Micro apartments on the rise in Canada

For developers, good things can come in small packages
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Derek Lobo

Micro apartments are increasingly becoming a part of the purpose-built rental market, particularly in cities like Vancouver and Toronto where the marketplace has made rents significantly higher.

But, size-wise, they aren’t all that new. They have been a part of the New York scene and in Japan and Hong Kong since the 1970s, when they first made the news for their strange appearance and innovative architecture, allowing individuals to live in tiny spaces in relative comfort. The difference with micro apartments today is that while they still offer an outlet for affordable housing in a heated apartment market, they are also hip, fashionable and designed to appeal to young urban professionals.

Vancouver’s Burns Block

One of the first fashionable new micro apartment developments in Canada was the Burns Block in Vancouver (pictured above). Opened in 2010, this converted 110-year-old building in Vancouver’s downtown east side offered rooms that were 270 square feet in size. The rooms were renting for $300 less than the average bachelor apartment in Vancouver’s market, and they were immediately of interest to recent college graduates looking for a place to stay that was close to work.

Today, the Burns Block isn’t the smallest fashionable micro apartment on the market. A complex featuring 182-square-foot apartments recently opened in New York City, using the room’s height to stack amenities on multiple levels.

New York City and San Francisco have embraced micro apartments, and they lead the way in providing innovative designs that give tenants a full range of amenities that every apartment needs. Custom designed beds that also serve as desks, foldaway counter space and other tricks help—but these apartments require tenants to adapt to a micro-apartment lifestyle, meaning they must learn to live light and not stock up on books or other items that produce clutter.

A bedroom in a larger living room

When young urban professionals look at micro apartments, what they see is a bed to sleep in; it’s the the neighbourhood at large that becomes the living room. In other words, the lack of space inside the building doesn’t matter as long as there are things to do, places to meet, coffee shops to sit at, and restaurants to dine in. Movie theatres and libraries provide the entertainment experience. If the neighbourhood doesn’t have a vibrant social life, the micro apartment development will not be successful.

In Toronto, micro apartments have yet to appear, but condominium units as small as 300 square feet have entered the market. Smart House, located at Queen and University, is selling units for $249,000 and up. But with the city already starting to embrace new purpose-built rental apartment units over more condominiums, micro apartments are sure to follow.

A need for diversity

Another consideration when designing micro apartments is how long tenants are likely to live there. Young urban professionals don’t stay young forever, and within ten years they tend to get married and start families. Many of these young couples want to live in the same downtown area, but the lack of larger accommodations pushes them out into the suburbs. With that in mind, larger spaces in the downtown core are still a lucrative market.

Micro apartments are a valuable new tool for the developer’s toolbox, but successful apartment developments should always consider a diversity of offerings, to attract and keep tenants over the long term.

Knowing what to build, where

To best meet the marketplace, developers need to plan their developments right from the start. A feasibility study from an impartial and experienced consultancy firm is critical to ensure that developers know what to build, where to build it, and the best unit mix to offer potential tenants.

Purpose-built rental apartments are riding a perfect storm of demographic changes increasing demand at a time that rental supply is emerging from restrictive regulations and rent control. In future, we can expect many more apartments to be built. New apartments are needed in all shapes and sizes, for a variety of clientele. It’s an exciting future, where we will see many innovations and many different opportunities.

Derek Lobo is the CEO and Broker of Record at Rock Advisors Inc., a brokerage firm with over a quarter-century of experience in purpose-built rental apartments. For more information about feasibility studies and new apartment construction, visit Rock’s website at or e-mail Derek at



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