This article originally appeared in Spanish on BBC Mundo.
Nightmarish traffic jams and skyrocketing rents in big Latin American cities have created a new, profitable business opportunity for building contractors: tiny apartments in central areas, mostly aimed at students and young professionals.
Some are as small as 10 sq m – roughly the size of an individual parking space.
"They are the smallest in Latin America," says Alexandre Frankel, executive director of Vitaco, the firm behind a micro-apartment project in São Paulo, Brazil. One of Vitaco’s buildings, the VN Higienópolis, is attracting buyers even though construction isn’t expected to end until the end of the year.
This trend toward tiny living spaces isn’t confined to São Paolo, however. In cities such as Buenos Aires, Bogota and Mexico City, commutes can be up to three hours. Median salaries often don’t enable workers to afford larger apartments closer to the city centre. Those who live on their own prefer to lose space and gain time.
People sleep in their apartments, but the rest of building is part of their house too – Frankel
Some architects are already comparing the tiny apartments to prison cells. Others, however, see them as a highly profitable solution to an urban problem that will only worsen.
Advocates of the new trend argue that it is a natural offshoot of the gig economy, where young people work independently, have children later in life and flock to co-working spaces.
Therefore, architects are now designing buildings that combine micro-apartments and large common areas, in which residents can hang out when they want to socialise.
"People sleep in their apartments, but the rest of the building is part of their house too," Frankel told BBC World.
Frankel’s company has built several micro-apartments projects in São Paulo, but none had broken the small-space record of 10 sq m. The company will not be able to construct such small living spaces in the future, since regulation no longer allows it. Regulation does allow, however, to build 11-sq m units. "I would make them smaller if I could," Frankel says.
The legal aspect is key. In most large urban centres, the law does not permit building on such a small scale.
Still, in cities such as Tokyo, known for high rents and for having one of the world’s highest population densities, you can find micro-apartments of as few as 8 sq m.
‘Cities are expelling people’
Micro-apartments have proliferated in other Latin American cities, but with larger sizes of around 20 sq m.
Overcrowding and excessive traffic are not new problems in the region, but they have worsened in many cities. These issues, combined with rising prices and the consolidation of an aspiring middle class, have paved the way for the micro-apartment phenomenon – at least as long as there is a demand.
Similar real estate projects are taking place in Buenos Aires, both in exclusive neighbourhoods and middle-class areas.
"Our products are for middle class people who don’t have access to housing and can’t afford to buy," says Pablo Brodsky, commercial director of Predial, a company that sells micro-apartments ranging from 18 to 30 sq m, which are priced from $40,000. "Cities are expelling people, which is why micro-apartments are here to stay.”
Yet Brodsky says that everything has a limit. For instance, you cannot build houses as tiny as those in São Paulo.
"I would not live in 10 square metres," he says.
‘Rental for tourists’
Other companies have developed projects in more exclusive areas, such as Buenos Aires’s Belgrano or Palermo neighborhoods. These usually do not fall below 20 sq m, and prices start at $55,000.
Their buyers are investors who in some cases rent them out on platforms such as Airbnb, or even as offices.
"Due to the devaluation of the peso, it is very profitable to rent them out to tourists who pay in dollars, rather than renting them for a full year," says Manuel Mel, sales manager at Mel Propiedades, based in the Argentinean capital.
Cities are expelling people, which is why micro-apartments are here to stay - Pablo Brodsky
Young professionals, and parents of students coming from elsewhere in the country, also purchase these apartments. "They are conveniently located, near subway stations, and can be bought by people who would otherwise have to wait for years," says Mel.
Regulations that allow building micro-apartments in Buenos Aires were passed few months ago, so more projects of this kind are expected.
"People are still looking for large spaces," Mel says.
Yet, this phenomenon has not yet manifested in Mexico, lead manager at CADU Residencial José Luis Madrigal tells BBC Mundo. "Housing prices are on the rise, especially in Mexico City, and there is a high demand that the available offer cannot assimilate."
However, Mexico City dwellers are still looking for larger spaces, with a minimum of 65 sq m. But the tendency is for spaces to become progressively smaller, due to rising prices, reduced population growth and changing living and working conditions due to the gig economy.
Many of these are re-modelled old homes, says Leonardo González, an analyst at the Propiedades.com portal. González adds that there is a demand for small spaces coming from millennials, since it is not easy for them to buy apartments.
"Many of them lack income security, and therefore the conditions to acquire property," he explains.
This same situation is evident around the world, especially in large cities in which adequate housing is growing out of reach for an increasing number of people. Many recent graduates and young professionals choose to stay at their parents’ homes as long as possible in order to save money.
Others, tired of getting stuck in traffic jams, end up living in micro-apartments. Many urban planners, scandalised by this idea, wonder why no planning policies were put in place.
In any case, the megacities will keep on growing – and the demand for housing is hardly going to stop.
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