learned that city codes required 120 parking spaces for 120 micro apartments.

If he didn’t provide one parking space per unit, he would have had to pay a city fee of $26,000 per unit — or about $3 million.

So Garcia changed the plan to create 48 two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments of student housing. The payment-in-lieu-of-parking fee for those dropped to a more doable $300,000.

Garcia said he plans to start construction on the $15 million project, called 220 Madison, in a couple of weeks. Students will pay $769 per bedroom, and the No. 1 amenity they said they wanted was fast Internet connections, so the project will provide download speeds of 300 megabits per second. It also will have a bicycle rack with room for 60 bikes and maybe a couple of dedicated parking spaces on the street for Zipcars.

One key assumption driving the micro housing trend is that residents will go carless — or at least they won’t own cars.

Of Garcia’s initial 90 reservations, 72 percent said they had a car, but 78 percent of those indicated they were willing to give up their car. And no wonder, he said, in light of AAA statistics that owning a car costs an average of $724 a month.

Automakers, Garcia said, recognize that “the future’s not going to be about people owning vehicles. It’s going to be about people using vehicles.”

Another factor: the desire, especially among older homeowners, to scale down their living expenses, how much work they have to do to maintain a home and how much stuff they want to have.

“There’s a tidal wave coming, and it’s not climate change. It’s seniors,” said David Bailey, who grew up in Tampa and now splits his time between Ybor City and New York City, where he is a real estate advisor-broker for the Stan Johnson Company.

The nation will soon see 10,000 Baby Boomers a day turn 65, said Bailey, citing statistics published by Wired, and many people are living longer (though the opioid epidemic has caused life expectancy at birth to start dropping).

“You guys have to start thinking about where do you want to live and how do you want to live,” Bailey said. “I personally do not want to live in a traditional nursing home.”

So Bailey and his wife recently built a “tiny house,” with 365 square feet on the first floor, plus an 80-square-foot loft overhead, a couple of blocks south of E Seventh Avenue in Ybor City. The first floor, he said, consists of three 10-by-10-foot rooms: a living room up front, a kitchen and bathroom in the middle and a bedroom in the back.

He loves it, and so do guests who rent the place through Airbnb.

“If we don’t reserve our own house a month in advance, we don’t get in our own house,” said Bailey, who plans to start building a second tiny house next to the first one in a couple of weeks.

The trend is not just gaining momentum in Tampa.

In Pinellas, LocalShops1, which advocates for small and locally owned businesses, has scheduled a St. Pete Tiny Home Festival for April 7 and 8 at the St. Petersburg College Allstate Center in St. Petersburg. (To learn more, check tinyhomestpete.com.)

Given the squeeze that Garcia faced, would Tampa ever consider doing away with required parking for downtown residential projects?

“We’re going to listen to what the market is asking us,” city urban development manager Rob Rosner said, but the city has to make decisions with a long view of likely demands and costs associated with meeting them.

To entice more business downtown, the city waived parking requirements for restaurants, he said, and it’s worked. But to waive all parking requirements could create high demand for something like a new parking garage — an investment that won’t pay for itself for at least 30 to 50 years.

“It’s a balance we have to strike every time,” Rosner said, noting at “a lot of cities are still hanging onto” requiring parking requirements for downtown residential development.

To get a better grip on the city’s parking needs, the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership plans to launch a six-month parking study next month. It will assess what the urban core’s true inventory of parking is and consider whether downtown needs a new public garage, a change to what the city charges for parking or new rules for parking and development.

Meanwhile, City Hall has set minimum width requirements for sidewalks to make downtown streets feel more pedestrian friendly. It plans to create or upgrade several smaller downtown parks so residents have more living space near their homes as an expected 3,000 apartments or condominiums come on the market over the next 18 to 24 months. And it is adding bike lanes and shortening crosswalks by adding bulb-outs at street corners.

“It’s not all about the car any more,” Rosner said.

Another challenge for micro housing can be financing.

“When we were floating the micro apartment concept with no parking the banks were like ‘What? We don’t know what that is,’ so they don’t know what box to put it in,” he said. “If you say student housing, they say, ‘Okay we got it.’ “

In this stage of the micro housing market, he said, financiers are perhaps not as ready to bundle and securitize the revenue streams generated by micro projects as they are for more traditional projects. But it’s to be expected.

“That,” Garcia said, “is what happens when you’re first.”

Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), http://www.tampabay.com.

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