Rise and Fall of Dorm-Style Living
March 2, 2018 3:38 PM   Subscribe

What 19th & 20th century SRO living used to be and what it's morphing into, which is essentially dorms for new adults. After SROs became declasse and were phased out, they've come back in the form of the Commons Tragedy of the Commons

And now there's the lifestyle called "digital nomad," which has begun to provide remote workers a communal living in gorgeous places like Bali with fast wifi Digital Nomad Life . But don't call them SROs.
posted by MovableBookLady (84 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thank you for this. The loss of SROs is IMHO the great undiscussed change behind the explosion of homelessness. "Tiny houses" are trendy but not really a practical solution on any scale.
posted by msalt at 3:49 PM on March 2 [32 favorites]


This is great. I'm not sure why the Baffler article is so down on Common, aside from its price.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 4:04 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


1. I actually enjoy this style of, whatever it is, but still...

2. I read a piece [NYT, may be paywalled] on "digital nomads" and the industry growing around them recently, and I remember thinking "nice, I want that" and "wow that is so deeply soulless" in alternating minutes... not sure yet.

3. In Germany, the unit of communal living is called a "WG" for "Wohngemeinschaft," roughly "living/boarding parnership." Basically a couple of people renting an apartment together. The basic sub-unit is a room, not a bed, and attempts at self-governance/sharing a kitchen without killing each other are often hilarious. This is incredibly common, especially in college (where dorm space is scarce and often depressing).

4. I spent a bunch of time a few years ago helping to turn a boarding house in Austin into a co-op. The process reminds me of nothing so much as my idea of unionizing a company... including the evil boss/landlady seeing you as an "agitator" and trying to kick you out, which you have to then explain is illegal etc. etc... Point being, non-traditional living spaces are worthwhile, but have to be fought for. And I'm guessing all those boarding houses in the past were ruled with an iron fist by whoever ran them...
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 4:21 PM on March 2 [5 favorites]


It’s interesting to me that living with mom and dad for a few years as a young adult went from being the social norm to being an unthinkable horror that young people are economically forced into in a relatively short period of time. Even more provacative is the growing number of projects that try to form selective communities around shared interests and economic realities. It reminds me of this young guy from Africa in my physics class, who told me that he couldn’t wait to graduate and go home because Americans are “so lonely.”

Maybe it’s time to rethink an American dream that slots everyone into their own home with a car and a lawn and get back to the roots of humanity. We’re social creatures. It’s weird that it’s weird to live with mom and dad until you have another family or community group to join. It’s better for society and the planet to think in those terms rather than measure personal success by how quickly you got into your own house and got rid of all your “first apartment” IKEA furniture.
posted by xyzzy at 4:22 PM on March 2 [26 favorites]


What a petulant and pointless article in the Baffler. Someone made an all inclusive housing deal, and Zach Webb proceeds to assume the worst about its inhabitants and what this trend signals.

Absolutely nowhere in the article are any of the presumed harms, like "gentrification," ever substantiated. Almost certainly packing more high earners into a smaller footprint reduces pressure on the housing market. Does Webb actually think there would be less gentrification attributed to Commons inhabitants if they each leased their own place? It is astounding that a guy who can write a long article won't bother to reason past his nose, if that gets in the way of his concern trolling snark.

The appeals to Jane Jacobs totally misunderstand her work. I see nothing about Commons she would object to. The fact that Commons does not single-handedly embody the most idealized form of her urban philosophy is not a strike against it.

In Webb's view, everything high-income millennials do is ipso facto philistine, self-involved, and morally suspect. How dare they use seventh generation soap! How dare they live in a sort-of-communal environment! How dare they use Instagram! I bet their parents are paying for this!

This is absolute snobbery, with no useful content, except to expose the intellectual bankruptcy of the lefty screed-writing classes, and the low editorial standards of the Baffler.
posted by andrewpcone at 4:36 PM on March 2 [28 favorites]


I'm not sure why the Baffler article is so down on Common, aside from its price.

I know, right? That might literally be the most jaundiced article I've ever read in my life.

