In the coming months, we’ll be running a series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries. Each week, our writers will focus on a trend that is meaningful to them, sharing anecdotes, opinions, and real-world illustrations of urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Share Culture.
We live in an age where sharing your car, bike, lawn mower, tools, or even your wedding dress with neighbors, friends, or perfect strangers is increasingly normal—even expected. In an era of low budgets, high lifestyle expectations, and an increasing will to reduce one’s consumer footprint, collaborative consumption and share culture reign.
But just how far are we willing to take it? Would we be willing to share, say, our hallways, toilets, and kitchens?
In the first half of the twentieth century, it wasn’t at all unheard of to share your hallway and toilet with your neighbor. In fact, in North America, rooming and boarding houses, where lower-income tenants could rent a room with a shared toilet, and sometimes receive meals and other services, were an essential part of the market housing fabric. Thousands of urban tenants—students, single workers, immigrants, and newlyweds recently arrived in the city and in search of work—would find themselves on the doorsteps of these once perfectly respectable abodes.
“Concentrated near downtowns, residential hotels provided quintessentially urban living,” writes Alan Durning in “Rooming Houses: History’s Affordable Quarters,” part of a detailed, brilliantly researched series in Seattle’s Sightline Daily on legalizing inexpensive housing. “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.”
But with the 1950s home-ownership boom, and the regulatory crackdown of the 1960s and ’70s, the era of the rooming house began to dwindle. Ever-tightening health and safety regulations specific to the homes (though not applying to other forms of group accommodation like military barracks or dormitories), made it difficult for operators to legally function for a profit, and many cities saw rooming and boarding houses zoned right out of legality. With single-family homes more obtainable than ever, and the phenomenon of apartment living taking root in North America, rooming and boarding houses slowly became what they mostly remain today (where they still remain at all): scuzzy, deteriorated Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units acting as makeshift housing for the poorest of the poor.
Rooming houses lost their respectable reputation, and at the same time were overlooked as city governments shaped housing laws. As Philippa Campsie explains in “A Brief History of Rooming Houses in Toronto, 1972-94,” “Rooming houses and their tenants were looked down upon by those who could afford the rent for an apartment or the down payment for a house, and the aging stock was deteriorating, but the change in the status of rooming houses was ignored in housing policies and official documents.”
Now might just be the time to bring back the rooming house. Since the 1940s, we have, in many ways, come full circle. The draw of centralized living, once shattered by the post-war suburban dream, is back in vogue. Market rental stock in many cities is grossly depleted, yet the dream of home ownership is in decline. Downsizing is the new upgrading, and connection to a community is cooler today than hiding behind your hedges. Most importantly, access to quality affordable accommodations, especially within the market sphere, is one of the most pressing issues in cities today. Imagine: in most cities, there exists next to nothing within the legal market between living in an apartment and living on the street. Rooming and boarding houses once filled that in-between gap.
Most city codes would currently prohibit the development of anything resembling a twenty-first-century rooming or boarding house. (Though, Seattle has recently gone around their code and begun experimenting with something similar called “apodments,” small micro-units with a shared kitchen—but they’re far from affordable, and not quite on the mark.) But city codes can change. Can we imagine what a twenty-first-century rooming or boarding house might look like? Who would use it? As someone who lives around the world, regularly moving from place to place on a budget, I can easily imagine making use of one as an entry step into a city, while I look for something more permanent.
If share culture has helped us address major issues like transportation, could it help us tackle our housing crisis?
Let’s talk further in the comment section below.
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Photo: Russell Lee, via the National Archives