Micro-Apartments: Boston’s Housing Solution Or Developers’ Cash Cow?

Some economists think the creation of more micro-apartments could solve the city's housing crunch, but Boston is moving forward cautiously. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Some economists think the creation of more micro-apartments could solve the city’s housing crunch, but Boston is moving forward cautiously. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — From New York to San Francisco, micro-apartments are the buzzword in urban planning. Developers and academics are pitching the tiny units as a solution for cities starving for housing.

Boston suffers from a huge housing shortage — an estimated 25,000 units. But here, the mini-apartment craze is restrained.

A year ago, the city’s first so-called “innovation units” went up for rent. Now, a year later, there are only limited plans to build more.

Boston’s Cautious Approach

When the first 27 units went up for rent in the Seaport District, they were snatched up within weeks.

One guy who managed to get a studio apartment was Ross Chanowski, a 25-year-old who’s launching his own 3-D printing company.

“It’s kind of a live-work space in every sense of the term for me, from the conference room space to the co-working tables for meetings, you know if I need to have people in for a client dinner or something like that,” Chanowski said, describing the common space on the main floor of the building.

The thinking behind these “innovation units” is that they’re not just tiny. They’re efficient. And, where they sacrifice personal space, they make up for it in shared space.

Ross Chanowski pays $1,700 a month for his 450-square-foot apartment in the Seaport District. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Ross Chanowski pays $1,700 a month for his 450-square-foot apartment in the Seaport District. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Chanowski’s place is a little smaller than 450 square feet. But, with loft-style ceilings, he said it doesn’t feel cramped.

“You know it’s a different style of living, so you have to get used to it,” he said. “You cut down on the things that you probably didn’t need if you lived in a three-story townhouse, which I used to live in before I came here.”

Chanowski’s apartment is minimalistic – he has a queen bed, a desk, a small couch and an arm chair. The apartment comes with a washer/dryer/dishwasher, all the basic appliances, and costs $1,700 a month. Chanowski thinks it’s a deal, but analysts say it’s not affordable for many Bostonians.

“People are discovering that these micro-apartments are renting for very macro rents,” said Tom Acitelli, founding editor of the real estate blog Curbed Boston.

He’s skeptical about micro-housing.

“It sounded trendy,” he said. “They got them in New York, they got them in San Francisco, they got them in Seattle. They can work here. And this sort of panacea approach that’s been offered, that they are the 21st-century solution to a city like Boston’s housing crunch is ridiculous.”

So far the city has approved 353 micro-units — all in the Seaport District.

That term “micro” rubs Kairos Shen the wrong way. He’s director of planning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

“The reason why I resist the categorization of these as micro-units is because it’s only the physical characteristic that is being featured: micro,” he said. “As opposed to the notion that these are innovative in ways that foster high-quality living, even though it’s in a small package.”

Shen prefers the term “innovation unit.”

Right now, they’re a pilot program, limited to just one neighborhood in the city. Economists say that’s a problem; the city needs more.

Housing For Millennials 

About a third of Bostonians are between the ages of 20 and 34. The city is home to the largest percentage of millennials in the country.

“What we need to really do is have an effort to build housing for this particular population in the same way that we went ahead and built that housing for the new working families coming to Boston a century ago,” said Barry Bluestone, a housing economist at Northeastern University.

“What we need to really do is have an effort to build housing for this particular population — [millenials].”
– Barry Bluestone, housing economist at Northeastern University

His argument is that the city does not need new housing for families. It already exists in the form of triple-deckers. The problem, Bluestone says, is that these days, young folks are teaming up with friends to rent triple-deckers and essentially pricing out families.

So he says the city should build new housing just for millennials.

“This would do two great things for the city,” he said. “One, it would provide even more attraction to young people to have housing built specifically for them. But, equally important if not more important, it would free up a lot of these triple-deckers and other housing like it for the working families who were the intended tenants to begin with.”

Bluestone estimates the city needs about 8,000 to 10,000 housing units for young people.

“It would increase the amount of housing supply to the point where by my statistical calculations rents would no longer continue to rise,” he said.

Bluestone said the price of triple-deckers, which has gone up by 46 percent in the last five years, would stabilize. Plus, the price of micro-units would also likely drop to about $1,200 a month.

