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Bring Back the Rooming House?

Neal Peirce / Nov 12 2011

For Release Sunday, November 13, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceIs 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.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Posted November 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Good suggestions in Neal Peirce’s column. In my neighborhood of Northside in Cincinnati, there are always rooms in large houses or small apartments, also in big houses, listed in our neighborhood email. Form-based zoning, which will be passed next year by City Council and the Planning Commission, also provides opportunities for just the kind of things that are mentioned. My understanding is that almost anything can be inside buildings, primarily in older business districts, as long as the exterior remains the same. Any infill buildings would have to be scaled to the neighborhoods.

  2. Posted November 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget about those of us boomers who lived in group homes through and after college, were married and had families and are now single again. Do you not think the rooming house, or shared house or commune as we used to call it, will be something of the future. We will not necessarily be ill or even aged, but want a home life where we share meals, chores while have our own private spaces. As a realtor and also a city grower, I one day see this need as an alternative to “old foks homes”.

    billyk, Beaufort, S.C.

  3. Marc Brenman
    Posted November 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Sounds a bit like the old Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels that big cities used to have.

  4. Posted November 12, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Well said! We are facing lots of challenges today that require us to rethink the standards which we accepted in the past. Challenging financial times are opportunities for all of us to do creative thinking. Certainly we should think hard about the kinds of materials we’re using to make buildings or any kind of physical improvements to our environment. What an opportunity it is to introduce logical, cost-effective, environmental sensitive building products, efficient design techniques, effective and well-placed lands uses and changes to ways we’ve traditionally designed and our environment!

  5. Posted November 13, 2011 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    the problem is that there are major gaps in our planning processes. For example, for housing, a housing element in a comprehensive plan for a center city should focus on ensuring that a variety of housing types exist, to meet the demand of various segments of the market. Traditionally, housing like “rooming houses” and SROs aren’t covered in such planning. Similarly, biases in favor of owned housing militate against the creation of accessory dwelling units.

    Collectively, these gaps, and the failure to mix housing types in neighborhoods, rather than to allow them to be comprised mostly of a single type of housing, makes residential neighborhoods less resilient in the face of demographic and other changes.

  6. Neal Peirce
    Posted November 13, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Comment received from Jim Brainard, Mayor of Carmel, Indiana:
    In Carmel we have a new urbanist development called the Village of West Clay (over three hundred variances since it was approved prior to instituting our form based code) that required a percentage of mother-in-law units. The mother-in-law units have been successful.

  7. Karen Bauer
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Another benefit of this concept is that people live within their means and do not acquire “stuff” to fill larger spaces. When you save enough money, you can buy/rent another small space in the another great location as a second home.

  8. Posted November 14, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Neal—my parents moved me into a Rooming House and I suffered serious problems and was injured. You have to be very careful were you move to !

  9. Mary DeWolf
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Remember us senior citizens. If I had $31,000. each year to spend on my own food, clothing and shelter, I would feel rich.

  10. Neal Peirce
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Randall Spain of Seattle submitted this message:

    I enjoyed reading your article. It’s a subject close to home. That’s because, unlike Mr. Hinshaw’s “imaginative” model designs for rooming house units that have high ceilings, allowing for a low-head-height sleeping loft above the kitchen area and bath, my identical design concept is already under construction in Seattle or is under review by Seattle DPD for permit at the following locations:
    1. “Terrazza” 413 11th Avenue
    2. “Cal Park” 1806-1812 12th Avenue
    3. “Madison Two-O” 1811 20th Avenue
    The sleeping suites designed for these projects, at 200-250 square foot each, are considerably smaller than Mr. Hinshaw’s model of 400-500 SF. But they work.

    By the way, the latter two projects include sidewalk-level commercial spaces that could be occupied by small shops, cafes, or start-up businesses. And the Madison Two-O project is designed with green roofs…..

    I have commissions to design five more of these “rooming house” projects, which we prefer to call “micros” or “workforce housing.” The rapidity with which these “micros” have leased up here in Seattle demonstrates a huge unmet demand. This is consistent with the demographics described in your article.

    Unfortunately, only portfolio money is available for the permanent financing. That severely limits the development of this much needed type of housing. I would like to see this housing concept receive more publicity with the goal of gaining enough positive attention for this housing model that the secondary market approval be forthcoming.

