TL;DR: The intriguing story of the American boarding house: a once ubiquitous, affordable housing solution that has nearly vanished from sight, its legacy fading into a charming vestige of yesteryears. Unravel how economic, social, and legal changes, coupled with a cultural shift towards the nuclear family model, led to the fall of these communal havens. Delve into the profound implications of their disappearance, as a formidable housing affordability crisis grips modern America. By embracing shared living, we can create inclusive, affordable spaces and transform our cities from unaffordable "playgrounds-of-the-rich" into vibrant mosaics of life that can benefit all. Remember, cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only when they are created by everybody.
215 East 15th Street.
Nestled on leafy East 15th st in Manhattan, there stands a pretty townhouse that looks much like any other New York townhouse. Although the edifice bears resemblance to the countless other brownstones that adorn Manhattan's many numbered streets, it is, in truth, a still-functioning relic of a bygone dwelling style that numerous generations before us would have been intimately familiar with: the Boarding House. Once serving as a home to nearly half of all urban residents, boarding houses today have almost vanished from sight. However, this once commonplace, cost-effective mode of living could very well be the key to tackling a decidedly contemporary issue — the staggering cost of housing.
What were Boarding Houses?
Occupying a significant portion of the American urban residential landscape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the boarding house was a unique form of housing. It offered modest, private rooms while endorsing communal living through shared spaces such as the kitchen and living areas. Some were simple bed-only establishments, while others presented a full array of services, ranging from home-cooked meals to laundry, intellectually stimulating salon discussions, and lively games nights. Their clientele was diverse, encompassing recent college graduates and working families alike, with affordability forming the crux of their appeal. They were vibrant mosaics of life, offering solace after a long day at work or a convivial setting for artists to swap stories over dinner. Boarding houses emerged during a time of need, presenting a cost-effective solution to the housing crisis sparked by rapid industrialization. Yet, in our current era of housing shortages and exorbitant prices, these communal havens are near-extinct.
This disappearance didn't happen overnight but was the outcome of a gradual transformation fueled by economic, social, and, crucially, legal changes in the mid-20th century. As the American economy ascended to global dominance and the middle class thrived, there was a cultural pivot towards the nuclear family model, embodied in the suburban single-family home. The shared spaces that boarding houses offered fell out of favor, being seen as cramped, dirty, and unhygienic. Americans didn't merely fall out of love with boarding houses; they began to view them with disdain. Recall the 1946 masterpiece "It's a Wonderful Life," where George Bailey is aghast at the notion that in an alternate universe, his beloved mother has been "reduced" to running a boarding house. It's a stark contrast to the warm, sociable environment depicted in Louisa May Alcott's seminal 1868 novel, "Little Women."
This shift in attitude coincided with new housing laws designed to segregate social classes into distinct areas of the urban landscape. These laws effectively criminalized aspects of boarding house life, such as high-density "dorm-style" bedrooms and shared living facilities. Combined with the rising costs brought on by increasingly stringent regulations, boarding houses were pushed into obscurity, supplanted by pricier modern apartments and suburban homes. The communal living that was once commonplace — with shared meals and chores fostering a sense of community — lost its allure in an era increasingly focused on individualism and privacy. Consequently, these once ubiquitous urban fixtures faded into history, replaced by housing models that prioritized privacy and ownership over community and affordability.
Why should we care?
Amidst the urban cityscapes of modern America, the absence of boarding houses might initially appear as a mere historical footnote, a charming vestige of yesteryears. Yet, a more discerning look reveals the profound implications of the vacuum left by their departure. Contemporary Americans are grappling with a formidable housing affordability crisis. From the sun-drenched avenues of Los Angeles to the cobblestone streets of Boston, millions of Americans struggle to find affordable, adequate housing. As of 2023, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that almost half of renter households are deemed cost-burdened, spending over 30% of their income on housing — a percentage that rises significantly in major urban centers.
