In the last century, stereotypes and attempts at social engineering have narrowed housing options in America, to the detriment of our ability to provide housing for all segments of society, argues Barbara Knecht (LF ‘93). But new middle class norms and well-designed small housing configurations are changing attitudes and providing hope for dealing with our current housing crisis.
Public debate has erupted recently over a type of housing usually referred to as “micro-units.” Also known as “compact units,” “micro-lofts,” even “innovation units,” these are terms that have been coined in the last 5 years to describe self-contained housing units that are “significantly smaller than the standard studio apartment in a given city,” according to a 2014 report by the NYU Furman Center. The units are typically sized from 250 to 450 square feet, and developers often compensate for smaller private space by offering amenities and communal rooms. Micro-unit development and the concomitant debates over size, appropriateness for the intended residents, impact on neighborhoods and parking, to name just a few concerns, are centered in US cities where housing needs and housing costs have been climbing steadily, cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Before they were rebranded as micro-units, these housing units were called SROs–single room occupancy–or hotel housing, and they have been a viable and vilified housing option in the US at least as far back as the 19th century. The rise, and subsequent demise, of 19th and 20th century hotel housing (of all kinds) is richly documented by Paul Groth in his book, Living Downtown. He lays out ample evidence that until the Progressive Era’s deliberate campaign of elimination, hotel housing was the housing choice of millions of Americans. Well known is that some of this housing was densely occupied and unsanitary; less well known is that equal numbers were well equipped and a reasonable choice for people living on their own. Overall, the volume and variety meant most people could find housing.
From the turn of the 20th century until World War II, disparate movements blossomed to combat perceived physical and social conditions of SRO and hotel housing that were considered substandard, undesirable, even deviant. While the reform movement is best known for its mission to improve physical conditions, it was equally zealous in condemning social circumstances. Reformers from public health, housing, architecture, and social science converged in the crusade to promote homeownership and a way of life that was “American.” Bedrooms should not be shared, living functions should be separated into rooms and, above all, people should live in families. Over time, SROs and the people who lived in them became conflated with homelessness, vagrancy, flophouses and urban blight. Starting at the turn of the 20th century and continuing until approximately1970, this image has been honed to the point that we now seem to carry in our DNA the belief that living in nuclear families, within 4 (or many more) walls owned by the family, is the expected “American way of life.”
The social reformers were not ultimately successful in eliminating SROs, which have continued to be part of the US housing inventory and new development, albeit in new forms. Mostly removed from commercial, for-profit development, SRO housing has continued to be built by not-for-profit developers since the late 20th century. Primarily designated for poor people, some of whom have experienced homelessness, the new generation is physically distinct from its predecessor. The term SRO, however, still carries stigma, conjuring images of marginal people and marginal neighborhoods.
The not-for-profit sector should be credited with initiating the current rebranding from SROs to micro-units. It invested significant effort in the design and planning of small units and communal amenities. SRO design in the 1980s upgraded the traditional design of individual sleeping rooms with shared kitchens and baths by clustering units and incorporating a common room. Before long, single rooms became self-contained apartments, and common space multiplied. In buildings from LA to NY, not-for-profit developers and their architects have explored how to combine small, private living spaces with rich onsite communal space and amenities. They confronted all the arguments of the contemporary debate over micro-units: parking requirements, neighborhood acceptance, density, multiple uses, and downtown proximity. Through design, not-for-profits vastly improved the quality of life in small spaces. Indeed the new generation SROs have been so successful that projects have won design awards, been the subject of academic study, populated conference papers, roused neighborhood reaction and housed tens of thousands of people.
The significant difference in the current debate is the clientele, which has shifted from poor to middle class individuals as the discourse has shifted from SROs to micro-units.
It would be difficult to distinguish the newer, post-1980’s SROs like Gouverneur Court in NY or the Gateway Apartments in LA from the micro-units in Boston’s Fort Point or the Arcade in Providence, save for the prospective inhabitants. All of them contain small private units and amenities such as recreation facilities, wellness centers, gardens, and 24-hour staff. Gouverneur Court received a NYS Historic Preservation award and the Gateway is built to LEED Gold standards. In short, the quality of the environments is equally high; but the former two are restricted to formerly homeless and low-income tenants and the latter are aimed at middle class tenants.
Micro-unit development for middle class individuals directly challenges the assumptions of steadily increasing living standards. The per capita average living area in the US, according to the US census, is 830 square feet, compared with a nine country European average of 440 square feet. In the 27 years between 1973 and 2010, the average new house in the U.S. Northeast grew by 63 percent from 1600 square feet to 2600 square feet. In contrast, single person households now make up one third of all households in the US. Perhaps a shift in the middle class model is underway, and micro-units can be an acceptable part of the American housing inventory. The rise of car and house sharing, co-housing, co-working centers, accessory dwelling units and the Tiny House movement offer a viable alternative to the self-contained world of a private house, private office and private car. Instead of carrying on daily life in private within the four walls of a house, office or garage, people, planners and developers are embracing what the social movements of the early 20th century strived to eliminate, namely a dense mix of households and the colocation of sleeping, social, living, recreation and work. The shifting terminology suggests normalization and adaptation of a historically viable housing type.
It is no secret that we have a housing shortage in this country. And it hits the hardest from the middle class on down the income scale. An article in the Boston Globe at the end of November 2014 noted that the rate of homelessness in Massachusetts is among the highest in the country, while the rate of housing production among the lowest. Within the production, luxury housing predominates. New York City, which has enacted a right to shelter, topped out at 60,000 people sheltered by the city in December 2014, not including the 3000+ people known to be living on the streets or several thousand more living in state and privately-financed shelter. The housing crisis persists despite our proven ability to solve it. We had a severe housing shortage post-WWII and the federal government mobilized resources to enable homeownership and built tens of thousands of units, providing jobs and housing concurrently.
Any reasonable economist can make the case on the back of an envelope that it is better for the economy to house people so that they can get educated, be healthy and stay employed. We don’t yet have a true right to housing in America, and we will surely not solve our shortage if we continue to throw up roadblocks to different and diverse ways of living. Whether they are called SROs or micro-units, small units have been a long-standing part of American housing options. In the last 100 years, in the name of raising housing standards, variety and choice have been severely curtailed. Debating the suitability of small units for middle class individuals when we have ample evidence that people are thriving in them is delaying our ability to add this type back into the commercial mix. By adapting to real household composition, and by incorporating excellent design and construction, we are not repeating history; we are learning from it.