How much space do we need?

microhousingHow much space do you need to live? It probably won’t surprise Americans to hear that we have much more space per capita in our homes than most people. But I think that disparity between Americans and others is starting to diminish a bit due to economic realities. Only so many people can afford McMansions these days. And those McMansions have a huge carbon footprint compared to those of dwellings in other parts of the world.

In the past few years, there’s been a growing trend of micro housing in major American metropolitan areas, mainly due to lack of supply and the cost of living.  the New York Times ran an article about new micro units in Manhattan: super-small studios that Mayor Bloomberg was touting as the latest, greatest lifestyle for single New Yorkers, a growing demographic in NYC. The comments on this article expressed great skepticism about the desirability of living small; we’re being duped if we think it’s good to have so little, commenters opined.

I’m not so sure it’s bad to have so little. I’ve read similar articles about super-small studios in San Francisco, Seattle and LA now. These articles intrigued me because I have been on a smallward spiral in housing for the past four years:

2005: Moved from a 3,000-square-foot house (purchased in part to accommodate a sick relative) to a 2,000-square foot house (with a pool!). The crowning design feature of the 3,000-square-foot home: the “great room” with flexible dining/entertaining space and two-story-high ceilings.

2009: Moved from the 2,000-square-foot house to a 1,100-square foot one-bedroom apartment to attend seminary.

2012: Moved to a 300-square-foot studio in the Bronx for a Ph.D. program at Fordham.

But now, in 2013, I am about to move into a 1,068-square-foot apartment as I begin a new job. My daughter will have her own room again after four years of shuttling between college dorms and whatever space I could carve out for her.

That’s a lot of moving and a huge discrepancy in living space, including private space for family members. As a Franciscan trying to live simply, I have thought a lot during these transitions about how much SPACE and how much STUFF we need to be happy.

I remember quite well when I visited homes during a mission trip to El Salvador in 2012. In La Villa Anglicana, small communities with homes, a school, and a medical clinic, the homes were simply built and very small–perhaps 400 square feet, if I recall correctly. A nuclear family would live in this dwelling, and one of the housing crises they faced was that teenagers were forming new families and having children, but there were no more homes to move into, so the small dwelling would have to be split up even more to accommodate the new couple and child.

No one in La Villa Anglicana acquires STUFF, simply because they don’t have the money, and they don’t have the space to store it. They acquire partners and children, and that is requiring more space that they do not have. They have what they need to prepare meals and care for themselves. I know that mentality well, because for four years, I have been wary of acquiring anything except what seemed absolutely necessary–mostly textbooks, warm boots, and clerical attire. (No kidding: vestments take up a lot of room in a New York closet.)

I moved to a bigger space because I wanted my adult child to have a private space in our home again, but I also needed more space for my STUFF. As I contemplate my imminent move from a too-small place to an apartment more than three times the size, I wonder whether I will return to this American habit of acquiring stuff because there is room to store it.

I hope not. Living small is not only necessary for urbanites who can’t afford large homes; it’s also necessary for our environment. The less we consume, the less we heat and air condition, the less we clean with toxic chemicals, the better off our ecosystems will be. Live small. It’s a good thing.

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