Atlantic Cities

Is It Time to Bring Back the Boarding House?

Is It Time to Bring Back the Boarding House?
Library of Congress

Around the turn of the last century, American cities were full of housing options that are largely nonexistent today: tenements, boarding houses, rooming houses, flop houses, single-room occupancy buildings or SROs – all variations on the idea of small living spaces at low cost. Some were rentable by the night. Some were built around shared amenities like showers and kitchens (or, as seen above, reading rooms). All of them contribute to our grainy picture of early urban America as over-crowded, flammable, and full of unscrupulous landlords.

By contrast, most American cities today regulate the low end of the studio market, setting it somewhere around a minimum of 400-square feet in size. Likewise, building codes set a ceiling on occupancy, capping the number of unrelated people who can room together under the same roof.

The effect, argues the Sightline Institute's Alan Durning, is that we've outlawed the bottom end of the private housing market, driving up rents on everything above it. If we want to make cities more affordable, he proposes in a new ebook, Unlocking Home, we should look again at housing solutions that went out with the last century.

Your first instinct is probably to wonder: Didn't we get rid of this stuff for a reason?

In fact, Durning argues, the reasons are probably not entirely what you'd suspect.

"Politically, it’s a coalition of the greedy and the well-meaning that led to the banning of private-sector affordable housing in our cities," he says. The well-meaning folks were appalled by the living conditions of poor and working-class families. The greedy folks were appalled by the prospect of living next to them. Together, this awkward alliance helped advocate laws that established minimum living conditions not simply for safety, but also to define how much space an individual should reasonably be expected to live in.

Today, Durning insists we can maintain the fundamental regulations that prevent shoddy construction and fire hazards while doing away with what he describes as counterproductive societal standards of housing decency. Scratch out a few lines in the building code – the parts capping occupancy, requiring minimum unit sizes, and outlawing granny flats or "accessory dwelling units" – and he figures cities can open up a vast new affordable housing market without spending a cent.

This proposal essentially asks us to trade the belief that everyone should have some minimum housing standard for a chance to make cities more affordable.

"I think society has an interest in protecting consumers from risks that consumers would have a hard time assessing for themselves, like lead in children’s toys. Or houses where the wiring was done wrong. Or sleeping spaces that don’t have a fire exit. I am all for those kinds of regulation," Durning says. "It’s not that I don’t want people to have nice housing. It’s that the consequences of imposing middle-class norms of decency are to increase homelessness, to raise the cost of housing, especially at the bottom end of the market, but more generally for everybody, to make housing less abundant, and to accelerate sprawl. I don’t think we want any of those consequences."


An apodment loft (left) and shared common space (right) in Seattle. Images courtesy of Calhoun Properties.

Some of the types of housing he's talking about have in fact been built under the label of "apodments" in Seattle, where clever developers have created neo-rooming houses within the city's eight-person occupancy limit inside what they're legally treating as townhouses. The units, basically a bedroom with a tiny bathroom and a microwave, are even smaller than the micro-apartments New York and San Francisco have begun considering. They're more like dorm rooms, some as small as 120 square feet. And they sell for about $500, half of what studios cost in these same neighborhoods.

That kind of housing serves the same market as studio apartments, but it opens that market up to far more people, Durning says. And as a result, it relieves the pressure on the lower end of the housing market, freeing up, for instance, larger houses that become group homes in cities with astronomical rent. A 120 square-foot neo-rooming house unit obviously doesn't help a family in need of affordable housing. "But the point is the whole market is connected," Durning says.

But if cities make it easier to build these things, while legalizing granny flats and "decriminalizing roommates," as Durning puts it, what's to prevent landlords from cramming a dozen cash-strapped people into housing that today might serve a modestly sized family?

"Nothing would prevent a landlord from doing that," Durning concedes. "But most people don’t want to live in that circumstance. And if they do want to live in those circumstances, then there’s something else wrong, like severe poverty."

In most cases, he says, buildings are unsafe not because of the number of people who live in them, but because of hazards like that faulty wiring that existing regulation should still enforce. Depending on what you think makes a landlord "unscrupulous," Durning argues that cities could still crack down on them. But the idea of removing regulation that particularly comes into play for low-income renters will undoubtedly make many people nervous.

It's easy to imagine who would line up to oppose these ideas. In fact, opposition would likely include some of same groups who objected to this kind of housing in the first place: well-meaning people who want to protect the low-income, the not-so-well-meaning who don't want housing like this in the neighborhood, and property owners not particularly interested in having rents fall on their existing housing. There would also likely be another class of objections that didn't exist in 1910: If we let 20 neo-boarding house units wedge into a modest building, where will all those renters park their cars?

Durning doesn't argue that this will be politically easy. But he does think these solutions would be easier than some of the current alternatives, like raising building heights or up-zoning whole neighborhoods to enable denser living.

"I don’t think it’s likely that someone is going to run for office on the platform of these three keys and be hoisted onto a crowd’s shoulders and marched to City Hall as the great hero," he says. "I wish that were the case. But I do think there’s a path."

Above image: The reading room in a 10-cent lodging house in the Bowery in New York (1908-9) courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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