Is It Time to Revive Boarding Houses?

Over time, single room occupancy hotels became the housing of last resort for the poorest and most troubled segment of an urban population and have all but disappeared.
by | February 14, 2013
 

Over the past several months there has been a surge of stories about micro-apartments, a new form of relatively inexpensive housing for single people in cities where housing costs are sky high. Last year, San Francisco approved legislation that allows for “micro-unit” apartments that can have as little as 150 square feet of living space. Also last year, New York City launched a competition to design and build micro-apartments that would have between 250 and 300 square feet.

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the winner in January, he cited the fact that the demand for studios and one-bedroom units far exceeds the supply. “We have a shortfall now of 800,000 units and it’s only going to get worse,” he said at a news conference. San Francisco, which has the most expensive rental market in the U.S., expects micro units to rent for $1,200 to $1,700, well below the current $2,000 average for a studio apartment. Other cities, where housing demands are skyrocketing, such as Seattle and Boston, have also introduced micro-apartments.

Micro apartments have also been praised for what they bring to a city in terms of efficiency. Less energy is needed to heat and run the apartments and because you can squeeze more units into less space, fewer materials are needed to construct and house people. And the apartments are not just for the young and hip. In New York, 40 percent will be restricted to tenants earning no more than $77,000 a year, so retirees or workers of modest means could live in the units.

It all sounds so revolutionary. But is it? In some ways this trend is a return to the roots of city living. Some of us can remember the days when many cities had single room occupancy hotels, or SROs. Over time, however, they became the housing of last resort for the poorest and most troubled segment of an urban population and have all but disappeared (ironically, San Francisco is one of the few remaining cities to still have a sizeable number of SROs, mainly in its troubled Tenderloin district).

In January, the Boston Globe published a long article about the role boarding houses played in helping many cities grow. During the 19th century, boarding houses could be found on the slopes of Beacon Hill and on Beacon Street as well as in Boston’s scrappier ethnic neighborhoods. “As American cities turned into true modern metropolises in the 1830s, boarding became a way of life.” In fact, boarding houses were so popular that historians estimate between a third and half of 19th century urban residents were either boarders or took in boarders in their homes.

This ubiquitous form of city housing provided shelter for the famous—poet Walt Whitman lived half his life in boarding houses—and for the fictionally famous—Jo March, the heroine of Little Women, moves to a boarding house after leaving home, to write and strike up new friendships among the other boarders. The boarding way of life continued well into the 20th Century. Both my parents grew up in cities during the Great Depression, and their homes became quasi-boarding houses, as bedrooms were rented out to single people who needed a place to stay.

As the Globe story points out, some historians view boarding houses as a necessary but adolescent stage in American life, which existed until suburbia took off in the post-war years. But others have argued that by looking back at this unique form of housing, we can learn something about living together once again. As urbanization intensifies across the country, lessons from the past might provide signposts for how we can recapture living closer together without all the pitfalls of SROs and tenement life.

Micro apartments, done correctly, are one manifestation of this. Many of the smaller units that have begun to spring up in San Francisco, Seattle and a few other cities have shared kitchen facilities. An article published by the Urban Land Institute suggests that developers of micro-apartments might propose installing both common facilities and shared programs for micro apartment buildings geared towards groups of artists, entrepreneurs or seniors.

Co-housing is another example of a new approach to living and sharing in an urban environment. The concept got started in Denmark in the 1970s.  Governing covered this trend in its Aging in America series, and our infrastructure columnist Alex Marshall ran a co-housing experiment in Brooklyn that was the subject of an article in New York magazine.

Boarding houses themselves have not gone away, they just exist in a somewhat different form, filling a gap in housing needs, though often for people at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Sometimes referred to as group or shared homes, they recently hit the headlines in Los Angeles, where the city council tried to pass an ordinance aimed at cracking down on illegal homes. The proposal created a huge controversy as advocates for the elderly, homeless and disabled insisted the homes provide a reliable source of inexpensive housing in a city where housing costs are high.

Despite complaints about crime and safety issues tied to illegal group homes, the city council has delayed action on the proposal. The L.A. city council’s struggles to decide this issue will no doubt play out in other cities where demand for alternative, affordable housing units will outpace the policies that govern what can be built.

In some ways, it’s a good sign of just how desirable city living has become. We just have to get the details right.

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