By Ely Portillo • The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While the idea of squeezing into a “micro-apartment” with just a few hundred square feet is common in high-priced locations like Seattle and New York City, it’s a new concept in Charlotte — a Sunbelt boomtown where part of the lure is more living space for your buck.

But developers are betting there are enough people in Charlotte interested in living small to justify building “tiny houses” and apartments not much bigger than a pair of parking spaces. Several plans are underway for developments that buck the “bigger is better” ethos, driven by both rising costs — smaller apartments and houses are cheaper — and changing resident preferences.

“I think there’s a thirst for that in the marketplace,” said David Furman, a Charlotte architect and developer planning to build 100 micro-apartments next to the RailYard office towers under construction in South End.

“If you want a lot of space, there’s plenty of places for that in the suburbs.”

The units will average about 400 square feet, and construction is expected to start this fall. One of the main selling points for potential tenants will be living in the middle of one of Charlotte’s hippest neighborhoods for substantially less money.

“It’s all about trying to drive that price point down for folks,” said Furman. “The neighborhood is the amenity.”

If a 400-square-foot apartment rents for $2 per square foot, a reasonable estimate for a new building, that unit would cost $800 a month. That’s less than half the price for many new buildings nearby, where 800-square-foot, one-bedroom apartments list for $1,600 a month or more.

Small-scale living has been popularized in recent years by television shows like HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living.”

But it’s not clear whether tiny houses and micro-apartments will catch on in Charlotte, where they haven’t really been tried on a large scale.

Some Charlotteans are skeptical of giving up space to spend less and live in an attractive neighborhood.

“I enjoy my 2,500-square-foot, four-floor townhome,” said Cristen Miller, who works in organizational development. “Part of why I live here is it’s affordable to have space.”

Morgan McDow, a pediatric nurse, said space is more important to her.

“I would rather have space and drive to South End every day than live in the middle of everything and feel cramped,” said McDow.

Another caveat besides space: Small doesn’t always mean cheap. At Ascent, a gleaming new apartment tower next to Romare Bearden Park in downtown Charlotte, 472-square-foot apartments start at $1,590 a month, while a 513-square-foot studio at Novel Stonewall Station, next to the light rail that travels from South Charlotte northeast to downtown, goes for about $1,400.

A study by the Urban Land Institute noted micro-apartments tend to lease more quickly and cost more on a per-square-foot basis than larger units, outperforming traditional apartments. But it’s hard to tell whether that indicates a permanent trend or a niche.

Charlotte real estate professionals said building well-designed residences in the middle of popular neighborhoods will be key to whether micro-living catches on in the city. While tiny apartments have spread in recent years to cities such as Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas, and Boston, they remain a sliver of the overall market.

“When an idea comes into a local or regional market, the first prototype that comes out of the ground has to be really good, or it can basically kill the idea,” said Tom Low, a Charlotte-based architect and urban planner. “If you’re out in a neighborhood with nothing in walking distance, no amenities except for open space, there’s really not much advantage to having a tiny unit.”

While tiny is trendy, the majority of apartments and houses have been going the other way for decades.

U.S. Census data shows that the average new apartment in the South built last year was 1,156 square feet — almost 10 percent bigger than in 2000.

The trend is even more pronounced in single-family homes. The average new house built in the South last year totaled 2,700 square feet, an increase of 24 percent in the past two decades.

Despite that trend, Kelvin Young is still promoting Keyo Park West, the first “tiny house” development in Charlotte. Young’s development would ultimately have 56 houses of around 500 square feet.

So far, he’s built one model, sold last year to a buyer for $92,000. The development ran into opposition from neighbors, who say they fear the small houses will hurt their property values. In response, city staff considered regulations that would have effectively barred many similar developments, though they decided not to implement those rules.

“Being the first one to it was definitely tough,” Young said. “It was a new thing.”

Unlike the tiny houses featured on TV, Young’s plan is to build on concrete foundations, not wheels. The houses aren’t mobile, and they’re bigger than truly “tiny” houses that often measure only a couple of hundred square feet.

Young said he’s still marketing the development and hopes to have more information about construction to announce soon. He said he’s seen interest from a wide spectrum of buyers.

“People think this is for millennials and all that, but it’s for so many people,” he said. “They don’t want rooms they don’t use every day.”

In the Coulwood area, a neighborhood in Northwest Charlotte, homes are listing for between $185,000 and $250,000. Young’s homes would be substantially cheaper — one of their main lures.

“I wanted to do something the everyday person could afford,” said Young. “Where else can you buy a new home for less than $100,000?”

Real estate records show a company called Keyo Park East purchased several lots this year in Matthews. Young said he doesn’t have any news to share on future developments but is “wide open” to looking at more opportunities.

David Walters, an architect and former director of UNC Charlotte’s master of urban design program, said he thinks tiny living will become popular in close-in, dense neighborhoods, not through placing tiny homes in normal suburbs.

“If you’ve got a tiny residence, you become like a European. You live out in the city,” said Walters. “When you’ve got very small units, you need shared public space.”

That’s part of the idea behind Charlotte-based Grubb Properties’ Link apartments, which the company has built in cities from Raleigh to Greenville, South Carolina.

Dan Schumacher, the company’s executive vice president of development, said Grubb decided several years ago to focus on small units in buildings with lots of amenities. The bet was the company could offer lower rents than competitors while residents spent more time in common areas and out in the neighborhood, instead of in their smaller apartments.

“They’ve been extremely well-received,” said Schumacher, with new buildings leasing faster than the company estimated and maintaining occupancy rates close to full. The company is planning to build 288 Link-branded apartments adjacent to its Charlotte headquarters.

So far, the Link buildings haven’t featured true micro-apartments, just units that are smaller than average. A 602-square-foot studio is the smallest unit at their Winston-Salem, North Carolina, building, and rent starts at $1,067.

But Grubb Properties, encouraged by the success, has decided to go smaller and designed floor plans for 362-square-foot units.

“The next wave of Link properties we design will incorporate these new micro-units,” said Schumacher. “We’re trying to create smaller, more efficient apartments.”