Spaces for sharing: micro-units amid the shift from ownership to access.

Author:Infranca, John

Introduction I. Micro-Unit Residents as Sharing Economy Consumers II. The Sharing Economy and the Residential Development Process A. The Relationship Between Car Share and Parking Demand B. Considering Car and Bike Share in the Land Use Approval Process III. Living Within the Sharing Economy IV. Implications Conclusion INTRODUCTION

The sharing economy is quickly changing how people live. (1) Rather than hail a cab on a street corner, one can summon an Uber via a phone. Instead of staying in a cookie-cutter hotel downtown, one can explore a hip neighborhood through Airbnb. Why waste limited room on a home office or fight for a table in a coffee shop when a co-working space can fill one's needs? Yet as dramatic as such changes--in how people move around town, where they stay when travelling, and where they get work done--may be, the sharing economy is also contributing to less discussed, but potentially more dramatic, changes in where we live and in the shape of the spaces we call home.

By blurring the line between commercial and private space, the sharing economy places into question the separation of residential, commercial, and other activities that define much of twentieth century urban planning. (2) This Article suggests that the sharing economy's rapid growth highlights the need for a reappraisal of urban housing policy and a reconsideration of the legal barriers to certain forms of housing--housing that either relies upon the sharing economy to alleviate neighborhood concerns regarding increased density or that directly incorporates what might be termed the culture of the sharing economy into the residential experience. In particular, the sharing economy, by enabling individuals who value access rather than ownership to live with fewer personal belongings, has the potential to intensify the already significant demand for smaller housing units--often termed "micro-units"--in popular urban areas. (3)

There is some debate regarding the contours of the sharing economy. (4) This Article does not articulate and defend a precise definition. Instead, it adopts an expansive view, one that includes a range of activities that rely on the use of technology to reduce transaction costs. (5) This includes both firms that "own goods [and] services that [customers] rent ... on a short-term basis" and those that facilitate a peer-to-peer platform that "connects] providers and users for short-term exchanges of goods or services." (6) The sharing economy enables individuals, through technologies that dramatically reduce transaction costs, to access goods and services in smaller and smaller units: one can rent a tool for an hour, rather than purchase it, or pay someone to pick up groceries once, rather than hire a full-time personal assistant. (7) Consequently, it enables individuals who value access over ownership to live a lifestyle that demands substantially less space. (8)

In parallel with the rise of the sharing economy, over the past few years a separate but related trend has also begun to reshape the fabric of life in urban areas. Micro-units have grown in popularity due to a combination of factors, most notably changing demographics and lifestyle choices. (9) Although there is no established definition, for purposes of this Article, the term "micro-unit" refers to a newly constructed housing unit that contains a private bathroom and kitchen or kitchenette, but that is significantly smaller than a standard studio in a given city. (10) The demographic trends and changing lifestyle choices that drive much of the demand for these housing units align closely with the forces behind the rise of the sharing economy." In terms of demographics, there has been substantial growth in the number of single-person households in all cities and throughout the nation--from about seven percent of households in the United States in 1940 to twenty-eight percent in 2010. (12) As a result, in some cities, including Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Denver, over forty percent of households are comprised of single individuals. (13) Since the housing stock in most cities was built for very different household compositions, the growing demand for smaller housing units exceeds the limited supply in most cities. (14) As a result, many single individuals moving to cities find roommates through Craigslist, a prominent web-based precursor to the sharing economy. (15) Micro-units, which are typically less expensive than conventional studio or one-bedroom units, (16) prove attractive to many of these same individuals by enabling them to live alone without roommates, offering privacy at a lower price point than conventional studio and one-bedroom apartments. (17)

Beyond price and the potential to live without roommates, the neighborhood in which a micro-unit is located often drives consumer demand. (18) Micro-units have found much of their success by providing individuals with the opportunity to live in particular neighborhoods--with access to certain desirable urban amenities, such as restaurants, bars, cafes, and green space--that they might be otherwise priced out of. (19) Individuals who seek to live in such neighborhoods and who treat the city as their "living room" are willing to compromise on the size of a space in which they are not likely to spend considerable time. (20) Younger city residents, a significant, but not the only market for micro-units, are particularly likely to move to amenity-rich and higher density urban neighborhoods. (21)

In addition to supplementing a small personal space with communal and public spaces outside of their apartment, many micro-unit residents rely upon goods and services obtained through the sharing economy, which makes it easier to live with less space. A prominent San Francisco micro-unit developer identifies "[a] decrease in car ownership, particularly among millennials; and [y]ounger households with less accumulated stuff and a growing 'sharing economy'" among the key factors driving demand for the micro-units he develops. (22) An architect who designs these units remarks that "[t]he micro-unit definitely lends itself to a specific population where sharing is actually a social and communal benefit." (23) And a developer behind multiple micro-unit projects in Washington, D.C., frames the market for small units in prime, transit-rich neighborhoods in these terms: "urban and urbane professionals coming into town who don't have and don't want cars, don't know how long they are going to be here, don't need a big place and don't have or want a lot of stuff." (24)

Both micro-units and the sharing economy have the potential to benefit cities that embrace them in a number of ways. Collaborative consumption and denser living in walkable neighborhoods dependent upon public transportation can both serve sustainability goals. (25) Given the high profile of the sharing economy and, to a lesser extent, micro-units, both hold promise for cities that want to attract residents by appearing "hip" and "on the map." (26) In light of these and other potential synergies, how should city governments and urban planners consider the interaction between these housing types and the sharing economy? This Article explores a few areas of existing convergence and sketches out some theoretical and practical implications of considering these two phenomena in conjunction.

Part I explores how micro-unit residents interact with the sharing economy and suggests that the sharing economy and micro-units, both individually and in conjunction, represent a cultural shift back towards more traditional forms of urbanism. Part II discusses specific examples of how local governments are beginning to consider the provision of sharing economy infrastructure--in particular car and bike share--in the land use approval process, particularly when evaluating micro-unit developments. Part III addresses new residential developments that more expressly incorporate a culture of sharing and that at times explicitly identify as a component of the sharing economy. Finally, Part IV sketches out some theoretical and practical implications of the dynamic interaction between micro-units and the sharing economy.


    Elements of the sharing economy can play a crucial role in the provision of amenities that makes smaller units more attractive to both potential residents and city planners. (27) Developers pitch smaller housing units to target tenants who spend most of their time outside of their homes, working in cafes and socializing in bars and restaurants. (28) The ability to access nearby spaces and use them for daily activities that would otherwise occur within the home allows individuals to place less priority on having personal control over a private residential space that can contain all of the same activities. (29) This substitution of shared space for private space over which an individual asserts exclusive control mirrors how the sharing economy substitutes access for ownership of goods. (30) Car and bike sharing programs provide a particularly important example of the type of sharing economy infrastructure that can directly complement micro-unit living. (31) The demographic to which micro-units are often pitched is less likely to drive regularly and own a car, (32) and is more likely to use car share programs. (33) Access to car sharing might also factor into the location decisions of certain residents. (34)

    The sharing economy can complement compact housing units in other specific ways. Rather than struggle to find space in a coffee shop to work (and attempt to commandeer a space for long periods of time in exchange for a single cup of coffee or the risk of over-caffeinating), (35) an individual instead can pay a monthly fee for access to a co-working space--which provides access to a shared workspace--near his or her home. (36) Rather than spend money each month on rent or a mortgage for a second bedroom, a micro-unit...

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