The Commons units aren't really SROs anyway, since they don't have bathrooms down the hall. That is the real dorm-like cost efficiency that SROs had (and no kitchens in rooms).
posted by msalt at 4:36 PM on March 2 [3 favorites]


Is this any different from WeLive, aside from not being attached at the hip to a giant coworking entity?
posted by grumpybear69 at 4:39 PM on March 2


Basically a couple of people renting an apartment together. ...and attempts at self-governance/sharing a kitchen without killing each other are often hilarious.

This is the norm in America too, and it sucks, and in addition to the tragedy of the commons playing out real-time, everyone has some horror story about a roommate who was an alcoholic or an addict or a criminal. Like, most people only get one of those in a decade, but one is way more than enough. That's the problem that Common is answering. And most SROs, as I understand it, were not like that; there was a landlord or housekeeping staff that lived in the building and took responsibility for common spaces. So no chore boards, no resenting your roommates.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 4:41 PM on March 2 [8 favorites]


It's illegal in my city to have more than 3 unrelated adults in one unit which makes any kind of dorm style housing pretty much impossible.
posted by octothorpe at 4:47 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]


CityLab is wonderful. Also, doing some of the best reporting on poverty available.
posted by crush at 4:47 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]


It's illegal in my city to have more than 3 unrelated adults in one unit which makes any kind of dorm style housing pretty much impossible.

It is, (or was) in my town too (Boulder - a college town). But it was often ignored. I lived in a mud room - ~7' by 7' for WAY less than $300/month. Every now and again, I would have to hide the fact I lived there when the owner of the house, or the management company came around, but the law said they needed to give you 24 hours to do something like that and I didn't exactly own a bed, anyways so that was 5 minutes of work every know and again.

This was when I was in my thirties. It's funny to think (or sad, I guess) that my parents bought a 2 story house in Connecticut in the 70's while raising three kids on a one-person income (a social worker of all things). Some of the times were tight (I came later), but it was like, doable.

Rent is pretty high here. I don't have a clue what students do.
posted by alex_skazat at 5:00 PM on March 2 [3 favorites]


I liked co-op living in my 20s. It strikes a nice balance between having personal space and having a big community around you at all times. I'd do it again, if it were an option.

I'm not crazy about that Baffler article, but I'm not crazy about Common, either. It sounds like a lot of money for a corporate boarding house. I don't think it's unreasonable to be skeptical of a huge business venture swooping into Brooklyn like that. There's a distinct AirBnB feeling I get about it, in a way I can't quite put my finger on. It's like when you enter an AirBnB and can immediately tell that no one actually lives there, and all its furnishings and decorations were done by people who have never spent a night there. I guess I get what that article is saying, even if it all seems sort of overblown.

Worth mentioning is the documentary by Abel Ferrara on the Chelsea Hotel and its residents (including Ferrara himself), called Chelsea on the Rocks. Well worth watching if you can find it.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:02 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]


It sounds like a lot of money for a corporate boarding house. I don't think it's unreasonable to be skeptical of a huge business venture swooping into Brooklyn like that. There's a distinct AirBnB feeling I get about it, in a way I can't quite put my finger on. It's like when you enter an AirBnB and can immediately tell that no one actually lives there, and all its furnishings and decorations were done by people who have never spent a night there. I guess I get what that article is saying, even if it all seems sort of overblown.

What is your objection here? It seems you are skeptical of it because it comes from a "huge business venture," but your subsequent remarks are only about the aesthetics of the place.

Aside from the sterile, corporate aesthetic, is there anything actually harmful or unethical about Common? I can't see anything, either in these comments or in the article.
posted by andrewpcone at 5:08 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


This was interesting, thanks for posting it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:12 PM on March 2


There are still a couple of women's residences in New York. I think there's definitely a market for SROs, for a bunch of different populations and at a variety of different price points. It would stink if they came back but the only ones around were expensive and catered to young, upper-middle-class people.

Also, is 7th Generation supposed to be a status thing? They sell it at Midwestern Targets, so it can't be but so fancy.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:13 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


I recently moved from a shared house with a friend, and I liked that because we have pretty similar desires for cleanliness and pretty similar lifestyles, so we got along well. I recently avoided roomies in my most recent apartment search because I realllllly do not want to share a bathroom with someone else, much less a stranger. I do miss the companionship, however.

That being said, having fewer cheap living options in large economic engines is definitely for the worse.

