Julie Williams, 36, left a two-bedroom apartment in Olney, Md., for a Northwest D.C. studio that’s 350 square feet. She says “bigger isn’t always better.” (Jason Hornick/For Express)

Julie Williams’ studio apartment is about the size of a large master bedroom, except that a kitchen and bathroom are crammed in as well. At 350 square feet, it’s the smallest apartment she’s ever lived in, and she loves it.

“I previously lived in a two-bedroom [in Olney, Md.], but I would rather live here,” says the 36-year-old National Institutes of Health employee, who is one of a new wave of renters willing to swap space for the ideal location. “I have everything I need right here … walking distance to Metro, to restaurants, to the grocery store, so it’s perfect.”

Williams’ building, the Harper (1919 14th St. NW; 202-842-1919), is made up entirely of apartments that have between 350 to 600 square feet of space — some of which developers are now calling “micro-units.”

Though definitions of micro-units vary, most real estate experts consider a micro-unit to be any apartment less than 500 square feet that’s designed for efficiency.

More of them are popping up in the region, as developers discover that it’s the things outside the apartments that make small spaces work for millennials like Williams, who would rather pay for location and neighbors than extra square footage.

City-Wide Trend

Data shows that renters are increasingly interested in smaller apartments. For example, developers are building 45 percent fewer two-bedrooms in D.C. now than they did in 2000, according to research from Delta Associates published in The Washington Post.

As rents go up, new apartment buildings are banking on studios and one-bedrooms. They’re real estate’s answer to the roommate phenomenon: If millennials are teaming up to split two- or three- bedroom units in nice buildings, why not just offer smaller spaces so that they can afford to live on their own?

At the Harper, that strategy is paying off. The apartments started leasing Jan. 20 and are now more than 90 percent full.

“We thought we could deliver more affordable units in the neighborhood by making them smaller,” said developer Michael Korns of Keener Management.

Trendy 14th Street Northwest, where the Harper sits, can be a pricey place to live. At nearby buildings, rent for a one-bedroom often starts at more than $3,000. Williams pays $1,795 for her small studio at the Harper, with all utilities included.
Developers are pursuing a similar strategy at the Wharf (690 Water St. SW), a new project planned for D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront.

At one residential building there, about 170 of the 500 apartments will be micro-units. The Wharf’s developers hope those smaller apartments will appeal to younger renters who want “to live in a high-energy environment” without a roommate, says associate project director Matthew Steenhoek.

The first phase of the Wharf project, including the micro-units, is expected to open in 2017.

Selling Points

One thing developers say can charm renters into a micro-unit: vibrant communities.

Williams has found that the tight spaces in studios at the Harper lend themselves to a tight-knit community in the common areas, making renters less likely to worry about their small square footage.

Williams already made friends with her neighbors, and hung out with a couple of them on a Friday night. She and one other tenant even co-hosted a meet-and-greet on the building’s roof recently.

Managers at the Harper and the Wharf are betting that that kind of community, coupled with amenities like rooftop pools and nearby restaurants, will make the snug spaces worthwhile.

The other big hook for tenants: well-designed floor plans. Having a carefully laid out space is key to making a tiny rental work.

At the Harper, “the apartments feel bigger than they are, with no wasted space,” developer Korns says.

Williams says she uses her window ledge as extra seating and mounts her TV to the wall, so that she still has room for a full-size bed and a lounge chair. “Bigger isn’t always better,” she says.

From Offices to Apartments

One D.C.-area developer is taking the concept of small-space living geared toward millennials a step further.

Developer Vornado/Charles E. Smith is collaborating with WeWork — a shared office space company — to repurpose an office building at 2221 S. Clark Street in Crystal City. The building, set to open in mid-2015, will have about 250 apartments, many of them around 300 square feet. The apartments will come furnished and will have a kitchen with typical appliances, like a fridge and a microwave, though some units will have studio layouts. The building will have social spaces for residents, including community kitchens, café areas and a library. Backers are betting that millennials will appreciate the community vibe.

“We’re making places for millennials,” says Vornado president Mitchell Schear. “You’ll have a small space of your own, but there will be small spaces in common that people will share. … You have this feeling of openness and sharing and community.”

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