But Shen, from the BRA, says it’s not that easy to flood the market instantly with thousands of apartments.

“People are rushing to have us expand this program with very little inventory and experience of how these units are being occupied and whether in fact they are successful,” Shen said.

And, for the time being, he said he hasn’t seen any indication that prices are stabilizing.

In fact, in 2012, Shen says the rent for a studio went up by 22 percent. On the other hand, the rent for a two-bedroom only increased by 10 percent, which shows there’s demand for tiny units.

“We now have lots of developers who want to develop these small units, and they’re thinking about creating micro-units, not innovation units, per se, to maximize the yield of the units that they’re able to get in a development,” he said.

Shen knows there’s money to be made renting these apartments, but he says micro-units alone will not solve the city’s housing problem.

“One of the reasons why I’m not ready to pilot this elsewhere is because unless we have a creative agreement with the developers on managing the rents to make sure that this doesn’t just become a cash cow just for the developers, we’re not going to solve the housing problem,” he said.

Shen said, in theory, he’s amenable to more micro-units if developers come up with a solution to control rents. But, for now, the city will move slowly and cautiously. There are 77 units under construction, 205 more approved, and no plans to expand beyond the Seaport District.

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  • jefe68

    A 450 square foot apartment is a studio. Call it micro or anything you want.
    This is just a marketing ploy and does nothing to address the expense of living in the Boston area.

  • JBK007

    $1700 for a micro-apt/studio ANYWHERE is OUTRAGEOUS!!

  • Matt

    This is an absolutely terrible idea. Everyone involved should feel ashamed of themselves. The developers for trying to bilk even more money out of these scarce living spaces, the people who rent/buy them for convincing themselves that this sort of thing is ok/normal and the media for positioning this as a possible good thing.

  • jad311

    The only way this works is if the units are income restricted. Some cities require a developer to set a certain % of units aside as income restricted. In a free market economy there will always be someone who can afford and is willing to pay1700 for 450 sq feet in a desirable city like Boston, NYC, or SF.

    • Red

      Boston has that same requirement through the BRA. The problem is that even those units are unaffordable (take a look at the BRA “affordable” housing stats; most units are priced to rent for well over 50% the renter’s take home base salary).
      Boston needs more units (of any size) that are in the $700-1000 range. That’s what most single people in their 20s and early 30s can afford (and usually what they end up paying when they live with roommates in those larger units).

  • Kale12

    I fall into the 20-33 yr old gap (28). I really wanted to buy a home in my native city but just couldn’t afford the ridiculous prices for a single family in a decent part of suburban Boston (West Rox, Roslindale area).So I ended up buying a house in Canton (1200sq feet). My morgage is lower than most rent. ($1,347) I also can’t stand the idea that i’m paying someone else’s mortgage. My house is a 7 min walk away from the train station too. Right next to the center of town. People need to be realistic, the rent prices and homes will not get cheaper. It is time to move out.

  • Facsimilesmiles

    “Shen prefers the term “innovation unit.””

    It’s a studio apartment, you pretentious git! They’ve existed for a long, long time.

    • jefe68

      …and for less per month.

      • niuguy

        Or more, depending on where you live and how large the studio is.

    • mperrotti76

      These are nicer, and affordable studios barely exist in Boston.

      • Facsimilesmiles

        So they are “nicer” studio apartments. They’re still studio apartments. The only innovation here is in coming up with different names for them to convince single, rich, gullible twenty-somethings that they’re doing something new and interesting.

  • mperrotti76

    Where were these when I was single, yet too old to still have roommates?

  • mperrotti76

    Where were these when I was still single, and too old for roommates?

  • Millicent Broderick

    $1700 is still a lot of money.

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  • no_impressed

    The city needs to incentivize building 30,000 new apartments and quickly. It is the number not the type that matters.

    • Michael Morin

      If developers/architects know their stuff, they’d make sure it flows well and feels bigger.

  • http://www.longlivehw.com Josh/HW

    if only these could be affordable to the people who can’t afford 1bd or even studio apartments. Just overpriced smaller apartments for the people who already could afford to live here.

  • wolfndeer

    Build more of them to ease the market. 1700 is ridiculous. Kids shouldn’t have to piss all their money away just so they can live in the city they work.

