The average size of new apartments is shrinking in major cities all around the country. In DC alone, new apartments built between 2010 and 2016 are on average 9% smaller than those built in prior years. It’s a trend that is both caused by and that helps to relieve high rent prices in the District.

Graphic by the author.

This is according to a recent analysis from RCLCO, a Maryland-based real estate advisory group. RCLCO gathered data from 20 urban apartment markets across the country between 2000 and 2016 to see where apartment size was changing the most and why.

According to the report, the average size of new apartments has decreased in almost all cities, nationwide. The largest decreases are seen in high- and moderate-cost markets like Washington, Los Angeles, and Chicago, due to a combination of market forces:

Aggregating the markets by relative housing cost shows how pricing economics have influenced the change. Average unit size shrunk the most in moderate- and high-cost markets, where there has been an attractive combination of strong demand fundamentals for new product in general and larger base unit sizes relative to the very high cost markets. As a result, new supply in high- and moderate-cost markets today is sized much more comparably to that in very high-cost markets—the gap in size between the average new unit in New York and Washington, DC, for example, has closed quite a bit.

The report indicates some of this shrinking of the average apartment is due to smaller floor plans; the average 1-bedroom apartment in 2016 is smaller than its 2000 counterpart. However, the majority (~73%) of the decrease in average size is due to a shift away from multi-bedroom apartments in favor of studios and single bedrooms units.

In DC, “micro-units” are at the extreme of this trend. Micro-units are apartments under 600 square feet that have sprung up in high-demand areas such as the 14th Street, Dupont Circle, and the Southwest Waterfront. These units aim to use clever design, shared amenities, and compact appliances to offer a comfortable living situation in a small area. According to the report the nationwide prevalence of such units has doubled in recent years, despite efforts in cities like Seattle where some residents have banded together to fight them.

It would be wrong to characterize smaller living space as a completely new trend, when in at least one way, it’s closer to historic norms. In terms of square feet of living space per capita, DC has been far more crowded in the recent past. In 1950, over 14% of the population lived in a residence with more than one person per room. The present rate is a third of that.

Where the present differs is in the trend towards more studios and one bedrooms. Developers are responding to an unprecedented number of individuals who, for any of a few reasons, want to live on their own. In 1920, 5% of the US population lived individually, a figure that is 27% as of 2013. For those who want to live on their own in DC, a smaller apartment for less rent makes a lot of sense.

The benefits of this shift are primarily economic: smaller apartments mean more people can be sheltered for less resources. In fact, DC’s building boom in smaller apartments seems to have slowed rent increases — at least for luxury apartments. While this seems inegalitarian, it’s only in the short run. Over time these benefits should eventually spread across all tiers of comparable housing, assuming enough new housing is being built.

On the other hand, more small apartments means that DC will be relatively less friendly to families in the long term. While small expensive apartments tend to eventually turn into small cheap apartments, they’re still small. No matter how well-designed a single bedroom unit is, it’s not going to work for a family. Making cities friendly for families is an important and complex issue, well beyond the question of how large an apartment should be.