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Feeling fine about making do with less

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DECEMBER 05, 2013

I lived in a walk-in closet in San Francisco.

Not in a metaphorical sense, but in the literal one — my room was a converted walk-in closet. I lived in a closet because my roommates and I had jobs in the city, but none of us were making enough to comfortably afford the rising San Francisco rent prices, so we tucked ourselves into a single apartment to keep things as reasonable as we could. Someone got what was once a living room, someone got what was once a dining room, I got the closet. I never measured the actual square footage of my room, but just by eyeballing it, it looked as if you could almost fit a full and a twin mattress side by side: sizable by closet standards, maybe a little cramped by bedroom ones.

Part of me (probably the part that majored in English) would like to be able to weave some dramatic, bohemian tale about the unique struggles and colorful woes of adjusting to closet living, but I really don’t have any. The transition was smooth, and I was, for the most part, content. There were even benefits to closet living. It was affordable. Really affordable by San Francisco standards. It was a cinch to keep clean. It made me condense my possessions, and it felt good to shed all that excess material detritus. But whenever I told people about my living situation, I invariably got a commiserating look — “A closet? Jeez. I’m sorry” — when I wasn’t really looking for commiseration. My life comprised, more or less, the same quotidian activities as it ever did, just with reduced square footage.

And those consoling looks got me thinking about the way I and the people I was talking to were thinking about the space we allocate ourselves to live in and how that relates to our quality of life. According to the World Health Organization, less than 40 percent of the world’s population lived in cities in 1990, but just 20 years later, that number has jumped above 50 percent and is expected to grow steadily throughout the century. Additionally, the United Nations estimates the world population is going to inflate to 8.2 billion in the next 12 years and reach 9.6 billion by 2050. In the face of this rapid urbanization and an exploding global population, the stereotypical benchmarks of a successful life, especially those related to the spacious and private white-picket green-lawn dreams, are no longer viable, except for possibly the very wealthy.

My mother immigrated to this country from Korea by way of Argentina, where she lived for a number of years in a ramshackle single-room “house” my grandfather built on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Today, she owns a medium-sized home in a quiet suburb of San Diego. It’s a nice place (I should know — I lived in it for 18 years), and her life could easily be added to the list of immigrant “rags to riches” stories that presidential types like to roll out every State of the Union or so. But when I think about whether I’m going to want, or even be able, to sustain this Horatio Alger narrative in the face of things like globalization, overpopulation, urbanization and mounting income inequality, the answer is an invariable no. Due to various large-scale realities of this new millennium, many people are going to be forced to seriously reconsider how much real estate they think they need or hope to one day acquire. I don’t think this is such a bad thing.

I’m not trying to suggest that the entire human population should aspire to packing itself into behemoth, Soviet-era apartment tragedies, but trying to carve out a sizable swath of the landscape for just me and my own doesn’t seem like a healthy or productive dream. I liked the closet. The closet was fine.

I am also not trying valorize my experience of living in a walk-in closet as some sort of unique and transcendent “Walden”-esque (Isolation! Wilderness! Philosophy! Armchair radicalism!) experiment. Especially given that, according to the UN Settlements Program, “nearly one billion people alive today — one in every six human beings — are slum dwellers,” a number that is predicted to double in the next 30 years. To say that another way, a whole lot of folks are living with whole families in less space than I had just for myself, but they didn’t have much choice in the matter. (Not to mention confronting a whole host of other issues, such as state neglect, abject poverty and hunger, that I don’t have to live with.)

What I mean to say is something far less romantic: We millennials who have had the opportunity to live in sizable homes shouldn’t be afraid of downsizing our private space, because it really won’t change quality of life all that much, except maybe to make life more environmentally sustainable and affordable. This is doubly true if you are privileged enough to live in a place that provides relatively good public amenities and services, such as the Bay Area.

It’s important to think about how to create and grow inclusive environments that are responsive to these changing global realities, especially given the fact that we’re all going to have less space in the future, whether we like it or not.

Dylan White is a 2013 graduate of UC Berkeley and a former staffer at The Daily Californian.

Contact Dylan White at 


DECEMBER 06, 2013