    • Mark Murphy

      try living in a small apartment…
      the novelty wears off fast.
      It is ridiculous…but building more of them shortchanges them, and the rest of the city as well.

    • SecularPatriot

      Kids shouldn’t have to piss all their money away just so they can live in the city they work.

      I suggest you examine the rents for nearby properties. On my block, 1700 for a 450 sq ft space is a steal. Expect 2200-2500.

      • wolfndeer

        It’s irrelevant. I don’t care what the prices are on Golden Avenue. People should be able to live and work in the same area without having to pay an arm and a leg for it. 1/3 of someone’s income is enough.

        • SecularPatriot

          People should be able to live and work in the same area without having to pay an arm and a leg for it. 1/3 of someone’s income is enough.

          That’s not how markets work. People who want to live somewhere, and who have more money, force out people who don’t.

          It’s the incomes and demand that drive the price. Not the other way around.

          • wolfndeer

            Again, irrelevant. The entire article is about making steps to increase options and ease demand. That IS how markets work.

          • SecularPatriot

            There is only one way to increase supply in Boston: decrease sizes.

          • wolfndeer

            Nope. 50,000 studios of a decreased size are still only enough for 50,000 people. The only one way to increase supply is building more. It doesn’t matter what size.

          • SecularPatriot

            While it’s possible that Boston could change the various CC&Rs and other neighborhood rules that govern building height, it is entirely true that more land isn’t being created in the city.

            (Filling in the harbor hasn’t been done for I think ~ 100 years).

        • http://www.fullsceneahead.com Kc TheManagement Hoye

          I would love for 1/3 of my income to equal 1700/ month. Try pulling 2k a month and affording something like that apartment. There is no “affordable” housing in Boston.

    • pnv

      Forget kids, what about adults? Like teachers? How the hell can they afford to live in the city they work in? It’s disgusting.

  • DanM

    These apartments require a steady stream of 20 to 34 year olds to be successful in the long-term. Eventually a person turns 35 and wants more space. When young adults begin to realize that Boston’s “cool, hip” image is a facade, then who will live in these quasi-cubicles ?

    The political establishment is corrupt, the business leaders retain their old wasp snobbishness and beloved shrines like Fenway Park, are in fact, dumps.

    When the colleges are revealed to be frauds because much of what they sell has nothing to do with education, the micro-units will become places to warehouse the aging population who want to live near the hospitals.

    • awesomerobot

      Boston has a near-constant stream of young people into the city because of the high density of colleges and universities – this has been true for decades and isn’t changing any time soon.

      Young people flow into the city for school and stay in the area to work until they have families, and then move to the suburbs… this generally works – but there’s an upswing of people who want to stay in the city with their families, so rent rockets up because the new young people coming into the city have to compete with the 30 somethings who aren’t leaving and have higher paying jobs.

      A supply of smaller and relatively cheaper places to live in the city should alleviate this somewhat in the short term – but it’s tough to say how things will shake out 4-5 years from now.

    • HeyBudBoston

      You probably don’t think Boston is not “cool and hip” because you are how old?
      According to the article “About a third of Bostonians are between the ages of 20 and 34. The city is home to the largest percentage of millennials in the country.”

      This in and of itself make it a “cool hip” place for younger people.

      • Michael Morin

        As long as people are in the metro area trying to bring innovation to the city on all fronts, there will always be people wanting these sorts of things. That said, I live in an 1832 house on the northern border in Hudson. I had my time in Brighton a few years ago struggling at $1400 per month.

    • http://www.fullsceneahead.com Kc TheManagement Hoye

      Unfortunately having a high concentration of colleges also makes for a high turn over rate. Most of those millenials peace out after graduate school and leave us residents holding the bag containing all that political corruption and other such type marshmallowy goodness you mentioned. There’s no incentive to stick around because Boston is in the top three most expensive places to live, with very little benefit.

    • Michael Morin

      Just because you may have just turned 35 doesn’t mean everyone wants out, too. This is a good idea but prices may be a bit too much. Attitudes like yours are what keeps Boston from evolving.

  • Sam Shay

    I live in Newton and pay $1400 a month for a two-bed apartment with 9-ft ceilings, a sunroom, a laundry room, a basement, a living room, an office, and a 2-car garage plus 4 parking spaces in the driveway. It takes me 20 minutes to drive to my job in the city. The people who rent these micro-units are complete idiots. My kitchen and bathroom combined are over 450sqft, for real. Fools and their money are why rents are so high in the city.

