THEY MAY sound unappealing to the average Boston resident, but small, dorm-like apartments offering occupants little more than a “pod’’ bathroom, galley kitchen, and pull-out couch to sleep on could be the key to jumpstarting life in the burgeoning Innovation District - but only if these “micro-units’’ are offered at a price that’s in reach of their target tenants: young entrepreneurs and start-up employees looking to live downtown.
The developers’ current proposal, to build around 300 of the 375-square-foot micro-units and put them on the market for $1,500 a month, misses that mark. Surveys suggest that a $1,500-per-month rent is simply too expensive for one young person to cover on his or her own, and the units are too small for two to share. The city should work with developers to adjust their plans.
A study by the Cambridge Innovation Center confirmed that young people are seeking more affordable housing options downtown and are willing to live in dormitory-inspired housing arrangements to do so. That’s good news for boosters of the Innovation District, which needs more permanent residents before it can hum with life. But in that same survey, the respondents - mostly twentysomethings who work in the tech and start-up industries - said they would only be willing to pay, on average, around $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year, for innovative housing. That’s $6,000 less per year than developers are hoping they will pay.
If the city wants its micro-unit initiative to succeed, it must press developers to drop their prices - and work with them on how best to do so. Or, if that’s not feasible, developers should focus on building tiny apartments that can accommodate two residents, so that a pair of tenants could share the space - and the $1,500 rent. That could mean introducing shared bathrooms or kitchens in order to create enough room for another bed; plenty of young college grads, accustomed to dormitory-style living, would not be put off by the shared facilities.
Developers and the city are eager to get construction underway. But they should take the time to ensure micro-units will appeal to the people they hope will soon plant themselves in the Innovation District. More than just the economic fate of the development is at stake: Boston has waited a long time for a thriving neighborhood to emerge on the South Boston Waterfront. Once the numbers are right, this is a plan that could deliver it.