Saturday, July 7, 2012

Microserfs reinvent the lodging house

The folks at @SPUR_Urbanist are noting a "new" trend of small lodging spaces for hopeful young people just arrived in the big city. Here, theyre relaying an SF Public Press report on San Francisco developers seeking to legalize twelve-by-twelve-foot "apartments." And here, they're linking to a New York Times report on "Hacker Hostels" that rent bunks -- not even rooms -- to aspiring tech nerds, sometimes on a semi-licit basis.

It's an idea that's so old it's new again.

This is how young people who come to the big city have ordinarily lived: in boardinghouses and lodging houses and "hall bedrooms" -- places that rent cheap and, at their best, maintain a dormlike sense of community that substitutes for family left behind. It has always been how this works -- or at least, wherever and whenever the indentures of family control and apprenticeship have been relaxed.

It's just that, for a long while in the later 20th century, the very normal pattern of small spaces for single people just starting out was suppressed by urban improvers who thought they could legislate away the hardships of poverty by tearing down the kinds of buildings that house people on small budgets.

Funny, though, to see the way in which the old pattern is coming back.

For a while -- in the 1980s, for example -- the only SROs that were still functioning had become last-resort housing for tenants who would otherwise be homeless.

Then, in places like San Francisco and New York at least, the last-resort SROs began to be colonized by nonprofit rehabbers. They became nicer to live in, at nicely subsidized rents, but at the price of waiting lists, strict conduct rules, and other barriers to entry by anyone just walking in off the street.

Here in San Francisco, the barrier between housed and homeless status began to harden. In the early '90s, someone who couldn't afford housing for a whole month would often get a room for a week or two at a hotel, then live homeless, then cycle back to the hotel. Then rents in the privately run hotels began to rise. Nonprofitization changed more of the hotels into subsidized longer-term housing for screened and social-serviced tenants. The "Care Not Cash" aid-in-kind system for indigent childless adults converted even more SRO housing to something that people could only live in after they had patiently qualified through a social program. By the late '90s, the pattern of renting for part of the month became less common. It got to where people were indoors or outdoors, not intermittently one or the other.

We're still terribly short of last-resort low-rent housing.

At last, now, it sounds like the supply of small semi-communal rentals -- the kind that serve poor people among others -- may be increasing or about to increase. But, funnily enough, those spaces aren't coming in as last-resort housing. The bunks and rooms-with-hotplates are coming back in at the top of the single-adult market, under comically chic names like "hacker hostels."

For the long run this is good. In the long run, social and bureaucratic acceptance of smaller living spaces will sooner or later make space under roofs for more people. In the long run, if more people, at some time in their lives, live in little spaces in cities, maybe this will be one more of the ways in which American middle-class people are at last finding that the world of poverty isn't so alien or frightening after all.

For now, though, this business of glamor SROs for tech-startup whizzes? It's odd. Really odd.

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