Urban lifestyle challenge: Building sweet digs millennials can afford

In real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. And while waterfront property will always have great appeal, the hottest real estate markets today are in downtown urban cores in cities across the country, including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.  

In some ways it’s an economic developer's dream come true. But in other ways, the situation poses challenges for communities competing for the best and the brightest in a global marketplace.

Here in the Tampa Bay region, it's no different. Where Tampa Bay Area downtowns were once empty after 5 p.m. and on weekends as families scurried to the suburbs after work, today they are vibrant 24/7 work-live-play destinations, pulsing with activity.

Yet, as demand pushes rents higher and higher, young professionals and creatives -- the very segment of the population that community and business leaders especially want to attract -- risk getting pushed out of the market.

What’s the solution? Omar Garcia, of Urban Core Holdings, and Mickey Jacob, Executive VP at BDG Architects, say there is a crucial need for diversity in housing options.

“We keep saying we want to bring in tech companies and at the same time, we know the kinds of people who work for them embrace the idea of urban living. Our challenge is to make sure that they have the opportunity to enjoy the urban lifestyle,” says Jacob, who is also board chair for the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

“That means we can’t just keep building high-end apartments and condos,” says Jacob. “We need to create housing alternatives that make living downtown attainable to anyone at any income level.”

Micro living

One creative solution, say both Jacob and Garcia, is the concept of micro-apartments. These are multi-family residential buildings with individual living spaces of between 350-and 500-square feet, about half the size of the average local apartment or condo. 

“That’s the size that will bring rents down and make them more affordable,” says Jacob.

He points out that while micro-apartments are both smaller and more affordable for renters, that doesn’t necessarily mean the units cost less per square foot to build. “It is a matter of simply reducing the square footage of the space down to the point where the rent is affordable,” he says.

It’s a new idea for Tampa Bay, but not for cities around the world where small residential footprints are commonplace -- think Tokyo or Hong Kong. They’re also showing up in big cities in the U.S., like New York City, where studios at Carmel Place, the first micro-apartment project there, range from 260-to-360-square feet.

“In Europe, they just call them apartments,” says Garcia. “It’s essentially a small studio apartment designed to make the space more efficient, such as using a Murphy bed system.”

Jacob agrees. “It’s like living in a flat -- no different than what you would find in Paris or Berlin or Barcelona, where that size apartment is a normal urban environment.”

Who’s the target market for such small living? Proponents say everyone from young professionals right out of college who may not want to own a car, to empty nesters looking to downsize and rideshare. Both groups are also looking for a more walkable lifestyle, with easy access to restaurants, arts and culture events, shops, healthcare providers and more.

"There’s a big gravitation to the cities and as that happens, there’s a move away from people owning cars,” says Garcia. “Young people would rather spend their time working and playing, not driving. The economics are moving way from car ownership to alternative transportation.”

Tampa Bay Area political, economic and business leaders are talking about and slowly working on solutions, but we're not there yet.

Nearly everyone agrees that more options are needed to replace the car as the primary mode of transportation. But what, where and how to pay for it, whether it includes light rail, dedicated bus lines, ferries, streetcars, or a move toward a more pedestrian and bike-friendly culture, is an ongoing debate. 

Jacob also says there’s a need to look at the streetscape, the visual elements such as sidewalks, trees, open spaces, art and furniture, that define and give the neighborhood character.

“For people who live in tiny apartments, the streetscape becomes the living room; the place where they socialize and build relationships,” says Jacob. 

Garcia and Jacob initially tried to introduce Tampa to the concept of micro-apartments with 220 Madison, a former 1960-era office building in the heart of downtown Tampa. They intended to convert it into micro units. But city zoning regulations mandated one parking spot per apartment, making the project too costly, Garcia says.

Instead, the building was converted into “boutique” student housing. The University of Tampa is four blocks away and the property is close to the planned University of South Florida Medical School campus at Channelside.

But Garcia and Jacob are still hopeful. They envision a future where micro-apartments -- not for students, but for young professionals, are commonplace in the downtown urban core.

“Like with everything, the first steps are the hardest,” says Jacob. “If we can find a way to make that type of project work and it’s successful, the market will demand it.”

Water Street Tampa vision

Affordable workforce housing is also an issue that Strategic Property Partners, developers of Water Street Tampa, is taking into consideration. According to Ali Glisson, marketing manager, plans for the new 50-acre mixed-use retail, office and neighborhood include a diverse mix of housing designed to appeal to a wide range of household types and incomes.

Glisson points out that housing affordability is often an issue for growing cities like Tampa. Rising land and construction costs can exacerbate the challenge of creating new housing at more affordable costs.

Water Street’s solution is to give people options. That includes everything from studio rental apartments that may appeal to students, to three-bedroom rental apartments designed for young families, and large penthouse condos for an empty-nester seeking a walkable lifestyle and downsizing from a larger home in the suburbs.  

A look at Pinellas

When Pinellas County Economic Development undertook a competitive analysis that showed how the county compared with competing areas around the country, affordable workforce housing was a concern, says Director Mike Meidel.  

“One of the challenges that came up was the lack of attractive housing for mid-tier employees looking for single-family homes,” says Meidel. “We have a lot of availability in housing that is very high-end and low-end, but not many options in the middle. And location is important, too. People aren’t willing to drive longer than 45 minutes.”

What’s the solution? “Pinellas County is very built out so we are looking at redevelopment opportunities and whatever it takes to put us on a good playing field,” says Meidel. “That could include the possibility of rezoning for smaller lots when we go to replace older mobile home parks, as well as land acquisition and infrastructure improvements to make land parcels more  attractive to developers.”

Tiny houses are coming

Tiny houses are gaining traction as an interesting alternative for affordable housing. Although the homes, usually 400-square-feet or less, may only appeal to a niche population, they definitely have appeal.

In mid-April, advance tickets for St. Petersburg’s Tiny House Festival were completely sold out, says Ester Venouziou, the festival’s coordinator, and founder of St. Pete-based LocalShops1.  

The festival offered eager crowds the chance to take a look inside some 25 different versions of tiny homes created by individuals and companies locally and from around the country, says Venouziou.

?What’s the appeal? “Tiny houses offer many opportunities for people to have access to affordable housing, “says Ginger Reichl, CEO of Parvus House, a St. Petersburg company that designs them.  

“A lot of younger people aren’t interested in acquiring a lot of materials possessions and tiny houses work for them,” says Reichl. “They’re also useful as affordable transitional housing for veterans, youth aging out of foster care and other groups.”

But like micro-apartments, placing tiny houses within a community can be a challenge. “There are a lot of roadblocks,” says Reichl. “Banks don’t know how to finance them, insurance companies don’t know how to insure them, and zoning rules often won’t allow them.”

Eco Village, a new nonprofit sustainable living community near downtown St. Petersburg, was recently granted approval to build three permanent tiny houses on its campus near downtown. The houses will be used for demonstration and educational opportunities, says Jamie McWade, co-Director of Eco Village.

“A lot of us are looking for affordable housing and tiny houses can address some of the need that exists here in St. Petersburg,” says McWade. “I was born and raised in St. Pete and can’t afford to buy a house here. Being able to build tiny houses at Eco Village could create a lot of opportunities for people to live more simply.”

In the future, McWade says Eco Village is proposing building additional tiny homes that people can live in. They would be placed across the street from the main campus. The Eco Village Trust has acquired three properties that have been
set aside for future growth and development of the community.

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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.