Nowadays, in the Northwest as across North America, most people live in houses or apartments that they own or rent. But not so long ago, other, less-expensive choices were just as common: renting space in a family’s home, for example, or living in a residential hotel.
Rooming houses, with small private bedrooms and shared bathrooms down the hall, were particularly numerous. This affordable, efficient form of basic housing is overdue for a revival, but legal barriers stand in the way. This article recounts the forgotten history of low-rent dwellings. Subsequent articles will detail how to re-legalize these forms of housing.
An in-city room of one’s own
Rooming houses have fresh relevance today, especially for those who are young, single, or on the bottom rungs of our increasingly unequal society. University of California professor Paul Groth writes, in his encyclopedic book Living Downtown:
. . . 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.
Many thousands of such quarters once formed the foundation of affordable housing in Northwest cities. Now, few people even know they existed.
A tightening net of ordinances and codes have helped squeeze rooming houses, and related housing choices, nearly to extinction. Removing certain of these restrictions on room rentals, bed rentals, and shared housing and ending building-by-building mandates for off-street parking could be the fastest, least-expensive, and most sustainable way to make housing more affordable. Doing so could also make homelessness less common; rental income more readily available to some property owners; settlement patterns dense enough to support neighborhood businesses, good transit service, and vibrant street life; and driving less necessary.
Affluence up, rooming down
In the 1800s, boarding with families was commonplace for people of all ages. As many as half of urban Americans spent part of their lives either as boarders in others’ homes or as hosts of boarders in their own, as professor Groth details. As the 1800s turned to the 1900s and North America urbanized, other options proliferated. For the working class, an abundance of rooming houses opened. Some offered boarding as well, with a kitchen and dining hall in the basement or on the ground floor. For the poor, cheap lodging houses provided basic accommodations for low prices. Some had small private rooms. Others had grids of open-top cubicles. Still others offered bunk rooms or rows of hard-slab “flops.” In San Francisco a century ago, five-sixths of hotel dwellers were either working class or poor, and a passable room might cost 35 cents a night ($8 in today’s currency).
Concentrated near downtowns, 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. “The surrounding sidewalks and stores functioned as parts of each resident’s home,” writes Groth.
In Cascadia, such living quarters have almost disappeared. A century of rising affluence is one reason. With higher incomes, we have 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 de-institutionalized 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 NIMBY 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).
Rising rules, mixed results
Another part of the explanation of residential hotels’ disappearance is legal. Successive generations of laws made residential hotels more expensive to operate. Other rules simply made them illegal outside of historic downtowns: as cities expanded outwards, rooming houses could not spread to the new neighborhoods.
The rules were not accidents. For a century starting in the 1880s, 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 not only physical safety and hygiene but also housing that 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 cheap lodging houses, and it threw up barriers to in-home boarding, too. 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.
Publicly supported low-income housing came in its place but never in adequate quantities. It may never fill the gap. Building housing is expensive, and no place in North America has ever demonstrated the political will to build enough of it to meet all the need. Subsidized housing can fill certain niches well, including help for those in personal crises, dire poverty, or with special needs. Particularly promising is the community land trust model, which neatly severs home ownership from the key driver of rising real-estate prices — land-value appreciation. But the private housing market could do much more to provide living spaces affordably if we discarded those requirements that merely protect others’ property values by making rooming houses and other simple housing options illegal.
Public interest or class war?
The legitimate purpose of building and land-use codes, after all, is not to further favor the already-fortunate but to correct market failures. One such failure is information gaps. Buyers and renters cannot readily know, for example, whether a building’s structural beams were properly engineered. They cannot easily check the wiring and plumbing: will the wiring start a fire? Will the sewage back up and contaminate the drinking water? Just so, they cannot readily check whether fire-resistance was designed into the building or whether mold is growing in the walls. Another market failure in housing is when owners shunt costs onto others, for example, by installing polluting devices that foul local air.
Decade by decade, rules tightened on residential hotels. Some of the rules corrected market failures; others imposed middle-class standards that were beyond the means of the poor. In the late nineteenth 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. (Research in the decades since shows that extreme crowding can speed the spread of certain diseases, potentially including deadly ones such as influenza, but that the poverty that causes crowding is probably the larger risk factor for disease. In any event, regulating crowding in homes may be a legitimate policy that corrects a market failure.)
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 clothing.
In 1909, San Francisco banned most cubicle-style hotels, which was a common form of cheap lodging for itinerant workers and others on very 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. Cubicles remained perfectly legal for offices and workshops across the city, but for sleeping? That became a code violation.
In the following decade, California began regulating rooming houses and other hotels, setting standards for bathrooms (one per ten bedrooms), how much window area per room, minimum 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 features such as more exits, better fire-safety features, and rat-proof food storage in kitchens. Northwest jurisdictions followed California’s lead.
