Flophouses, Rooming Houses, and Microapartments Were Wiped Out by Dumb Urban Policies. But They’re Finally Making a Comeback in…

Commentary about business and finance.
July 17 2013 1:27 PM

Bring Back Flophouses, Rooming Houses, and Microapartments

Dumb urban policies wiped out the best kinds of housing for the poor, young, and single. But they’re finally making a comeback in smart cities.

Emily Low, 78, sits on a bed in the combined living room and bedroom of her one-room Housing Development Board flat in Singapore November 2, 2007.
Emily Low, 78, sits on the bed in her microapartment in Singapore in 2007.

Photo by Vivek Prakash/Reuters

This article is adapted from Alan Durning’s new book, Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Communities.

“[A] good hotel room of 150 square feet—dry space, perhaps with a bath or a room sink, cold and sometimes hot water, enough electric service to run a [light] bulb and a television, central heat, and access to telephones and other services—constitutes a living unit mechanically more luxuriant than those lived in by a third to a half of the population of the earth.”

Most Americans live in houses or apartments that they own or rent. But a century ago, other less expensive choices were just as common: renting space in families’ homes, for example, or living in residential hotels, which once ranged from live-in palace hotels for the business elite to bunkhouses for day laborers. Working-class rooming houses, with small private bedrooms and shared bathrooms down the hall, were particularly numerous, forming the foundation of affordable housing in North American cities. Misguided laws and regulations almost wiped out these other kinds of housing, with disastrous consequences, but now there’s a chance for them to come back, helping those who are young, single, or on the lower rungs of our increasingly unequal society.

In the early decades of the 20th century, rooming houses offered affordable housing for America’s urban working class. Some offered boarding, with a kitchen and dining hall in the basement. In San Francisco a century ago, a passable room might cost 35 cents a night ($8 in today’s currency). Concentrated near downtowns, rooming houses and other forms of residential hotels provided quintessentially urban living. The dense mixture of accommodations with affordable eateries, laundries, billiard halls, saloons, and other retail establishments made life convenient on foot and on slim budgets.

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The past century of rising affluence started the decline of the rooming house. With higher incomes, we bought more space and privacy. Young, upwardly mobile, enterprising residents moved out of hotels, depriving hotel districts of their best customers. Those left behind were harder to employ, poorer, on the wrong side of the law, or simply eccentric. This trend accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s, when authorities deinstitutionalized many people with mental illnesses and began sheltering them in rooming houses and other cheap hotels. In most cases, mental health authorities intended such arrangements to be temporary. Some planned to build and support constellations of small, neighborhood-based care facilities, for example, but not-in-my-backyard politics intervened. The care facilities never got built, and some of society’s most vulnerable were stranded in rooming houses, which by then had come to be known as single-room occupancy hotels (SROs).

Meanwhile, new state and local laws made residential hotels more expensive to operate. Other rules simply made them illegal outside of historic downtowns. As cities expanded outward, rooming houses could not spread to the new neighborhoods.

The rules were not accidents. Real-estate owners eager to minimize risk and maximize property values worked to keep housing for poor people away from their investments. Sometimes they worked hand-in-glove with well-meaning reformers who were intent on ensuring decent housing for all. Decent housing, in practice, meant housing that not only provided physical safety and hygiene but also approximated what middle-class families expected.

This coalition of the self-interested and the well-meaning effectively boxed in and shut down rooming houses, and it erected barriers to in-home boarding, too. Over more than a century, it acted through federal, state, and local rules in ways that sounded reasonable at the time: occupancy limits and requirements for private bathrooms, kitchens, and parking spaces. The net effect, however, was to essentially ban affordable private-sector urban housing for those at the bottom of the pay scale.

The rules often imposed middle-class standards that were beyond the means of the working class. In the late 19th century, for example, California—the West’s trendsetter in housing law—began enforcing a rule ostensibly intended to slow the spread of disease. It dictated a minimum quantity of indoor space per person, on the assumption that living in close quarters is a major determinant of disease. (This assumption is dubious, it turns out.)

Under the California standard, you might expect sweeping changes in many kinds of crowded residential buildings: military barracks, college dormitories, summer camps, prisons, single-family homes with many children, lumber camps, and crew quarters aboard ships. But the rule did not apply to these categories of housing. It applied only in neighborhoods where Chinese immigrants lived. Wearing the mask of public health, the policy raised the cost of housing for Chinese families and pushed them farther from California’s whites. It was racism in public-health garb.

In 1909, San Francisco banned most cubicle-style hotels, which were a common form of cheap lodging for itinerant workers and others on exceptionally tight budgets. The city rationalized the policy as a fire-safety precaution. Had fire safety actually been the goal, the city would have demanded fire escapes, fire-slowing walls at certain intervals, and fire doors.

In the following decade, California began regulating rooming houses and other hotels, setting standards for bathrooms (one per 10 bedrooms), window area per room, floor space per room, and more. Again, some of these rules may have had health benefits, and the rules’ proponents certainly thought they were helping. Yet they knocked the cheapest rooms off the market without providing substitutes. Over time, building and health codes demanded ever larger rooms and more bathrooms. They, like codes for other types of housing, also mandated legitimate safety standards such as more exits, better fire-protection features, and ratproof food storage in kitchens. Other jurisdictions followed California’s lead.

Zoning gave city leaders a whole new weapon for separating the laboring class from the “better classes.” After a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1926 recognized states’ power to authorize local land-use planning, city planners quickly trapped residential hotels in the oldest parts of town—the parts built before zoning separated shops, restaurants, and bars from dwellings. Sometimes they banned rooming houses and other hotels outright in apartment districts; other times, they simply made them impractical by forbidding the dense mixture of retail establishments necessary to support their residents. And by setting aside vast areas of every city for single-family houses on private lots, they drastically curtailed the land available for all forms of less expensive multiunit residences, whether apartments or residential hotels.

Over the next three decades, codes and federal lending programs increasingly discriminated against residential hotels by defining a housing unit as necessarily possessing both a private bath and a kitchen. They also hogtied hotel districts: Often, racially discriminatory redlining prevented investment even where zoning didn’t prevent operation.

Mandatory off-street parking rules added insult to injury beginning around midcentury. These land-use rules, which typically required at least one parking space per unit, made multiunit housing radically more expensive to build and operate. Rooming-house units were typically no larger than parking spaces to begin with, so a new rooming house might be required to provide as much floor space for cars as it did for residents, even though many rooming-house dwellers did not own cars.

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