“Can’t Find An Affordable Home? Try Living In A Pod” That’s the headline of an NPR story from last year, one of several recent media tales of young people struggling to find affordable housing in overpriced coastal cities.
The article goes on to discuss PodShare, a company that describes itself as “housing in the cloud.” For a flat rate, a person has access to a small living space in any of the company’s locations in a given metro area. It’s like a scattered-site dormitory without the school.
This comes across as yet another “disruptive” invention by Silicon Valley, a modern solution to a modern problem. But neither the problem nor the solution is new. PodShare and its competitors are just reinventing a venerable institution of city living: the boarding house.
Boarding houses have gone the way of the horse and carriage, but not because of a lack of demand. Restrictive zoning pushed these places out of existence because the rich and middle classes didn’t want poor people living near them. Now, shined up with millennial campiness, they’re back, but only for the “right kind” of renter. Instead of reinventing affordable housing, millennials should be demanding that their local governments just stop banning the original.
Urbanizing, Now and Then
Imagine arriving in an unfamiliar city where everything is far more expensive than your old hometown and you don’t know a single soul. This is not a problem unique to the twenty-first century. Nineteenth-century America saw the same urbanizing trend.
The Industrial Revolution created jobs in cities, and people streamed in from the countryside and from foreign lands to take a chance on a better life. When they got to those teeming cities, housing wasn’t cheap. Boarding houses offered a respectable and affordable alternative.
Like their modern imitators, the boarding house allowed its inhabitants a small room to house themselves and their few possessions, along with common areas that all of the boarders could access. Meals were available, too, which saved the renter the expense of a kitchen (it was also likely helpful to single men who had never learned to cook.) The other people living there were often a newcomers’ first acquaintances in his new city, the initial taste of community for the new emigrant.
The NPR article talks of “a sense of built-in friendship and community,” in the words of one renter (sorry, “member” is the new lingo,) but consider that 100 years ago, the New York Herald discussed the decline of the boarding house in very similar terms:
Many of these boarding houses were something more than a place to eat and sleep. … In the evening, after dinner was finished, the boarders would assemble in the parlor, with its gilt-framed mirrors, stiff-backed chairs and rattling piano, usually out of tune through much usage, and pass many a pleasant hour. Numerous romances which culminated in a happy marriage had their beginning in the dimly lighted boarding house parlor after the rest of the boarders had retired.
Zoned Into Homelessness
That sounds exactly like the convivial shared living space the pod house people are trying to recreate a century later. The 1919 article in the Herald came after the long decline of the boarding house, and is likely injected with some of the nostalgia that often flavors reminiscences. Looking further back, we can see that the upper-class members of urban societies spent the latter half of that century publicly decrying the boarding house as unwholesome and debased.
The powers that be, in a burst of sometimes well-intentioned snobbery, used the early twentieth-century invention of zoning codes to reshape their cities in ways that seemed more orderly and beautiful to them. If that meant telling poor people how and where to live, it did not particularly bother the rich. They were used to telling people what to do, and the growth in big government just afforded them more opportunities to do it.
Los Angeles passed the first zoning code in America in 1904 and many other cities followed in its footsteps. The idea was to physically separate property uses that the government deemed incompatible.
While there are probably some restrictions that most people would agree on, it never stops there. Given the power to determine who can live and work in what place, the cities’ leaders could not wait to do so (Houston is one notable exception to the rule: voters there have repeatedly rejected attempts to impose a zoning code.)
Even beyond zoning, growing affluence gave the average renter more options and the expanded reach of streetcars and subway trains opened more land to settlement within a reasonable commuting distance to jobs. Boarding houses gave way to rooming houses (the same, but with no communal meals) and furnished apartments.
Some cities restricted these, too, giving even fewer options to poor or newly arrived workers. Soon, the boarding house became the stuff of novels and fuzzy memories.