    • ml77

      A lot of people don’t want to have to drive 20 minutes each way to work and then pay for parking. Just because they want a different lifestyle doesn’t make them complete idiots. If everyone wanted to live in Newton, your rent would no longer be $1400 a month.

    • Michael Morin

      People who live in those micro units don’t have cars. They walk and take the T. Instead of taking your car and cluttering city streets, maybe you should, too.

  • pauly2468

    The Seaport District is awash in “innovation” and other cash cows but where is the streetscape?Where is the affordable housing that is supposed to be part of development deals?.It is like parts of Houston,filled with massive profit centers that don’t benefit Boston or MA-unless you’re part of this exclusive club of profit-center innovators.
    We’ve been told that there is a trickle-down effect but it has not relieved the cash-strapped city or state.Rhetorical crumbs are being thrown to the masses.
    There is still a chance(or is there?) to have new development in the City Hall,Fenway and other areas to be more welcoming and inclusive,with some street scape and affordability.It would require more transparancy and citizen input than was the case in the Seaport Distirct.It is,after all,taxpayers’ money that is used to incentivize developers.

  • Katie Interlichia

    As a millennial, there’s no way I’d want to live in a micro unit! My fiancé and I have lived with 2 other roommates for 3 years, and we’ll continue to do so for a couple more, but or apartment is large and built with enough space and common area for it to feel comfortable. If people between 20-34 are competing with families for housing, maybe make more housing for groups! Use micro units to ease the pressure on the market, and then spend the time giving us the housing that we want (that can accomodate groups of young people, or is cheap enough to rent solo). ALSO the only thing that makes these micro units livable right now are the amenities included…give them 50 years, a bad building manager, and some owners who are uninterested in maintaining the units or the shared spaces in the building and they will be transformed into tenements full of sad young people who can’t afford anything better. These units will create more problems in the future than they can possibly solve right now, at least on a large scale.

  • Mark Murphy

    I see this as no solution. None at all.
    I believe the analysis is spot-on…just a way to rip off the tenant, by charging him more than $4.00 a square foot for an apartment that is basically cramped.
    I don’t like the idea of a small apartment…I already live in one now, and the small amount of possessions we have makes it look like we’re hoarders!
    Not only that…
    say you pay $1,000.00 a month, and that your income shouldn’t consume more than 33% of your income. You have to make $3,000.00 a month to technically qualify for the apartment…$36,000.00 a year. Confidentially…I don’t make $36,000.00 a year, and that kind of money is more than the median income in this country right now.
    If you really want to do something…
    limit rent to $800.00 a month, so that more people can afford to rent here, and make the apartments 2-bedrooms…under rent control.

    • awesomerobot

      The average salary for the Boston area is at least double $36,000 a year. So it’s not as outrageous as it may seem in other parts of the country.

      • Katie Interlichia

        The average salary for 20-34 year olds in Boston can’t be upwards of 72k. These units should be priced for their audience.

        • http://www.fullsceneahead.com Kc TheManagement Hoye

          Take out the top 10% of that average and you’ll see how incredibly flawed judging by averages is. If anything they should take a look at a bell curve, then they might see how close the belly is to the bottom.

        • Michael Morin

          It is about 72-73K. One other publication indicated about $60K

        • awesomerobot

          It absolutely is upwards of 72k for those who are employed full-time.

    • Michael Morin

      I make less than the median of Boston and I, for all intents and purposes, work in Boston and I make more than $36K. This type of apartment is made for people who don’t stay at home very much – city dwellers who eat out at work and maybe dinner with friends. This is not for suburbanites and those living in rural areas who spend more time at home.

  • rosie5215

    One of the major problems in the area is the refusal of many of the local universities, most notably MIT, to invest more heavily in graduate student housing. This puts enormous pressure on the local housing market, as many triple-decker renters (or 3-4 bedroom house renters) are students who end up paying $800-900/month per room, not families. Many of these students would be willing to pay up to $1200/month to live in a studio in Cambridge or Somerville, but between NIMBYs who block construction and a ‘the market will solve all of our problems’ mindset among university administrators, it is unlikely that this option will ever materialize on a large enough scale to make a difference in local housing prices.