It’s interesting to me that living with mom and dad for a few years as a young adult went from being the social norm to being an unthinkable horror that young people are economically forced into in a relatively short period of time.

I often wonder if it's because that option means: less debt and fewer consumer purchases. Having moved from a furnished to unfurnished place within the past two weeks, I realized yet again how much fucking money goes into starting fresh, not even counting the money I'm giving the landlord and broker.
posted by codacorolla at 5:16 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


It's illegal in my city to have more than 3 unrelated adults in one unit which makes any kind of dorm style housing pretty much impossible.

It's illegal in a lot of cities. This serves many purposes: keeps quiet neighborhoods from being overrun by that one big house with 6 college students (and 6 cars) who are noisy on the weekends and have random visiting friends*, prevents crime by keeping informal halfway houses away from affluent neighborhoods**, blocks abusive boarding-house landlords from peeking through their tenant's possessions on a whim***, and (much more importantly) forces large homeowners who don't have large families to sell to real estate developers, who can chop the property into 2-3 separate apartments and rent them out at higher levels than rooms used to rent for.

Most of the "must be related to live together" laws are NIMBYism: "I don't care where Those People live, as long as it's not lots of them living near me." They're a way to force housing prices up.

* These excesses, of course, could not be managed with laws about how many cars could be registered to an address, nor by neighborhood quiet laws.
** It is understood by real estate legislative bodies that all people in recovery are one small temptation from rampant criminality, no matter what they're recovering from.
*** Landlords who live with their tenants are presumed to be much more likely to be horrible to them than those that live elsewhere.

posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:29 PM on March 2 [16 favorites]


What is your objection here? It seems you are skeptical of it because it comes from a "huge business venture," but your subsequent remarks are only about the aesthetics of the place.

The whole appeal of, say, co-op living is that it's directed by the people who live there, whereas this is directed from the outside, by a business venture with every incentive to maximize profits. The aesthetics reflect the incentive to be as attractive as possible to a target demographic from the upper middle class. It displaces long-term residents of a city and replaces them with a steady stream of short-term occupants with no investment in the city as a community. It's blandly luxurious, but the objection isn't the blandness so much as the luxury: this is what takes the place of affordable SRO housing? This is a far cry from the short-term housing in the first link, because it caters primarily to one specific kind of wealthy transient resident at the expense of everyone else.

My objection to the "no one has lived here" aspect of AirBnB isn't that it's soulless, it's that in almost every city where AirBnB is a thing, they're displacing places where people do live. The marketing says you'll live with people, and we all imagine that it's some couple earning a few bucks on the side, but you get there and it's obvious that it's just a business, and it's driving up rent for all the people who live there. Potpourri on the toilet doesn't make it feel like a home, because it isn't one, and and in fact it's quite the opposite.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:31 PM on March 2 [23 favorites]


The thing is, SROs disappeared decades ago.

Stuff like Common aimed at recent college students is probably politically more palatable, because those people have choices. The real need is for new buildings with lots of tiny, inexpensive rooms and shared bathrooms and kitchens on each floor, serving people who don’t have other indoor choices. But I can already hear people (including Mefites) attacking the idea because “second class citizens,” “substandard housing,” etc.
posted by msalt at 5:46 PM on March 2 [10 favorites]


It displaces long-term residents of a city and replaces them with a steady stream of short-term occupants with no investment in the city as a community.

This could be true if Common had bought a building with long-term residents, and kicked them out for the purpose of housing their clients. There is no indication this is true. Rather, any setup in which more wealthy people are crammed into a smaller space, as Common presumably achieves relative to conventional housing options.

Even if it is true, there is no indication that the residents who live there are any less likely to put down roots than any other young people who move to the city. There is nothing about this setup that encourages, uh, rootless cosmopolitanism any more than leasing an apartment or a room.

Anyway, I don't buy the notion that people who don't intend to stay somewhere long-term are worse for the community. Where I live, most people are university students. I find them to be as respectful and responsible as the permanent residents. The main difference in affect seems to be that many permanent residents have a superiority complex about their rootedness, and enjoy unwarranted snipes at the students.

this is what takes the place of affordable SRO housing?