Government played a large role in that, and in eliminating other housing options for poor people. The “slum clearance” trend of the 1950s and 60s—later known by the euphemism of “urban renewal”—destroyed even more places where poor and lower-middle-class Americans were able to build communities suited to their needs.
One example of this trend took place in Philadelphia. In a low-lying section of South Philadelphia near the Delaware River was a neighborhood informally known as “The Neck.” By the 1950s, the subway reached most of the way to the area, but it remained a semi-rural enclave within the city limits.
That alone bothered the sort of city planners who craved order above all else, but the conditions there—poor people living in old houses that ignored the modern city codes—bothered them more. Even the main drag, Stone House Lane, meandered through the land, at odds with the city’s famously orderly street grid.
Unmentioned at the time, but surely a factor, was that the neighborhood was also racially mixed, and had been for many years. Some of the planners surely acted out of a genuine desire to uplift the poor, others out of less charitable feelings, but all of those in power agreed that The Neck was not the way people in their city should live.
Their pig farms and vegetable plots had long been ignored by the city’s licenses and inspections department, but the reformers who took control of the city government in 1952 could not let that go on. Many of the residents held their land informally, as well, which made their generations-long tenure insecure and the city’s planned evictions all the easier. They tore down the shanties, buried the creeks in sewers, reshaped the land, and built a highway through it to finish the job.
As John Vidumsky described it in a 2013 article for Hidden City Philadelphia, “the City continued filling the land in the neck, bringing it up to grade with the rest of the street grid. Most of Stonehouse Lane is now buried under the on-ramp that connects I-95 to the Walt Whitman Bridge. The canals that once drained the lush green landscape were filled between 1929 and 1942, replaced by modern sewers. By the 1960s, almost every trace of that lost world was buried under ten feet of fill.”
Government Caused the Problem
The city and state governments effectively outlawed boarding houses, then bulldozed the neighborhoods where poor people could live in places of their own. Immediately, the problem became apparent: the poor now had nowhere to live. Today, there would be a sizable continent of people to suggest that less government involvement might lessen the negative consequences, but this was an era of bipartisan commitment to big government planning. Their solution: more government.
Specifically, the poor of The Neck were to be moved from their own homes to public housing in a new development to be constructed nearby. The proposed development, called Whitman Park, sparked decades of protest and racially tinged animosity in the area. The reformers in City Hall claimed to be trying to create race-neutral housing that people could afford. To get there, all they had to do was destroy the racially mixed, affordable community that already existed.
Communities develop slowly, over years and decades. The Neck was no different. Good government bluenoses thought that moving people to modern concrete buildings in the renamed neighborhood of Whitman would only improve their housing condition without losing anything from what came before.
But a neighborhood can’t be packed up and rebuilt like a circus tent. Place matters to people. Blowing that up meant destroying the community who lived there. The process was repeated in cities across the nation.
It is hardly necessary to say it, but public housing did not live up to anyone’s dreams of a bright future for the urban poor. Yet it remains one of their only options in cities even today. Decades of failure have not caused governments to improve the mistakes they made in the 1950s. If anything, they have only made it worse since then with the Housing Choice Voucher Program—commonly known as Section 8—which effectively sprinkles public housing into any neighborhood where a landlord is willing to profit by it.
So it is to Podshare’s credit that they are putting a shiny new gloss on the old solution, and doing it in a way that doesn’t involve tax dollars or bulldozing neighborhoods. But dormitories for millennials won’t solve the problem.
For one thing, they may violate the same zoning rules that brought down boarding houses, and it is only a matter of time until the local governments enforce the law. For another, it only solves the problem for a small slice of the population: single people for whom $2,000 a month in rent is too much, but $1,100 is doable.
That leaves out the poor and a lot of the middle class. Cool crash pads for the creative class don’t address the problems the state has created for everyone else who needs a place to live. And the colossally wrongheaded rent control bill California just passed will make it worse in that already expensive state.
For true reform, we need to roll back the zoning codes and make housing affordable again. Two cheers for PodShare, but let’s save the real applause for the return of the boarding house.