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Legalize housing, not tent encampments
The war on rooming houses and SROs was a mistake
As a first-year college student, I shared a two-room suite with another guy.
We set our space up as one small bedroom containing two single beds, and a living room with our desks and a television, which is how most students with similar setups arranged things, though you of course could have done it as two different bedrooms one of which you’d need to walk through in order to get to the others. Other students were assigned to the first-year dorm in which everyone just got their own tiny bedroom. Either way, most of us had to use shared toilet and shower facilities in the. You could have a mini-fridge in your room and a microwave to heat up a frozen pizza or burrito. Some of the more enterprising students had electric kettles which could be used not only for tea but also to make instant ramen or even boil an egg. Traditional electric hot plates are a fire hazard in that situation, but today an induction burner would probably be useful.
While living arrangements like this are still common for college students, they used to be reasonably common for other people, too. As Payton Chung recalls, in the 1951 sci-fi classic “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” an alien escapes from Walter Reed Medical Center and decides to try to blend in with everyone else in Washington, DC.
This is convenient for Klaatu, who knows little of Earthlings’ simple ways, but probably annoying for the Earthlings. Conditions like these were common in DC homes at the time.
The 1950 census found 14.1% of the District’s 224,142 occupied housing units to be “overcrowded” (with over 1 person per room). By 2011, that figure had fallen by 2/3, to 4.7%, similar to the 5.3% of homes in 1950 that were extremely overcrowded (more than 1.5 occupants per room).
This decline in housing crowding is in part a triumph. Our society has gotten richer, our homes have gotten much larger on average, and material living standards have improved.
But in addition to reducing housing crowding through economic growth, the United States has also waged a multi-faceted war against the legality of small dwellings, with boarding houses and single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels driven out by zoning codes. But rather than improve life for those who would have previously lived in these accommodations, the move has largely shifted people into homeless shelters or sleeping on the street. As long as the unhoused are in shelters, they are largely out of sight out of mind as far as the electorate is concerned. But a mix of objective scarcity of shelter space and rising drug addiction has helped increase the number of visibly homeless people sleeping rough in American urban centers.
And I think one lesson urban politicians are going to take from Chesa Boudin’s recall is that as they try to help central business districts recover from the pandemic and the Zoom Shock, voters want them to be less tolerant of encampments and other manifestations of homelessness-related disorder.
And in that context, I hope we can get cities to reconsider some of their post-Klaatu choices. Criminalizing homelessness is not a real solution. But rather than legalizing tent encampments, we should be legalizing housing.
The virtues of the flophouse
As Paul Groth writes in his 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.”
Now would you want to live in a room like that? I would not.
But it is a lot better than sleeping in a car or in a tent. And an accommodation that you actually pay for and rent has considerable advantages over a shelter. It’s your space on your terms and you can keep your stuff there.
A market in low-end housing, as opposed to a network of nonprofit- or government-operated shelters also accounts for the fact that tastes and preferences differ. Some people might prefer to stay in an SRO with very strict rules as a way to protect themselves from disorder and nuisance. Others might prefer much laxer rules so they could indulge in alcohol or other private vices.
So what happened? Well, we made cheap units illegal. According to the dwelling unit factors in the current New York City zoning code, the smallest allowed is 680 square feet per apartment. As Nolan Gray writes in his excellent new book Arbitrary Lines: “Single-room occupancies (SROs) — which allow a resident to lease a private bedroom with a shared bathroom and kitchen — historically served as an invaluable source of affordable housing at the bottom of the market. Indeed, SROs kept millions of Americans off the street. Yet new SROs are nearly always banned by zoning. Policymakers could change that tomorrow.”
The decline of cheap housing
It’s worth underscoring that the problem here is fundamentally deliberate. If you read the American Planning Association’s 1957 report on rooming houses, they are quite clear that the minimum quality standards are largely pretextual, writing that “besides protecting the roomers, enforcement of these codes can do a great deal to assure that rooming houses do not harm districts in which they are properly located.”
The main thrust of the report is the idea that it is challenging, logistically, to come up with a viable way to define and ban rooming houses which they characterize as attracting “real down-and-outers” that serve “as both symptoms and causes of neighborhood decay in many cities.”
One suggestion they have is that since college students are not down-and-outers, towns should encourage universities to build on-campus housing so that there’s no need for the regulatory scheme to permit student-friendly housing that could also be accessed by non-students. There’s also a lot of talk about where it is and isn’t appropriate to let a fraternity house operate. They celebrate the potential to use regulatory parking minimums as a way to discourage the operation of rooming houses, and argue that “since conversions are the usual source of additional rooming houses, it is particularly important that off-street parking requirements not be limited to new construction.”
In other words, they say towns should adopt laws that requiring anyone subdividing a large single-family home into multiple small rooms with individually locking doors and shared washrooms to increase the number of off-street parking units associated with the building. Since in most cases this will not be possible, you will have de facto banned conversions.
Their broader concern is that it was long customary in the United States for people with room to spare in their home to occasionally supplement their income by taking in boarders. So a young person new in town might rent a bedroom from an empty nest couple. Or a family in need of extra resources might make the kids double-up in a room to free up space for a boarder. One countermeasure they advise is to make it illegal to advertise your willingness to accept a boarder.