Yes. As long as zoning, land use, and building codes are what they are, and as long as we maintain decent labor standards, almost any new investments in NYC housing need to be targeted at the upper middle class, at least. Without substantial government subsidy, you can't build new affordable housing.

Anyway, be careful romanticizing old school SRO housing. Yes, it was on the whole a good thing, because it provided a cheap, space-efficient option. But SROs were also notorious for poor hygiene, dangerous overcrowding, and rapacious management. They were hardly utopian communities, and horror stories from old school SROs were a major reason they got banned in many cities. Sure, some of that ban was classism, as it always is with zoning and land use stuff, but a lot of it was with good reason.

Potpourri on the toilet doesn't make it feel like a home, because it isn't one, and and in fact it's quite the opposite.


This is nonsense. It is a home if someone deems it there home. You have no authority to dictate that Common residents may not find Common to be their home. And even if they do not, not everyone wants to find a home at every given time. Young people getting started in their careers, as seems to be Common's target demographic, typically aren't ready to put down roots. That is their right. There is nothing immoral about moving around, nor is their any obligation to build lasting ties to the place you live.
posted by andrewpcone at 5:54 PM on March 2 [17 favorites]


Less-negative article about Common: Co-living startups are reinventing the roommate concept.

The company rents the building, and then re-rents it to the actual residents - meaning there's a markup beyond whatever actual market value is for the rooms and other services they provide. Leases are 6 months or a year; no mention is made of what happens if someone wants to or needs to leave earlier than that. Nobody mentioned as a renter was under 20 or over 30. No kids were mentioned. (Discrimination based on family status is illegal, but hard to prove.) No mention of the community-space rules, either, nor of liability; one of the reasons most landlords dislike non-related roommates is the hassle of sorting out who's liable for damages if something goes wrong.

The whole approach seems to be, "yo tech company employees! This'll be just like college dorms, only without the curfews!"
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:55 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]


this is what takes the place of affordable SRO housing?
Not directly, right? Cities declared war on SROs in the '70s and '80s, and most of them were knocked down or converted into something else. This is a revival of a mostly-defunct living arrangement, not the direct displacement of working-class housing with luxury units. And there were always, even during the heyday of SROs, luxurious versions.
It displaces long-term residents of a city and replaces them with a steady stream of short-term occupants with no investment in the city as a community.
I guess this just doesn't really resonate with me, because I think that young people have always come to New York to try their luck in the big city, and some of them have always left. It's almost a trope. If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere. Most native New Yorkers are the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of someone who came to New York as a young person and probably lived in an SRO for a while. The young person on the make is a totally archetypal New York figure, and I refuse to cast those people as parasites.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:55 PM on March 2 [14 favorites]


Young people getting started in their careers, as seems to be Common's target demographic, typically aren't ready to put down roots.

Landlords are fairly restricted, legally, in what their target demographics are allowed to be. Federal law prohibits discriminating by age (other than in specific seniors' zoned neighborhoods), and they can't seek out unmarried tenants, nor refuse children, nor only accept able-bodied, nor require a particular cultural or personality type, if that would likely be biased against some national origins, religions, or family statuses.

They can't have a preference for "young dynamic entrepreneurs" if that would exclude a devout, quiet Muslim single mother and her child.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 6:06 PM on March 2


The young person on the make is a totally archetypal New York figure, and I refuse to cast those people as parasites.

It's not that I think they're parasites -- my grandmother moved to NYC when she was young, and ended up living there most of her life, as did a lot of my family -- but expensive, dorm-style housing seems to treat tenants as interchangeable by design. Maybe that's what the landlord-tenant relationship is always like, but Common seems exceptional in being specifically intended as short-term living for the young and wealthy. Short leases, pre-furnished, aimed squarely at the young upper middle class. I have absolutely nothing against the people who might move in there, but I'm concerned that we'll see more companies like this turning blocks of the city into upscale hotels that people pass through on their way to somewhere else. It's bad for the community, and it treats residents as commodities.

I'm certainly not romanticizing SRO living. The objection here isn't that we should have perfectly recreated 1920s flophouses, it's that this expensive dorm is being touted as the solution to housing problems. It rents small living spaces at high prices, somehow getting even more money per square foot than one could have previously imagined, while doing less than nothing for the people outside of its target demographic.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:16 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]


Also

This is nonsense. It is a home if someone deems it there home. You have no authority to dictate that Common residents may not find Common to be their home.