    • http://www.fullsceneahead.com Kc TheManagement Hoye

      here here! I’d also like to point out if those colleges paid taxes the city wouldn’t be nearly as desperate.

  • Sam Shay

    I’m hardly confined to a car, with a T stop a five minute walk from my house. I drive because it takes 20 minutes instead of the hour and twenty the T takes – that extra two hours a day is a no-brainer. I didn’t say everyone else is an idiot, I said paying $1700/mo for 450sqft makes you an idiot, and I stand my that. Rents are so high because people think it is trendy to live in these shoeboxes and they fork over $30k plus per year for the “privilege” of doing so, not because developers price them that way. Vacant units yield negotiated rates, period. In places like NYC and SF where commuting is a nightmare thanks to limited water crossings, it is easier to drive up rents; here in Boston where you can commute from wherever you please and can actually opt to pay a close to sane amount for a lot of space, why would you not? If you are in college, live in Allston instead of Beacon Hill and you save thousands; as an adult, there are great places to live under ten miles from the city center where your rent will be a fraction of what it would be for a comparable place in town. How exactly do you plan on saving up to buy a house when all your money goes to rent, anyway??? This has nothing to do with suburban vs. urban or car vs. T, it’s about how much of your salary you exchange for how much living space, and how much cash you have left over to invest in your future as a result.

    • SecularPatriot

      I was under the impression Newton was more like 30 minutes in the rush. We were way out on the D-line, near Newton, for years and moved to Back Bay to cut the commute. Though I think when two people are commuting to downtown, the math is a little different.

    • pnv

      Spot on.

    • baklazhan

      Considering that a typical garage uses about 325 square feet per parking stall, do you ever think it’s odd that parking for your car in Boston costs (apparently) somewhere around $50 a month, while a shoebox apartment of 450 square feet costs $1700?

      • Sam

        I’d love to know where you pay $50 per month for parking. I am lucky enough to have a deeded space at my job thanks to a decent position, but garages in the area are around $400 and buying a space can run you a quarter of a million bucks, no joke. Obviously the answer for you if you can find parking at that rate is to buy a Winnebago and live in it in two $50 spaces! That’ll show ‘em…

        • baklazhan

          You said you paid $200 for everything, so I assumed your parking had to cost $50 or less.

          It’s pretty ridiculous that you’re criticizing people for overpaying, and bragging about how you’ve got such a thrifty solution, when it turns out your way of “saving money” involves having the company pay for your expenses to the tune of $400 a month. Obviously, most people don’t have that option.

          And AAA has the average cost of owning a car at $9,122 a year, or $760 a month, so I’m a bit skeptical of your $200 figure.

          As for the Winnebago, I suspect we’d see a lot more of that if it weren’t illegal. Even with $400 spaces, it’s still a lot cheaper.

          • Sam

            OK, obviously I was kidding about the Winnebago. As for the AAA figure, that probably includes a heavy car payment, which I don’t have and neither does anyone else that makes the sensible decision to buy a quality older vehicle. I spend about $500 per year on maintenance, and yes, I get a free parking space, so that helps. If I paid for a garage at work, that would run me $290 per month at the cheapest place nearby. Not the $400 you quoted based on… what? Also, I get about 6X the space for my rent that the micro-unit in the article describes, at $300 less per month. Not including utilities. If I had to pay for parking, I would park on the street if possible, and if not I would probably park in a garage for the roughly $3600 it would cost annually.

            My point wasn’t to brag about my living arrangement, it was to point out that these “innovation units” are just another way to make young impressionable folks shell out asinine amounts of money for increasingly less quality of life based on “trendiness” and not any real material gain. The car is just a way for me to make my place more attractive, but I could take the T and save way more – I just choose not to because of the 10 hours per week I save driving.

            If I had no car and a tight budget, I would still choose a suburb; I have a good friend who lives in Dedham right near the commuter rail, and he pays for his rail pass to get to work right near me and pays just a bit more than I do for my car. His rent is half mine, and his place is very nice. My point is that the most precious thing we all have in life is time, and second to that is money in this society, and many people are willing to sacrifice all their money to live centrally when it would save them a ton to move a bit out at very little cost in terms of time. It makes me very sad that there are trust fund babies willing to shell out any price for tiny apartments right next to their offices simply because it ultimately screws the rest of us over by making it possible for landlords to charge whatever they want.

