When Erwan Roux set out to work abroad in Canada, the native Parisian envisioned moving into a big North American house.
But when he and his partner, Mikael Martinez, arrived in Toronto this January, they instead opted to move into one of the city’s smallest condos — and they love it.
“In Paris, there are a lot of very small apartments. It’s easy to find one that’s only eight square metres (87 square feet). We thought that living in Toronto, we’d have a big place. But when we saw this apartment, we fell in love and took it right away,” Roux said.
Roux moved into a “micro condo” in Smart House, a building that recently opened at Queen St. W. and University Ave. Their unit is technically a one bedroom, though it’s more of a studio because there’s only a sliding door that separates the bedroom from the rest of the living space.
It measures 335 square feet, and it’s not even the smallest unit in the building.
When Smart House, which bills itself as a place for people who love “small but well thought-out space,” was first announced in 2013, it garnered lots of press because its tiniest units, at 289 square feet, were to be the smallest condos ever built in Toronto. (Floor plans for current rental listings show a unit at only 276 square feet.)
Critics called it a crazy consequence of the city’s red hot condo market and questioned who would ever live in such a small space. Urbanists countered that micro condos are the wave of the future because they’re cheaper, they have lower heating and cooling costs and they allow more people to live downtown.
“In the 1950s, the automobile and the creation of highways created this migration out to the suburbs. But there’s been a recent return of the population to the centre,” said Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson’s City Building Institute.
With more downtown jobs comes more people, and that in turn attracts more jobs, creating a “snowball effect” of people who want to move downtown, Burda explained. But this also creates affordability issues with skyrocketing demand for existing housing.
“Micro units offer affordability and an attractive lifestyle,” she said, adding that those who choose to live there trade long, stressful commutes for less personal space.
“Micro units shouldn’t be thought of as simply small, they’re better designed — a more efficient approach to managing space.”
Six years after it was first proposed, the Star decided to visit the newly opened Smart House to find out who ended up living there and why they chose the city’s smallest micro condos.
“Yes, it’s very small,” laughs Roux. “But we love the big windows and the view of the skyline. And you can’t beat the location.”
Living steps from Osgoode subway station and a short walk from numerous restaurants, bars, nightclubs and theatres means that you don’t actually spend that much time at home, he said.
“We are home to eat and sleep but the rest of the time we are out. It’s like this in Paris,” said Roux. “In the summer, it will be even better.”
Brian Persaud, real estate agent and author of Investing in Condominiums, said micro condos are the inevitable result of developers having higher land and construction costs, but wanting to keep the price of individual condos down.
“In Toronto, condos under $600,000 are more attractive and sell more easily than those priced at $700,000 and up,” he said.
But while development costs are rising across the city, micro condos will only fly in the heart of downtown.
“It’s OK for certain locations but you would not be able to get away with that outside the core,” Persaud said. “You will always get investors looking at them, but the question is whether end-users will want them.”
“If you’re on top of the subway in the core, you’ll always have people looking to buy or rent there.”
Mehrunisa Kadir has lived in a North York house and a downtown apartment tower. But when the York business student heard about Smart House, she knew she wanted to live there and put down a pre-construction deposit right away.
Three years later, she’s freshly moved into her two bedroom, 699-square-foot unit with her best friend as a roommate.
“It’s not that small,” she says. “They’ve distributed the space really well.”
In her previous lodgings, she had to buy shelves to store all her clothes and kitchen utensils. But at Smart House, the storage is so well designed that she doesn’t use all her closets and cupboards, even though she moved from a much bigger place.
“I’ve never had so much space — even in a house,” she said.
Kadir says she has adapted her lifestyle to make more flexible use of her space. She uses the kitchen island as a dining room table, for example.
One bedroom is really small, she said, and fits a queen bed and not much else. But the other, bigger bedroom has a Murphy bed that converts into a couch, making it a living room when she’s not sleeping.
“We don’t need lots of room because we’re students,” she said. “It’s obviously too small for a family. But a young couple? It’s an ideal space for that.”
Like Roux, Kadir says the best thing about her apartment is the easy access to local restaurants.
“I used to use Uber Eats. But now I just walk out the front door to get my food.”
Three people who opted for micro living
Larissa Costa — ‘After I wake up I just close the bed’
Costa has been living in her compact studio apartment in Smart House less than a week. There is a Murphy bed that folds up into the wall. “After I wake up I just close the bed,” she says. The high ceilings also help to create space.
She wanted to live close to work and her office is a five-minute walk away. She moved to Toronto from Montreal. She had been staying in an Airbnb while she searched for an apartment.
“Essentially here you have to choose between price and space,” she says of Toronto. There were bigger apartments for the same price further out of the core, but she preferred location.
There is always something going on. She would be bothered “being in a place where there is nothing to do. Here and I can just go for a walk.”
Vanessa Hojda — ‘When I start making more money I’ll get a bigger place’
The micro-unit is a small slice of freedom for Hojda. She lived with a few roommates at St. Clair Ave. and Avenue Rd. before moving into Smart House, and she likes the independence of her own place. Her commute to work used to take two streetcars and a subway ride, and now it’s a 10-minute walk.
Her unit is around 400 square feet and she found the price was more reasonable than other one-bedroom and studio units downtown, which were in the $2,000 a month range when she was searching in December. She pays $1,750 here.
When she walks in the unit there is a kitchen on the left, all tucked away in sleek cabinetry, with a washer/dryer combination machine (“I didn’t know they existed until I saw it in there,” she says.)
The bathroom is on the right, and then straight ahead down a small hallway is her bed, next to a computer desk, a storage shelf and the balcony (she’d trade the outdoor space for extra room in the unit.)
She does miss having a couch and a proper living room.
“When I start making more money I’ll get a bigger place,” she says.
Gulrez Khan — ‘Because we are new here … we don’t have a credit score’
Khan and two of his friends are sharing a three-bedroom corner unit at Smart House. He says the biggest room fits a queen-sized bed, but the other rooms are smaller.
Khan recently moved to Toronto from Bhopal, India. Because he and his friends are new to Canada, he said an agent helped them find this unit.
“We have visited quite a few houses, most of the times because we are new here we don’t get it. We don’t have a credit score.”
When he first moved to Toronto, he was living in a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate he met on Kijiji, but now he is living with two friends.
“I feel like it’s one of the smallest houses that I’ve seen,” he says.
He hopes the building’s construction finishes soon. He says certain features and amenities, like the gym, are not ready for use.
— Katie Daubs/Staff Reporter
Marco Chown Oved is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @marcooved