I was just talking about AirBnB there, which is specifically not housing. I'm not saying Common isn't housing, because obviously it is. I don't care if they consider it home, and I'm sure plenty of people like it just fine. I only mentioned decor and potpourri and whatnot because it's dictated by a depersonalized corporate entity, and that's symbolic of how the residents of the building are treated as faceless commodities. Again, that might just be the nature of landlord-tenant relationships in most cases, but it seems especially naked here.

I have nothing against the residents at Common. They're just going where they can. It only frustrates me to see this held up as an ideal kind of affordable housing for them, because it feels like they're not actually getting a great deal, and I'm more than a little wary about a future where people are shuttled into dorms at well-above-dorm pricing.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:38 PM on March 2


It’s interesting to me that living with mom and dad for a few years as a young adult went from being the social norm to being an unthinkable horror that young people are economically forced into in a relatively short period of time.

Not to mention shamed! Shamed by every walk of life and political stripe, in the most despicable ways. Even by "progressive" bastions like MetaFilter. Especially men shamed over their presumed sexual experience, "look at the 30 year old virgin living in his parent's basement", and the like.

It's illegal in my city to have more than 3 unrelated adults in one unit which makes any kind of dorm style housing pretty much impossible.

Any good references on how this stuff came about? It's a fascinating topic, not unlike the collapse of public transit in the post war years. One wonders if Jane Jacobs ever addressed the topic actually..
posted by Chuckles at 6:39 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]


They can't have a preference for "young dynamic entrepreneurs" if that would exclude a devout, quiet Muslim single mother and her child.

Is there a reason a quiet Muslim single mother with a child cannot be a young dynamic entrepreneur?

Landlords are fairly restricted, legally, in what their target demographics are allowed to be. Federal law prohibits discriminating by age (other than in specific seniors' zoned neighborhoods), and they can't seek out unmarried tenants, nor refuse children, nor only accept able-bodied, nor require a particular cultural or personality type, if that would likely be biased against some national origins, religions, or family statuses.

I'm not sure this is actually relevant. It seems like Commons targets the younger entrepreneur/professional by virtue of the dwellings it offers. Few families with grade school kids and a dog will find Commons to be suitable digs. Just like any SRO of old times.

The objection here isn't that we should have perfectly recreated 1920s flophouses, it's that this expensive dorm is being touted as the solution to housing problems. It rents small living spaces at high prices, somehow getting even more money per square foot than one could have previously imagined, while doing less than nothing for the people outside of its target demographic.

Is Commons, or an apartment, or a house supposed to do something for the people for people outside the demographic that would consider them as dwellings? What, exactly would that be? Is my neighbor's house supposed to do something for me? Is the cluster of bungalows around the block supposed to do something for me?
posted by 2N2222 at 6:41 PM on March 2 [6 favorites]


During most of the 20th century my urban neighborhood was largely full of SRO apartments carved out of old mansions but since the 70s those have almost all been converted back into single family houses which has cut the population density down to about 15% of what it was in 1940 or so. I think that the neighborhood population peaked at about 3400 people seventy years ago but is now under 500 with almost the same number of houses. I know one person who lives alone in a house that at one time had as many as 14 units in it.
posted by octothorpe at 6:43 PM on March 2 [7 favorites]


I don't think the concept of 'home' is as flexible or has changed as much since the early 20th century as the visual art piece would have us believe. Robert White in his recent magisterial history of the Gilded Age (_And to the Republic for Which It Stands) spends a great deal of time tracing the origin of the idea of 'home' in the post-Civil War US and showing how it was a tool by which the ill treatment of marginalized individuals was justified. That is to say, it may be the case that in the early 20th century there were more flexible living arrangements than there are today (even this I'm not sure is true), but elites in the early 20th century wouldn't have called SROs 'homes' any more than their contemporary counterparts.
posted by crazy with stars at 6:44 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


My condo building--when it was built--had two floors of SROs, but the other ten floors were a mix of palatial single-family apartments and bachelor/bachelorette flats that not only had private baths but had separate bedroom/living/dining rooms in them.The bachelor/bachelorette units still had no kitchens. There was a canteen on the first floor of the building for people who lived in the SROs and the smaller apartments without kitchens.