            I’d also point out that being a bit outside the city (not much) with a car allows me to do great things with my free time like go hike Purgatory Chasm near Worcester, which would be just about impossible by T. I can go where I want when I want, and that is worth a lot. When my fiancee and I were commuting together, our shared cost and time were outstanding; now she works in the suburbs as well and driving is the only real option for her. If we lived in a micro-unit, we’d have to pay for a place to keep her car so she could get to work, and we would be looking at crazy money.

            Basically, I’m just saying that these units are designed and priced to appeal to young people who for the first time in their lives have a substantial income, and their price encourages them to overpay for a compromised lifestyle and give up the ability to plan for their future. Developers who build and price these units do young people a disservice by putting their target audience in a position where they would pretty much have to either become CEO of their company or live in a micro-unit until they draw their last breath, and that only helps the bottom line of the property owner. Young people should live frugally and plan for a prosperous, debt-free future on their own terms, and this whole living proposition is antithetical to that ideal on every level. Why live outside your means and get a shoebox in return? Really? Why? Sure, it’s your life and your lifestyle and you can pay for it if you want, but I’ll be living in a paid-for house at 40 while the micro-unit tenants are still trying to figure out how to put a few hundred bucks per month away to buy a place in their 50s, and that’s an atrocity in my mind.

          • baklazhan

            The $400 quote I based on you previous comment, where you said that parking cost $400.

            Look, maybe you’re right. I just think it’s unlikely that people are shelling out lots of money just because no one’s told them that there are much better and cheaper places just up the way. If they want these, they must have their reasons, and it’s kind of insulting to go around telling people what’s good for them. But even if it’s true, they’ll probably discover that soon enough, right? And then, no one will pay the ridiculous asking prices, so the prices will drop, and you’ll end up with affordable units in a central location. Which is a pretty excellent result, overall.

            In the end, everyone’s going to make decisions about what’s important to them and what they’re willing to pay. I don’t really see the urgency in protecting people from their own decisions, as long as they have choices.

  • Leslie Jahnke

    I wonder how much of your $1700 cubicle is invaded by your neighbors surround sound TV and stereo. It sounds like beehive Hell to me.

  • http://www.fullsceneahead.com Kc TheManagement Hoye

    Even 1200 is WAY too expensive for “millenials” to afford. If they want to free up those triple deckers these “micro units” should be priced around 500 – 600 a month, at most 700. These economists look at statistics cushioned by trust fund babies and ivy league grads that pull upper 5 to 6 figures and assume that we all make enough cream to cover that kind of nut. Most of the cats that I know of that age (myself included) are living paycheck to paycheck, or subsistence, in my case well below the poverty line. Even if I was pulling 60k I couldn’t afford that apartment AND eat or take public transportation. Yet another great idea totally crapped on because developers have no concept of reality.

    • pnv

      Actually, at 60k, you could afford it, eat, and take public transportation. You just can’t spend stuff on stupid stuff, like booze.

  • Michael Morin

    Just be glad they’re gentrifying other neighbors, yet. Soon Mattapan will be the new “it” place.

  • plsiii

    Refrigerator door swings the wrong way…

  • ml77

    It’s just a matter of preference. Luckily we have options in this area. Some people want to walk to work and live near lots of restaurants and entertainment and not deal with yard work, etc. Some people want a nice yard a little further from downtown. Neither option makes you an idiot and you can’t say that your personal preference is an inherently better quality of life.

  • JD

    The story states: “When the first 27 units went up for rent in the Seaport District, they were snatched up within weeks.”

    Seems like there is a tremendous amount of demand for these units. Given that their supply is limited, and that supply is being capped, it seems like they will rent for high prices.

    If the goal is to create more affordable units, the supply of these microunits should be increased.

    In other words, these micro units have “macro” rents because there is such a short supply of them.

  • Amanda Nevada

    Our creativity, our moral standards, and our use of learned customs and traditions are three of the key differences between mankind and the animals.

  • KD

    If the small units are renting for high rates then their aren’t enough. Make more and the price will come down. They give young professionals a place to live and free up spaces for families.

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