In a Pandemic, Even Minimalists Need Space

For years, Erin Boyle wrote about living in a tiny apartment on her blog, “Reading My Tea Leaves,” detailing the creative, thrifty ways she made a roughly 500-square-foot one-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights work for her, her husband, James Casey, and their two children, Faye, 6, and Silas, 3.

One post described making old wooden crates into under-bed sliding drawers with rope pulls and felt pads.

“We moved into that apartment when I was pregnant with Faye,” said Ms. Boyle, 36, who had previously lived with Mr. Casey, 39, in a 240-square-foot studio apartment (and that included the storage loft where they put their bed). “Even after Silas was born, it didn’t feel crowded. It felt very doable.”

The arrival of a third child, Calder, in February, complicated matters, as the bedroom wasn’t large enough to comfortably accommodate the older children’s bunk bed and Calder’s mini crib. But Ms. Boyle thinks they would likely still be in that apartment if not for the coronavirus, which forced them to upsize this fall.

“Both of us working from home together for six months with no child care — that’s what did it,” she said. “We were all on top of each other. Coming home to a small space was fine, but being there all the time with no other outlet? By the end of July, we really started looking.”

Mr. Casey, an associate laboratory director at Barnard College, was teaching remote biology classes from the apartment. Ms. Boyle was trying to work and breastfeed a newborn without accidentally appearing in a Zoom call. Faye was doing remote kindergarten, and Silas was being a normal, energetic 3-year-old.

The problem of living as a family of five in a small one-bedroom wasn’t the amount of stuff — Ms. Boyle is avowedly anti-clutter — but the challenge of so many people trying to do so many things in two rooms, especially when one of those rooms was a 7-by-12-foot bedroom mostly taken up by a bunk bed. Mr. Casey and Ms. Boyle kept their bed in the main living area and worked at the dining table; in lieu of a sofa, they have a love-seat-size bench that Ms. Boyle upholstered.

“The expectations of the kids were so high,” Ms. Boyle said. “It was, like, ‘Be calm and color quietly for two hours while Dad teaches this class.’”

Summer and the reopening of playgrounds provided some relief, but Ms. Boyle and Mr. Casey knew that by the time fall rolled around, they would be desperate, if not for more space, then at least for a few more walls.

“We didn’t have a checklist, like we need a bigger bedroom or an office. It was just a gut thing — we need more space for everything,” she said.

They found it on Craigslist after a brief, intense hunt: an 800-square-foot two-bedroom railroad-style floor-through in a Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, brownstone. They moved in on Sept. 1, after finding someone — a woman who plans to live by herself — to take over their old lease.

$3,200 | Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

Their children: Faye Casey, 6; Silas Boyle, 3; Calder Boyle, 9 months
Occupation: Ms. Boyle is a writer with a lifestyle blog, “Reading My Tea Leaves”; Mr. Casey is an associate laboratory director in the biology department of Barnard College.
Why they stay in New York: “People in New York are always getting asked that question! People in other places don’t get asked why they stay,” Ms. Boyle said. “It’s for the same reasons anyone wants to stay anywhere — to be close to family, friends, jobs.” (Ms. Boyle’s sister also lived in the city until recently.)
Morning stoop hang: Their two older children like to sit on their new stoop in the mornings. “We’re only one flight up,” Ms. Boyle said. “It’s lovely that we can see them from the window of our new place. It makes a big difference.”
Clutter: “I really do not like being in clutter, so I have no impulse to fill a larger space with things,” Ms. Boyle said. “Kids are magpies, and they like collecting little things. But they’re used to getting rid of things. I’m part of the local Buy Nothing group; when they’re done with it, they’re, like, ‘You can post it on Buy Nothing.’”

Although the family had been looking to increase their square footage as they upgraded from their one-bedroom, the general assumption that a family of five should be moving into something larger than a two-bedroom was part of what made their search difficult.

“We saw a lot of apartments that we never heard back from,” Ms. Boyle said. “I felt like showing up with three kids to look at a one- or two-bedroom apartment raised some eyebrows.”

The rent, at $3,200 a month, is an increase from the $2,775 they paid for their last place. It was enough of a bump that Ms. Boyle used her father as a guarantor, but it still feels like a better deal than would have been possible pre-pandemic. “Before this spring and summer, moving to a bigger space never felt financially possible,” Ms. Boyle said. “It seemed like a lot of places opened up and went on the market.”

The new apartment has some quirks. There was no dishwasher, and the stove, Ms. Boyle believes, is from the 1950s. “I’m still trying to figure out how to simmer on it. I’ve burned so much garlic,” she said. “I think what’s interesting about New York real estate is there’s no waiting to find the perfect spot. You have to give notice a month before and then just go for it.”

But having almost double the space and, crucially, a few doors to close has been key.

“Balancing work and child care and devoting what feels like enough attention to both feels pretty impossible right now, regardless of space,” Mr. Casey said. “Still, being able to close a door between myself and the rest of the family — and being able to trade off with Erin so she can do the same — has made a huge difference.”

The children have the apartment’s large “real” bedroom, which overlooks the street. Off the side of that room is a kind of antechamber, about seven by nine feet, that Mr. Casey and Ms. Boyle use as an office; they built a standing desk using pipes and a piece of wood. The children’s bedroom connects to a pass-through room that the couple use as their bedroom, with the main living area and kitchen at the back of the apartment.

“The new place feels very spacious. I love having a sense of space, some empty space,” Ms. Boyle said. “It’s been nice just watching our 7-month-old crawl. Before, every time she got going, she’d very quickly be under the bed.”

But for someone who wrote extensively about living in a tiny space, will living in a not-so-tiny space present some issues? Ms. Boyle doesn’t think so.

“It was just a space I lived in,” she said, explaining that she saw her last apartment as part of the reality of living in New York, one that she embraced, but never as an identity. “New York real estate is expensive. You can be interested in sustainability and thrift and minimalism, and not be defined by living in a small space.”

Besides, while it feels enormous to them, she added, 800 square feet is, by many people’s standards, still pretty small.