I don't think it's a particularly demeaning model of housing for single professionals--private rooms with communal kitchen. Especially in the modern world of prepared foods in grocery stores, toaster ovens, instapots. i don't even think having your entertaining space be communal "building" space is weird. I have some friends who live in big modern buildings with lounges, movie theatres, decks and other quasi-private spaces that can be reserved or just used communally. They've been pretty nice places and for the most part, my friends who live in them don't find the shared living space awkward or hard to use. It's not the same as a shared kitchen, sure, but.

I can't be convinced about the communal bathroom thing. It feels less comfortable sharing a toilet with people you're not related or relationshipped with than sharing a party room or a kitchen or eating from the canteen.

I guess I sound rather jumbled but ultimately, I think SROs or studio/one bedrooms in buildings that have amenities, like shared kitchens, are a much better idea than micro-units or packing 4 roommates in a two-bedroom apartment.
posted by crush at 6:45 PM on March 2 [6 favorites]


For most of ten years I traveled every single week for work. I loved staying in corporate housing or extended stay hotels. (Not that one with the really scratchy sheets). Since I wasn't paying the bill the cost was not as much of a concern.

Most of the extended stay and business travel oriented hotel resemble the description of living in Common.

During that same time period I really wished the corporate HQ of my company had had a dormitory of some kind for employees who were only on a temporary assignment at HQ.

On a different project in Portland, I found a room in a "guest house" that was a lot less expensive than a hotel. You had to rent by the month, however.

Especially when hotel rooms were upwards of $300 a night and I slept in the office one night because the hotel I booked claimed they didn't have a reservation for me. (Since then I either always booked through Corporate Travel or directly with a property. My only other experience with an online service was not pleasant either. My sister had booked rooms and the hotel called the day we were supposed to check in and said "Sorry we don't have rooms for you.")
posted by Altomentis at 6:45 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of amazed that first article didn't mention people simply living in their vehicles. Again I live in Boulder, but many fairly well-off (can get a regular, livable wage job if they wanted to) people are just living in vans in gym parking lots because that's what they want. They have remote jobs, or no jobs at all, and like to travel. Then again, tiny houses are a big thing here, too. There's a few just in my somewhat rural neighborhood. Things are a little strange over here.
posted by alex_skazat at 7:12 PM on March 2


It seems to me that the reason that SROs worked so well was the unpaid labor of the women who managed them. Is that addressed anywhere in the article? Things are definitely cheaper if we completely ignore women's contribution. It's way cheaper to own an SRO if you don't have to worry about paying the person who manages it, or if you can pay them a small percentage of what they should be owed. I don't believe that SROs will ever be as cheap as they used to be, and I don't believe that it is a bad thing, either.
posted by Quonab at 7:33 PM on March 2 [17 favorites]


We always had lodgers when I was growing up, and one of the benefits not mentioned in these articles is that it's an extra adult around for the kids in the family to hang out with, learn from, etc. I can imagine it wouldn't always work out that the person wants to spend time with the kids, but in our case it was always women, and they kind of functioned like an extra aunt or something. My parents would even sometimes give them rent deductions in exchange for babysitting.

My parents would probably not think that all worked out so great, to be honest, since they were pretty conservative and religious back then, and the lodgers are where I learned about Wicca, about homosexuality, and about drugs (by observation, not personal experience). But from my perspective, it was kind of lifesaving to have unrelated adults with different world views around the place.
posted by lollusc at 7:47 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]


I guess people aren't familiar enough with the market to judge the rents? I just looked. One of these places starts at more than I'm currently paying for my admittedly small and older 1-bed, which is actually in Manhattan and on major subway lines. For the others, looks like by sharing with only one other person paying the same they could usually get a perfectly nice 2-bed in the same neighborhood. It doesn't make sense if it doesn't save you money.

