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Tim Laitinen - Christian Dating, Singles

What Do Micro-Apartments and Churches Have in Common?

  • Tim Laitinen Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2012 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
What Do Micro-Apartments and Churches Have in Common?

On the one hand, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s idea makes sense.

New York City’s provocative mayor has invited some of the world’s best architects and designers to submit ideas for tiny apartments suitable for single adults.

Think single-room-occupancy with an emphasis on the “single,” not “room.”

Indeed, if you’ve ever lived in New York City, and Manhattan in particular, you know most apartments there are already tiny.  And pricey.  Now, the same mayor who wants to outlaw super-sized soda containers wants his city’s singles population to take up less space.  Bloomberg thinks offering The Big Apple’s unmarrieds even smaller apartments could lower rents and create more apartments for more single residents.

How small is small?  Try 300 square feet – or less.  That’s just a bit more wiggle room than an average parking space.

And those bargain rents New York’s billionaire mayor envisions?  How about $1,500 per month for the privilege of occupying a sliver of the city’s rarified real estate?  If you think you’re paying too much where you live, maybe $1,500 per month for 300 square feet will help put things in perspective.

As you might imagine, reaction to Bloomberg’s idea mixes a bit of incredulity with a dose of resentment.  After all, Bloomberg, himself a divorcee with two grown daughters, owns both a lavish townhouse and a Park Avenue condominium.  What right does he have saying other single adults should make do with far less space?

Currently, city code forbids individual apartments smaller than 400 square feet.  If developers sensed that New York’s real estate market held significant demand for something even smaller, wouldn’t they be petitioning the city to change the zoning?  Doesn’t it smack of imperiousness for officials like Bloomberg and his hand-picked administrators to claim they know what The Big Apple’s unmarried residents want and need?

Oddly enough, New York isn’t the only city in this race to build the smallest possible apartments.  In San Francisco, local developers are pushing for zoning changes to permit apartments of an incredibly miniscule 150 square feet.  That makes Bloomberg’s proposed 300 square foot threshold positively extravagant by comparison!

Believe it or not, advocates for such micro-apartments say that with some creativity, small spaces can be surprisingly usable and accommodating.  They help occupants avoid becoming hoarders, since there simply isn’t any space for anything you don’t need.  They’re environmentally-friendly, since they reduce the carbon and geographic footprints individual households require.  And besides, in big cities, single adults generally don’t spend much time in their apartments anyway.  They’re either working late at the office, or out on the town with friends.

However, some critics fear that introducing such small apartments in high-rent cities could actually inflate the value of conventional studio apartments, further exacerbating a lack of affordable housing.  Alternatively, putting what are essentially crash pads into buildings with larger apartments could negatively affect the value of the building as a whole.  Would such small spaces be conducive to long-term occupancy?  Might turnover be extraordinarily high, as tenants quickly tire of the tight-squeeze novelty?

Providing apartments for people who may have little vested interest in contributing to their building’s community could further decrease its livability factor.  Anybody who’s ever rented in an apartment building knows it stays cleaner, quieter, and safer the more tenants take ownership of their space.  Incorporating what amount to miniature hotel rooms into a rental building – or creating an entire building full of these micro-apartments, could perpetuate the phenomenon of anomie.  Anomie can be described as the ability of people to develop patterns of alienation as they rationalize away their opportunities for interpersonal socialization.

Hopefully, you can begin to see how Bloomberg’s idea relates to the experiences many of us single adults encounter in our evangelical churches.  Consider the parallels between trying to pigeonhole and marginalize singles in rental markets, and the ways our communities of faith may be unintentionally doing similar things. 

First, we singles are a fact of life, not only for planners in big cities, but also for churches.  We take up space, we’re growing in number, and sometimes, other people don’t know how to accommodate us.  They assume they know what we need and how we function, but those assumptions may not be accurate.  In the same way we might not want a 300-square-foot apartment because we like to entertain, for example, we might not like being relegated to a peer-specific ministry group.

Second, while it might seem easy and efficient to relegate us singles to our own space, it might not be the best solution for us, or the people around us who need to interact with us.  After all, one of the reasons traditional married folk in our churches may still feel uncomfortable dealing with us could be because we aren’t really in community with them, and they aren’t in community with us.  Yes, some churches have separate singles ministries that integrate well within the broader congregation, but aren’t those the exception?  Just by looking at statistics about singles, can we arbitrarily determine how to meet needs?  And whose needs are we really trying to meet, anyway?

Third, separating singles out of the broader community could further stigmatize us in the eyes of people who think we’re not worth the same resources they are.  Assuming we’re only here to work and play – with no long-term interest in our neighbors or neighborhood – could indicate to others that the time it takes to invest in us won’t be worth the bother.

Just as micro-apartments could contribute to a transience that keeps renters from setting down any roots, couldn’t developing ministry programs which limit our value in the eyes of others risk being detrimental to the broader viability of our faith communities?  

Consider, too, the history New York City already has with single-room-occupancy living quarters.  They’re called flophouses, and the city’s notorious Bowery used to be full of them.  Each “room” doesn’t necessarily have its own window, plumbing, electricity, or even permanent walls.  Bathroom facilities are shared, and ceilings of wire netting provide minimal ventilation.

Who lived in these SROs?  Mostly men who hadn’t been able to maintain a normal association with our “real world.”  They were people who, for whatever reason, had disconnected from relationships with their families and even faith communities.  Granted, some SROs developed their own insular communities, but relationships were generally based on unhealthy methods of interpersonal interaction, such as enabling behaviors, intimidation, or deception.

It’s often easy to forget that fellowship is a Biblical concept.  Not necessarily just being together, or sharing space in the same room, or hearing the same sermon, or singing songs together.  And some singles ministries manage to cultivate high degrees of inter-group fellowship, so the concept of singles groups itself isn’t bad.  However, if you’ve ever been involved in a healthy singles ministry, its vibrancy likely resulted from its involvement in other ministries of your church.

Mayor Bloomberg likely has no intention of creating isolationist zoning patterns with his micro-apartment idea.  He’s mostly trying to lower rents for New York’s burgeoning singles population.

Our communities of faith could take his as a cautionary tale, however, regarding the wisdom of putting any demographic in a box.

Even if it’s not 300 square feet.

From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.

Publication date: September 25, 2012