Rules, rising faster
In the 1920s came zoning, and a more aggressive phase of the assault on inexpensive housing began. Zoning gave city leaders a whole new weapon for separating the laboring class from the “better classes.” After a US Supreme Court ruling in 1926 recognized states’ power to authorize local zoning, 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 living in them. 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, multi-unit 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 in the middle of the 1900s. They made multi-unit housing radically more expensive to build and operate, because parking requirements typically demanded that for each unit, a residential building provide at least one parking space. Rooming house units are typically no larger than parking spaces, 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.
In the 1960s, “urban renewal” was the watchword of North American policy on cities. On the ground, it commonly meant leveling residential hotels and the mixed districts that surrounded them, then constructing single-use neighborhoods of one- and two-bedroom apartments. It was housing, but it was too big and expensive for the rooming house-dwelling class.
Seattle and Vancouver
Two deadly fires at SRO hotels in the early 1970s motivated the City of Seattle to tighten fire and housing rules for multi-story buildings, requiring expensive upgrades to stairways, doors, and walls, among other things. As Reuben McKnight writes in Preservation Seattle, federal funds were available to help apartment-building owners make the retrofits, but rooming houses did not qualify. Lacking private kitchens and baths, they did not fit the middle-class norm written into federal law. In a matter of months, owners shuttered more than 5,000 inexpensive units of housing in Seattle’s close-in neighborhoods.
In other Northwest cities, the process was less sudden than in Seattle, but it advanced along the same path. Vancouver, BC, for example, kept more of its rooming houses for longer than other Northwest cities, eschewing urban renewal (and urban freeways). Journalist Monte Paulson has unearthed, in a series of articles for the Tyee, the history of the east side of downtown Vancouver.
In 1970, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—then dominated by retired workers from the timber, fishing and mining industries—still had some 10,000 inexpensive hotel rooms, almost all of them privately owned and operated. Then came de-institutionalized psychiatric patients; waves of troubled, younger residents; cocaine; crack; and crystal meth. By 2005, the number of SRO units was down to 5,000, and “Downtown Eastside” was a synonym for Canadian urban poverty — a hard-bitten place of drug addiction, HIV infection, and mental illness.
“Paradoxically,” writes Paulson, “the Downtown Eastside has — until recently — boasted an unusually low rate of homelessness for a population so riddled with social problems. Why? Because the neighbourhood was also home to Canada’s largest concentration of residential hotels.” The rooms are small and shabby. When surveyed in the mid-2000s, many had bed bugs or roaches, and most were not in complete compliance with code. But they were cheap, averaging just Cdn$12 a night, not much more (adjusted for inflation) than a rooming house cost a century ago.
Closing the barn door
Unfortunately, Vancouver’s real estate boom has caught up with many SROs. Real-estate investors snapped up dozens of the Downtown Eastside’s rooming houses in the latter half of the ‘00s, converting them to other uses. As an SRO buying spree took hold — in one 12-month period in 2006 and 2007, for example, 22 buildings with more than 1,000 rooms traded hands — the provincial government intervened and bought a slew of the old hotels to keep them available as inexpensive housing.
Such steps have become common. Some cities have even made it illegal to tear existing rooming houses down, which is historically ironic, considering how hard cities worked for decades to extinguish them or at least sequester them in the oldest neighborhoods. Efforts to protect the few remaining SROs are welcome, but they’re like closing the barn door after the horses have escaped.
A rooming revival?
Legal scholar Philip Howard writes in The Death of Common Sense, “The law now prohibits the demolition of any SROs that remain, while building codes make it impossible to build any new ones.” Howard exaggerates, but not much. Building and land-use codes do not make new rooming houses impossible to build, just very difficult. A few brave developers have been trying, on a small scale, in a few Northwest neighborhoods. They’re responding to the strong demand, especially among millennials, for small, inexpensive units in popular, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods such as Seattle’s Capitol Hill and Portland’s Pearl District. (In a subsequent article, I’ll describe these efforts and the rules that hamstring them.)
These nascent efforts show that housing forms of the past hold potential. To me, in fact, they appear to be one of the biggest chances cities have to advance sustainability, housing affordability, and community economic vitality. Updated to current technology, for example, rooming houses are a promising solution for the era we are entering. They can offer clean, safe, functional, and efficient quarters for a price in reach of many.
We can keep and enforce codes that actually ensure safe and healthy housing, and we can cut away those rules that most bind residential hotels — that have suppressed for the benefit of others’ property values the entire bottom end of the private housing market in most neighborhoods.
A future unfettered by such rules would see the re-emergence of inexpensive choices including rooming houses and other old residential forms. Such units will not satisfy those of greater means and the expectations that accompany them. They would not try to. But they can meet an urgent need for young people, some seniors, and for poor and working class people of all ages: the need for homes they can afford that are still, in UC professor Paul Groth’s phrase, “more luxuriant than those lived in by a third to a half of the population of the earth.”