What I find personally offensive about it is what I always do: a company hijacking a noncommercial ethos (not the SRO, but the coop or the dorm) and building a Potemkin version of it. These aren't communities. I don't understand why everyone insists on giving these kinds of companies the benefit of the doubt. This is not the Webster Apartments, simple decent living at a budget price. This is folks out to exploit while claiming some sort of higher purpose.
posted by praemunire at 7:50 PM on March 2 [10 favorites]


One of the things that we'll need for more flexible shared living arrangements is a return of the norms and manners that make them possible. "Nuclear family" is common, "roommates" is common, but other forms are not very common -- SROs, lodgers, boarders, adult children living with parents -- and a lot of what's tricky about them for us today is that we've lost the social manners to live in that way. It can be tricky to have friends over, because they're not sure how to behave. You don't know exactly what the boundaries are, how to behave as a tenant/space sharer/space owner. You read old books with boarding houses or whatever, and expectations are very clear and people are very comfortable with them.

If you went to watch a movie with a friend who was a lodger at someone else's home, in the living room, would that be comfortable? Would you know how to act when the homeowner came through to get a snack from the kitchen? We have such broader expectations of privacy than we used to (and at the same time, such open-plan-ier houses -- multigenerational families and lodgers and so on worked a bit more easily when there was a parlor with a door that shut that was separate from the sitting room!). And we have a lot more reluctance to dictate personal behavior (like guests staying the night and having sex), which can be tricky when living in close quarters.

I think we'll have to rebuild our social norms around shared spaces to have more flexible living arrangements than just the few currently available.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:50 PM on March 2 [29 favorites]


Any good references on how this stuff came about?

In two words: urban communes. "Hippies! ... having SEX! ... and DRUGS!"
posted by Chitownfats at 8:29 PM on March 2


> And we have a lot more reluctance to dictate personal behavior (like guests staying the night and having sex), which can be tricky when living in close quarters.

This is a huge weird and fascinating trait of our society, especially in cities: we all think we know The Rules of Modern Life. But take any two people and they'll silently disagree on 10% of them and never call each other on it except behind each other's backs, until some invisible line is crossed.

Larry David has spent basically the past 30 years exploring this phenomenon in Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
posted by smelendez at 8:42 PM on March 2 [5 favorites]


Any good references on how this stuff came about? It's a fascinating topic, not unlike the collapse of public transit in the post war years.

The main article in the post mentions some of it - postwar attempts to push nuclear families was a big part of it. SROs got labeled "poor people housing" instead of "single people housing" or "mobile people housing," and that made it easy for cities to start passing laws that restricted them.

By the time the cities realized they'd removed thousands of housing options without replacing them with affordable housing for the people who needed them, we had a homeless crisis and a growing number of illegal housing arrangements, because if it's illegal to rent out 3 rooms of your large house to strangers, once you've decided you can't quite make rent yourself, you might as well just rent 3 rooms, the garage, the attic, and the toolshed and rake in as much money as you can.

Cities and states are reconsidering these laws as they're faced with growing evidence that even full-time employees at minimum wage cannot afford housing.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:12 PM on March 2 [10 favorites]


I lived in boarding houses twice in the mid-to-late eighties, when I was working the kind of jobs where that was all I could afford. These were houses that were originally built as single-family residences; one was a rambling three-story Victorian that looked like it might have been very nice back in the day. They were near the downtown of my hometown that was then crumbling and now has been semi-gentrified; I'm not sure that I could afford to live within a half mile of it now, even though my income is much better. My fellow tenants ranged from people who, like me, were struggling to get by on minimum wage, to those who were probably violating their probation or parole in one way or another. After I moved out of the second place (the Victorian), I came by a year later, and it had been torn down and replaced by a small parking garage.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:21 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


Man, what a load of bullshit with the sneering dismissal of any renter caring about the neighborhood they live in. My god! These millenial scum and their mere year-long leases, how could they possibly care about salting the local roads that they drive on! Only a five figure down payment gets you that kind of character and opinion! What a complete tool you'd have to be to write that article.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:29 PM on March 2 [11 favorites]


Any good references on how this stuff came about? It's a fascinating topic, not unlike the collapse of public transit in the post war years.

Not yet in my opinion. So many people get the story so wrong, because they start post-war and declare freeways and suburbs and what not the problem, but that's actually wrong, or at least more of an effect than a cause. This post from Austin Contrarian tracks downtown's fall to The Depression using Sanborn maps (discussed here before). "By the early 1940s in Los Angeles, roughly 25 percent of the buildable land was used to store autos" But The Depression was bad right? Who could afford to buy cars if there were no jobs and thus buildings downtown destroyed? So it goes back earlier than that. This photo shows early suburbs in LA in 1918. So the suburban form in SoCal was already conceived and developed by 1918.