    Yours Truly,
    Randall Spaan

  11. Joanna Valentine
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    This is also a good idea for the aging population that will need to live on a limited income but is still active enough to live on their own.

  12. Laurel Arndt
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    At this time the millenials are thinking of alternative housing choices that are decidedly NOT what their parents have. They are faced with the reality of their extremely expensive educations and the lack of jobs/wages. The irony is that not only do they not want what they grew up with, they can’t have it either! Lucky for them they are likely willing participants in a possible housing paradigm shift, born not of just choice but necessity.

  13. Posted November 19, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    My only issue is that what people are saying is a paradigm shift may only be a function of the point at which people are in their lives (post college/early adulthood) and can’t be extended outward as a trend. Maybe this period of living in smaller places is just a function of that time in people’s lives, as well as changing economic circumstances, which could be lengthening this period of time, but not changing people’s overall inclinations, preferences, and behaviors.

  14. Posted November 21, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Indeed, current housing stock and policies are outdated—inherited from a time when static single-family households were the majority. The way we live now is very different and regulations should reflect this with flexible lease structures and reformed building codes. To your list of arbitrary regulations, I would also include 30-day limits on rental periods. As the world’s population becomes increasingly mobile new housing demands have emerged, such as short-term rentals. In fact, the company I work for, Airbnb, exists because a huge short-term rental market has emerged worldwide. Short-term rentals not only accommodate traveling professionals and visitors more affordably, they also allow residents to leverage their extra space for additional income. Policy-makers should develop nuanced regulations that can accommodate such new and growing demands.

    -Molly Turner,

  15. Tom Lofft
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Rooming Houses never went away. In many jurisdictions, they have been re-buzzworded as SRO’s – Single Room Occupancies, and most rooming house operators wouldn’t recognize that designation.
    There is a cultural difference between the older generation of Room & Board – Boarding Houses – that also served meals, one or two a day. The older generation was pre-fast food. Now the SRO’s seldom ever serve any meals. Meals are cheaper out on the business strip and you always order what you’re willing to eat.

    SRO’s seldom have a private bath with each unit. If they did, they would be closer to buffet or studio apartments. But operating a dozen 1BR units with three baths on the hall provides a more economical rental and when all you’ve got is unemployment or SS income, affordability is even more important thatn cleanliness or code compliance.

  16. George Lithco
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    The evolution of zoning has been driven by the yin and yang of economic and social forces. It seems to me social forces are usually reactive: the plan meets reality, and the neighbors object and/or the municipal decision makers dither in anticipation.

    Like the old adage that an eccentric is someone who’s crazy, but has money, shared dwelling units or co-housing are SROs with money – and shared social norms.

    The social impact of renting a room in the inner city is not the same as renting a room to business travelers in locations with a vibrant economic life.

    So, I don’t see the ‘Nanny State’ turning libertarian…Goldilocks’ bowl is somewhere in between.

  17. Margaret Bartley
    Posted December 5, 2011 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    I question the need for everyone to have their own private bathroom. Personally, I think it would be better to have two small toilet-sink rooms, two shower rooms, and one big bathtub room that everyone (assuming 3 – 6 people) would share and schedule.

  18. Neal Peirce
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    From: Matt Campbell
    Subject: modern day boarding/rooming houses
    Hello Mr. Peirce,
    I wanted to write and let you know that I enjoyed your article on bringing back the rooming house. I began researching this recently while contemplating a move to San Francisco, and I’m amazed that more of these are not available above the SRO level. As a single young professional, the option of a room, bathroom, and provided meals at a reduced rent seems ideal, and few of my friends would begrudge the loss of space when they spend the vast majority of their time at work, away from home on travel, or out socializing. What do you think is the main impediment in creating more of these housing arrangements? Is it primarily related to onerous occupancy laws, or more weighted towards financials? I am surprised that these are not attempted at moderately higher income levels – e.g. a tech startup house in San Francisco, or a young actors guild house around Broadway. It seems an ideal way to have a built-in social community of like minded people while transitioning into a new city at reduced cost.

    I realize you must have many demands on your time; if you cannot respond, please know that I enjoyed the article and am sharing it through social media.


    -Matt Campbell