They may not be for you, but rooming houses and other small, basic dwellings should not be against the law. Some people want them — need them, in fact — and they provide housing affordably, with a tiny ecological footprint, and in walkable neighborhoods. Yet across most of the metropolitan Northwest, these basic homes are currently forbidden or rendered unprofitable by local codes.

My last article recounted how we arrived at this confounding pass, where the law has vacated the lower rungs of the historic housing ladder. This article describes nascent efforts to repopulate those rungs, by building neo-rooming houses and micro-apartments — by building dwellings that may be much simpler than middle-class tastes but nonetheless offer everyone, even those with pinched budgets, what Ernest Hemingway called “a clean, well-lighted place.”

A Modernized Flophouse

First, though, to stretch the imagination about affordable, private-sector housing, an illustration: Historically, the bottom of the scale for inexpensive housing was not the rooming house but the flophouse: essentially a hall of bunks or sleeping slabs. Aside from charitable homeless shelters, the Northwest no longer has flophouses. A century of regulation shut them down. But in Japan, they live on in modern form in “capsule hotels,” which rent enclosed sleeping spaces by the hour or the night. In one $30-a-night Tokyo hotel (pictured below), the sleeping capsules are stacked two high and are just big enough for a single mattress. Yet they each offer air conditioning, a radio and mini-TV, a reading light, and a privacy screen. Guests share bathrooms, showers, and a lounge, restaurant, and bar.

Rows of sleeping units at Asakusa capsule hotel in Japan.

Asakusa capsule hotel, photo by Ryan McDonald.

In the Pacific Northwest, such 21st century flophouses would be illegal on any number of grounds: The “rooms” are much too small: habitable rooms may not be less than 7 x 7 feet in Seattle, for example; sleeping rooms must be bigger still. And that’s in Seattle, which has one of the more permissive housing codes in Cascadia. The hotels do not provide off-street parking for each room, and some of the hotels do not have enough bathrooms per room to satisfy Northwest codes (typically one per eight units). The “rooms” themselves — the capsules — are code-enforcers’ nightmares: among other things, they lack the windows, fire-safe doors, smoke detectors, and closets required of each legal bedroom in most Northwest cities. If regulated as dormitories (bunkhouses), rather than as separate bedrooms, meanwhile, they would violate other rules: they lack the requisite unencumbered floorspace, for example.

Yet Japan has many such hotels, and Japan’s fire-safety record is better than the United States’s. Throngs of travelers and city workers stay in them, appreciating the low prices and clean, safe, convenient accommodations. They are cheap, too, at least by Japan’s stratospheric real-estate standards. (Even in the Northwest, a bed for $30 a night would be cheaper than a taxi home for some Saturday night pub crawlers.) And capsule hotels operate at a profit, without public subsidy, filling one of many niches in Japan’s housing market.

Now, imagine a continuum of such choices, extending downward from today’s studio apartments. Along this continuum, we’d have complete studios smaller than currently permitted, then tiny units with private baths but without full kitchens, then updated rooming houses with shared baths and kitchens, then capsule hotels. Developers have begun building some of these options, threading their way through the regulatory thickets that make small units impossible in many neighborhoods and difficult in others.

Context: Subsidy and Decline

They do so in a context in which most old rooming-house units (typically called single-room occupancy hotels (SROs)), plus a smattering of new ones, stay open thanks only to public or charitable support. Since the 1980s, for example, Portland has been a leader in protecting SROs. Through collaboration between city government, redevelopment agencies, and nonprofits, Portland has bought many SROs, fixed them up, and kept them running. At last count in 2008, central Portland had about 2,100 SRO rooms, virtually all of them in subsidized buildings, according to the Portland Housing Bureau. In Vancouver, BC, as I’ve noted, many of the remaining SROs are owned by the provincial government.

In both cities, as across the Northwest, the number of cheap rooms for rent is a fraction of what it once was. In downtown Portland, the number of units available to rent for the amount that a minimum-wage worker can afford ($458 a month in 2012) fell from 4,500 in 1994 to 3,200 today, according to the Northwest Pilot Project, a housing provider for seniors. These quarters are almost all subsidized and are often available only after long spells on waiting lists.

Privately owned rooming houses are scarce; new ones are exceptionally rare. In his book The Death of Common Sense, legal scholar Philip Howard illustrates why.

In 1986, Chris Mortenson, a San Diego developer, realized you could build profitable SROs if you ignored the building code, and commissioned an architect to see what he could come up with. The result was a four-story building with ten-by-twelve-foot units, about half the size required by the building code. Each had a microwave, a sink, and a toilet (partitioned but not separated). Communal showers were at the end of each hall. Rule after rule in the building code was broken. After extensive negotiations, San Diego waived the building code. The building was built for less than $15,000 per unit, and immediately reached 100 percent occupancy. Housing was thereby made available to people who could afford fifty dollars per week but not a hundred.

