Eyes widen when I tell people that our Paris apartment is only 18 square metres. It feels larger, I tell them, especially in summer when the windows open up onto the 7m2 balcony. Actually, I like it. When you say you own a pied-à-terre in Paris, people make assumptions about wealth and privilege. I temper those by saying, “it’s really tiny. A studio in fact, hardly an apartment at all: it’s only 18m2.”
In Paris, however, it’s a different story.
“It’s very small,” I apologized to the builder taking on our renovation. “It’s small, yes,” he replied, “but it’s not that small.”
It’s true. What is deemed miniscule by our friends and family here is considered to be reasonably spacious in central Paris. There are people living full-time in places much smaller than ours. Chambres de Bonne, or ‘maid’s rooms’ are found at the top of grand buildings, six or seven stories up. These tiny spaces are where the servants of rich Parisian families, living in huge flats on the floors below, used to sleep. Today, they make for the tiniest of Paris apartments and are home to students and other Parisians struggling to make ends meet. Felix Macherez puts faces to this story in his project photographing the Parisians paying a small fortune to live in microscopic apartments, here.
For a space to be legally recognised as fit for habitation in France, it needs to be a minimum of 9m2. I see those tiny apartments displayed in the windows of real-estate agencies at prices that make your heart sink. There was this story in the news recently about a 3²m room—far smaller than can legally be rented out—for sale at €50,000. Legal or not, the reality is that people are living in these constricted conditions and paying through the nose to do so.
While the maids of the Chambres de Bonne are now gone, the distribution of living quarters reflects France’s social problems just as poignantly today. To live in the centre of Paris in a 25m2 apartment, you need about €750 a month meaning only the wealthy can afford to live large. The working class are squeezed out of the centre, or into cramped quarters under the rafters.
The average apartment for sale in Paris is 30m2. That’s just under twice the size of ours, which in turn, is twice the size of the legal minimum. Given that it is not even our primary residence, our 18m2 apartment is pure luxury. It’s small, yes, but it’s not that small.