The crisis is stoked by a burgeoning population coupled with a chronic housing shortage. This is due in part to a shortfall of new building starts over the past 50 years and a finite availability of desirable locations coinciding with a growing population and continued trend of Americans choosing urban or suburban living over rural. From 1970 to 2020, the U.S. population swelled by approximately 60%, and the number of Americans choosing to live in urbanized areas went from 60% to 80%. During this transition, housing stock lagged behind, only increasing by 50%, according to Federal Reserve Economic Data. Urban and suburban regulations haven't helped, with dense “NY-Style” buildings effectively banned in much of the country and even modest multi-family dwellings restricted in favor of single-family homes. Although recent efforts to amend this have emerged, particularly in cities, the housing America needs is often stymied exactly where it's needed most.
The shortage of housing options, coupled with urban planning norms that favor single-dwelling units with individual kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry facilities, has driven prices up at an unprecedented rate. In San Francisco, for instance, the median home price surged from around $112,000 in 1970 to over $1.3 million by 2020; meanwhile, the median rent across the U.S. increased from $849 to $1,180, with larger jumps in urban cores. (All numbers are adjusted for inflation). These inflated prices mean that many Americans, particularly those early in their careers or in difficult economic straits, are forced to either overspend on housing or continue living with family, causing additional psychological stress.
The shift towards single-family units has also triggered a dramatic shift in the sense of community. Boarding houses, with their shared spaces and communal living, served as crucial social hubs for individuals and families, fostering rich, vibrant communities. The loss of such communal spaces contributes to a palpable erosion of neighborhood cohesion, with repercussions for individual well-being and societal health. It also deprives young Americans of the dynamic interactions that communal living facilitates, essential for fostering a deeper understanding and connection with their fellow citizens. Many of America's most acclaimed authors, musicians, and entrepreneurs of the 19th century spent their formative years (and sometimes beyond) in boarding house environments. Thus, the loss of boarding houses illuminates a broader challenge in the American housing landscape — the need to strike a balance between affordability, efficiency, and community cohesion in an increasingly complex socio-economic context.
So what can we do?
The remedy, in essence, is a modernization of legislation. The narrative is straightforward, yet profound. It’s imperative to acknowledge that the laws which eliminated these essential facilities were underpinned by a blend of late-19th-century moralism (akin to the drive that led to the prohibition of alcohol), and early 20th-century desire for white-picket-fenced suburbia, rather than letting the housing market dictate what was actually required. American voters and their representatives need to understand that these antiquated ideals, and the subsequent regulation of housing (mainly regarding what we build and where we build it), are key drivers of the contemporary housing crisis, rather than misplaced blame on so-called “greedy landlords” or disruptive platforms like Airbnb — notions debunked time and again by economists.
The silver lining is that cities are starting to adapt, with a subtle shift in regulations allowing more "dormitory-style" living, such as SRO (Single Room Occupancy) Apartments or "Micro-Apartments." Although these are steps in the right direction, they often carry a considerable price tag due to the inclusion of kitchenette facilities in each unit, and fewer rooms per bathroom or shared kitchen facility — thus maintaining a higher cost than the original boarding house model. Also, in these contemporary adaptations, tenants must arrange their own meals and laundry, a potentially inefficient use of time and resources, especially for single individuals or those with demanding work schedules. Thus, the traditional boarding houses maintain an upper hand over these modern equivalents, but it’s an improvement from city officials nonetheless.
Jane Jacobs, a prominent urbanist, once noted that "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” In this spirit, we should revive the American boarding house to provide diverse options for individuals in expensive cities and suburbs. This will enable younger generations to benefit from the lived experiences of those around them, nurture communities, and create a more affordable America for all, not merely for affluent suburbanites who dream of living in a white-pickett “Autopia.” A resurrection of the boarding house could echo Jacobs’ sentiment, transforming our cities into inclusive, affordable spaces shaped by the diverse needs of their inhabitants, not the unaffordable “playgrounds-of-the-rich” they have become today.