Howard speaks perhaps too quickly of waiving “the building code.” What San Diego likely waived were certain code provisions. I doubt it ignored requirements for compliance with plumbing, electrical, and structural standards, for example. But the city did allow small rooms, shared showers, and no parking spaces, and it allowed construction of what code-writers call “congregate housing.” Congregate housing — shared facilities — comes in for special scrutiny and restriction in most cities. In Seattle, for example, congregate housing usually triggers “design review,” which one developer (who requested anonymity) described to me as “two years of getting beat up by neighbors and maybe not being able to complete the project at all or not on budget.” Not surprisingly, most developers craft their projects to avoid design review if possible.

Rooming Renaissance

Nonetheless, a scattering of developers have begun building new rooming houses and micro-apartments, sometimes without subsidy. The leading Cascadian example is the aPodment, a product of Calhoun Properties of Seattle. These units are rooming houses updated. Individual rooms are smaller than parking places — typically less than 150 square feet. Each is lightly furnished and has a microwave and a mini-fridge plus a petite bathroom. Off-street parking is minimal, and it’s rented separately, but the buildings have shared kitchens and laundry facilities. In 2011 and 2012, rent was commonly around $500 a month, including internet and all utilities. At under $17 a night, aPodments rent for roughly double what San Francisco rooming houses cost a century ago, adjusted for inflation, and aPodments have private bathrooms and partial kitchens.

In four years, Calhoun and its partners have built more than 330 units at 13 sites on Seattle’s Capitol Hill and in the University District, and more are in the works. Occupancy is reportedly near 100 percent, because the price is far below that of studio apartments nearby. For many of these projects, Calhoun has avoided design review and other regulations on congregate housing by keeping the developments small and, legally speaking, town houses rather than rooming houses. In these projects, each building has eight or fewer bedrooms, to fit inside Seattle’s 8-person-per-dwelling unit occupancy limit (more on that in my next article). And Seattle’s parking requirement for a single townhouse is one off-street slot per house, so the parking burden is light when divided among eight rooms.

Calhoun isn’t the only developer shrinking its ambitions to the dimensions of what the English call “bedsits.” A blog counted 15 projects with more than 500 micro-units finished or in development in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in September 2012. That’s a bigger number than at any time in decades, but it’s still a small share of residential development: a year ago, 7,000 new apartments were in development in Seattle and Bellevue.

The same blog has tracked the war of words over these projects, too. Many neighbors are supportive; many are not. Supporters speak for more housing choice for entry-level workers and call opponents elitists or NIMBYs. Opponents speak of “sketchy people” living in such small units. They also complain about the extra cars they fear will compete for curb parking (more on parking requirements in later articles). The flavor of the debate is evident in the comment strings here, here, here, and here. And you can read more about the micro-unit trend in Seattle here, here, and here. Despite the controversy, to its credit, the Seattle City Council has no plans to slow the rooming-house trend. On the other hand, it hasn’t moved to speed the rooming-house revival either.


Studio apartment at Freedom Center, Portland. Photo courtesy of Freedom Center.

APodments appear to be the smallest and least-expensive micro-units in development in Cascadia. To the north, in Vancouver, BC, a micro-loft project has renovated an old SRO into 30 carefully designed studios averaging 250 square feet each and renting for about Cdn$850/month, including utilities, as the CBC reported. (More here). And to the south, in Portland, one new building has 150 units of about 300 square feet each in the trendy and spendy Pearl District. They’re also listed around $850 a month. Demand for very small units has been strong in Portland, pushing up rents for studio apartments by about 30 percent over the past two years. Outside of the Northwest, New York is considering reducing its minimum square-footage rules to allow micro-studios, and San Francisco recently authorized a trial run of up to 375 new apartments as small as 220 square feet.

Café Culture and “Filtering”

In part, developers’ interest in small units is a response to the demographics of renters, many of whom are millennials, a generation with modest incomes and decidedly urban tastes. More than previous generations, they are delaying marriage and childbearing and prefer compact, walkable, culturally interesting places with European-style “café cultures.” That’s the analysis of Seattle urbanist Mark Hinshaw and his coauthor Brianna Holan. Writing in the American Planning Association’s journal in November 2011, they argue that small, centrally located apartments priced under $850 a month are a critical unmet demand.

Will new studios at $850 a month help people who can only afford half that amount? Actually, it may. In the short run, new units free up older units, which helps to free up even older units, and so on down the economic ladder in a process that housing economists call “filtering.” In the long run, new housing turns into used housing. Just as poorer people drive older cars, they also live in older buildings. So new units occupied by barista/grad students today may become old units occupied by immigrant dishwashers in a couple of decades. Rooming houses of old served both upwardly mobile young people and middle-age working-class singles. The new generation can, too.

To seize the opportunity of the rooming-house revival, however, requires action. In most of the Northwest, aPodments and mini-studios — to say nothing of capsule hotels — are against the law. To let them spread, we can prune the thicket of rules that pile off-street parking requirements on developers, mandate room dimensions whose only rationale is middle-class tastes, and otherwise drive up housing cost without enhancing health or safety, and discriminate against congregate housing in most neighborhoods.

And remember: you don’t have to live in one. You just shouldn’t let your city prevent people with limited means or simple tastes from having a place to live — “a clean, well-lighted place.”