For Release Sunday, November 13, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group
Is it time to restore the old-fashioned rooming house — or something akin to it — in America’s cities?
OK, maybe not the century-old stereotype of a dowdy rooming house with doilies on the furniture, tiny rooms with cast iron beds, a shared bathroom down the hall, and meals ruled over by a stern older woman.
Shared meals? Maybe not anymore. But we do need much smaller, more affordable units than today’s market offers, especially for our millions of “millennials” — twenty-somethings who are now selecting cities to live in. Millennials find themselves stuck with meager pay (median income $31,000) in today’s limping economy.
Unquestionably, tens of millions of oncoming youth will disconnect from the American vision of home as a “homestead” — the self-contained units of our pioneer forbears, translated since World War II by a suburban home occupying its own staked out lot.
The shift will shock some. For decades, the popular idea’s been that rooming houses, mother-in-law apartments, garage flats and accessory units should be zoned away to prevent a wave of flophouses and seedy units subverting neighborhood values and stability.
But it’s time to turn a fresh page, argue two keen observers of the current scene: Seattle-based urban designer Mark Hinshaw (writing in Planning, the American Planning Associations’ magazine) and David Smith of Recap Real Estate Advisors in Boston.
Recognize, they urge, that we’re into a new urban age. Cities are “in”, especially with youth. And those millennials are delaying marriage — by a full five years over the previous decade, the Census Bureau reports. And rather than the suburbs where many grew up, they are instead seeking, Hinshaw observes, “cities or older, close-in suburbs that have a rich array of choices — in employment, transit, bicycling, arts and entertainment, and a ‘cafe culture’ similar to what’s found in many European cities.”
Smith argues it’s high time we shake “the tyranny of the homestead vision as expressed in antiquated, restrictive, and exclusionary zoning and building codes.” Examples of such rules include arbitrary density limits based on units per acre, minimum lot sizes, minimum setbacks, minimum bedroom sizes, and prohibitions against dividing flats.
Smith and Hinshaw suggest we even take on the sacred cow of minimum parking requirements for apartment complexes, saving both cash and prime real estate by repealing them. (Many of today’s young urbanites don’t have cars anyway — so why oblige them to rent units with a car stall figured in, inflating the cost?)
And, Smith underscores, do away with Nanny State restrictions on unmarried cohabitation or student occupancy.
Candidate strategies for more compact urban housing units abound. Smith suggests, for example, basement or attic flats that use the “excess” space in larger homes in which an aging homeowner wants to remain but has rooms that are idle and chores that need to be done. “A bargain can be struck,” he suggests, with a younger tenant who pays reduced rent in exchange for upkeep and light maintenance. The net result: “to turn an over-housed, under-maintained single-family dwelling into a multi-household home that benefits both parties.”
In Seattle, developer Jim Potter has put up several buildings specifically for people in their 20s, assuming their basic need is a safe place to sleep that has a private bath. The units are a few hundred square feet in size, rents (WiFi included) just $500 a month. There’s a very compact kitchen in each unit, but in ancient rooming house tradition, larger shared kitchen as well. Potter offers parking stalls but most go untaken.
The Tree House in Palo Alto, Calif., specifically for young singles, has four stories stepped and terraced back to avoid a boxy look. Rents range from $400 to $900 a month, compared to about $1,500 to $2,000 for market rate studios.
But Hinshaw has developed plans for a model 21st century rooming house (still unbuilt) that’s even more imaginative. The small (400-500 square feet) units would have high ceilings, allowing for a low-head-height sleeping loft above the kitchen area and bath.
And he’d seek to make the building even more interesting. There’d be a green roof with grasses to collect and absorb precipitation. And then a ground floor occupied by small shops and cafes, possibly compact start-up businesses– “sort of a street-level commercial incubator.”
This kind of housing, Hinshaw believes, would “be immediately applicable” to urban areas served by subway, light rail, or high-capacity rapid bus transit. But his loft design, he asserts, could fit well into smaller towns or suburbs with underused properties such as strip malls or car dealerships.
To make these strategies work, localities will have to reform ancient zoning laws. It’s easy to imagine apprehensive neighbors turning out in opposition. But all need to be reminded: We’re all in it together in the new limited economy — and the young millennials are America’s future.
If we changed the way we build houses, this could be different.