To really and truly clarify the intention, they specifically praise an ordinance adopted in Chicago in 1957 that, in certain areas, requires everyone living in the house be part of the same family — but with an explicit carve-out for servants.
A “family” consists of one or more persons each related to the other by blood (or adoption), together with such blood relatives' respective spouses, who are living together in a single dwelling and maintaining a common household. A “family” includes any domestic servants and not more than one gratuitous guest residing with said “family.”
The 1970s featured some interesting litigation on this. In Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, a 7-2 Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of rules barring unrelated people from living together. In dissent, Thurgood Marshall (joined by William Brennan) argued that this was a first amendment issue that violated people’s freedom of association. A few years later, the case Moore v. City of East Cleveland involved a grandmother who ran afoul of the local zoning code by living with her grandson.
In this case, Brennan and Marshall reiterated their view that this use of zoning power was an illegitimate violation of people’s associative rights. John Paul Stevens said this “restriction on appellant's right to use her own property as she sees fit” constituted an illegal taking under the fifth amendment.
But the controlling swing votes were justices Powell and Blackmun who distinguished the case from Belle Terre by saying that family-only zoning was fine but that you couldn’t implement it in such a way as to rule out the grandson. I think we’d be in a healthier place as a society if the courts had shown more interest in Stevens’ view of this. Instead, rooming houses were purged from America and urban renewal set about tearing down old SROs while banning the construction of new ones.
A choice of nuisances
My general view is that homeowners should be YIMBYs, and I think it’s mostly incorrect that barring homeowners from increasing the development intensity of the land we own boosts our property values.
In the case of rooming houses and SROs, I do think one should concede that the classic NIMBY is probably correct. Having an SRO go up on your block raises poses downside risk to quality of life and property values while offering little upside benefit. So I don’t think citywide SROIMBY is a very viable political agenda and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone run on it. But scaling back the midcentury anti-boarder craze seems perfectly reasonable to me. American houses really are, on average, bigger than ever, and we also have more empty-nesters than ever. AirBNB and other technological and cultural shifts have really changed the whole context around this, but we should really let people lease a spare room if they want to.
I also believe that general YIMBYism — kill parking minimums everywhere, let everyone build SROs, embrace new condo construction, etc. — reduces overall housing scarcity and therefore reduces homelessness and overall pressure on the social services sector. Making housing more abundant also means we get more for our buck in terms of section eight vouchers and can keep more people housed.
But I also think that it should be possible to convince people that bringing back SROs in a considered way is the lesser of three evils. At the end of the day, one of the good things about America’s urban electorate is that we are simply too squishy and liberal to be completely indifferent to the problems of homeless people. In the suburbs, they really do “solve” homelessness just be throwing you in jail and kicking you out of town. When liberal cities get tired of encampments or homeless people sleeping on the subway or whatever else, they tend to go in for a limited crackdown that basically just pushes the problem somewhere else.
And at the end of the day, while SROs pose some nuisance risk to the people who are nearby, it is still better for everyone than a park full of tents. It’s a safer, higher-quality, more sanitary dwelling for the occupants and the neighborhood gets its park back.
A conversion opportunity
Already, of course, street homelessness is largely happening in downtowns rather than in residential neighborhoods.
But this is part and parcel of the post-Covid American downtown being in rough shape. Right now there are tons of half-empty offices and vacant storefronts because the office workers aren’t around, but also lots of hotels that continue to be economically important for the city, and then also also lots of homeless people. Common sense is that we should repurpose some of this land for housing and everyone who hasn’t looked into it closely at some points asks, “Why don’t we turn some of these office buildings into housing?”
The problem is that this is actually hideously expensive for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that the plumbing stack is located all wrong for an apartment layout and you don’t have gas lines and ventilation set up for kitchens.
But to return to the beginning, Matthews Hall had a centralized plumbing stack and no kitchen ventilation just like a modern office building. And it seems like it would probably be a lot simpler, logistically, to transform office buildings into big rings of small bedrooms surrounding shared washroom facilities than into real apartments. To do it economically, you’d probably need to allow some of the bedrooms to be windowless — those would be the really cheap ones. But while sleeping in a small, windowless bedroom sounds pretty bleak it’s not dangerous per se and there are a lot of people in need of cheap housing these days. You could imagine experiments with a bunch of different models for this kind of thing. One would be fairly upscale dorms for recent college grads that would have lots of common facilities and social experiences — probably incorporating a floor or two of actual office space as co-working facilities for white-collar remote workers. Another would be something much more like the classic SRO catering to people who can’t otherwise afford rent and recently arrived immigrants.
The whole concept might totally fail to pencil out, but I think it would probably work — certainly in cities like New York, San Francisco, and DC that continue to be very expensive or ones like Denver that are actually booming on the housing side even while its downtown ails. At a minimum, it shouldn’t be illegal to try. Because if it worked, it would help get people off the streets, would help stabilize the commercial real estate market, would help ensure more foot traffic downtown, and would allow social service providers and law enforcement to focus on people who really need help or are really doing crimes rather than people who just need a place to sleep. Since World War II we’ve made it harder and harder to find that simple dry space with heat, electricity, and access to a bathroom that can make all the difference in the world.