What does all this have to do with SROs? Well, San Francisco was also hurt badly by The Depression and post-war period and one of the first places to have a city-wide zoning code whose (primary) explicit purpose was to support high property values, and not more general health & welfare like most of the existing zoning rules. It was conceived in the late 1940s and 1950s and approved in like the 1960s. It strongly recommended bulldozing all of downtown (and turn it into a office-only zone) but cooler heads prevailed. One of the concepts was the number of related people in a single dwelling, which put limits on SROs. Other places followed and wiped them out.

There are pieces missing but that's the basic story. You can find copies of the SF zoning code documents online, but my google is failing right now.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:37 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]


t seems to me that the reason that SROs worked so well was the unpaid labor of the women who managed them.

But the beauty of it is that it wasn’t unpaid! The women who managed them were either paid wages to come in and do so, or they owned the house themselves. As the first infographic says, it was an excellent way for women with a family to earn serious, stable income - often better than that of their husband.

Also, I lived in a barracks the first four years of my adult life and I loved it more than nearly any other living situation. SROs do not have to be sad at all.
posted by corb at 9:51 PM on March 2 [17 favorites]


LA always had a big number of boarding houses and SROs and they weren't always just for the indigent. My great grandfather after years of being a highly sought after railroad surveyor and engineer retired to the Pasadena area and lived in boarding houses until his death in the 20's. A few years back, my mom and I found his headstone a few miles from where I live.

The reason he was in boarding houses? His proper family (he had a much younger mistress out here) was back east where I grew up.

But you go digging through the rise of LA - both in history and pop culture - and the boarding house, the SRO was big. Nowadays I drive through downtown LA on my way to work and back and see lines and lines and lines of tents and dilapidated RV's and other shanty constructions and I can't help but think these are people we're not helping.
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:01 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]


My great aunt, who is in her 90s now, lived in a hotel in Manhattan for decades. I think she didn't move until the hotel was sold to a chain who pretty much made all the old people leave. (Maybe the Plaza? Somewhere fancy, and yet somehow she was paying close to WWII rates.) And from the stories she tells of living there, I could absolutely see the attraction.

As to SROs, boarding houses, and communes, I have lived in communes, and I hope to be part of a group that creates a shared space in the next decade, but shared bathrooms are an absolute deal breaker for me and the other women. Every single female in our group, all of whom have lived in communal arrangements before, unilaterally refuse to share or clean common bathrooms used by men.

Kitchens are also tricky in communal arrangements. Especially if there are only a few people who like to cook, or who do most of the cooking.

The town I live in used to be less than 5,000 people. We had ridiculous amounts of parks, community events, tons of public art installations, a functioning main street with original brick rail stop buildings. In the time it's taken my son to go from elementary school to entering high school, we've gone to around 50,000 people. Ranches and farms have all disappeared to be replaced with acres and acres of identical 2 storey architectural nightmares. And to further compound the problem, the city council has passed an ordinance that no new house can be approved if it's less than 2300 square feet, and no more than three unrelated adults can live in a residence. They passed that rule at the same time the university system said they were building a satellite campus here, and some of these giant houses could have been used as co-op housing.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 10:08 PM on March 2 [7 favorites]


That article was horrible. The subject matter was interesting but the presentation was short on fact, long on personal opinion, and simply presented badly. All of which made me not interested in reading it. I love the idea of SROs and co-ops. I wish the article had gone into some detail on those in comparison to Common. Pity.
posted by ashbury at 10:25 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]


Most of the unmarried people I talk to in San Francisco live with roommates. In many cases sharing bathrooms in addition to common areas. I was pretty shocked to discover that. These are people with pretty good salaries by most of the country’s standards. How people not in tech get by, I do not know.
posted by mantecol at 10:55 PM on March 2


I lived in share houses all through my 20s in Portland, and it was nice. Big old houses, shared bathroom and kitchen and living room. And a crash course in getting along with people you are neither related to nor sleeping with. It was actually a great learning experience.
posted by msalt at 1:40 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]


I actually wouldn't exist if it weren't for New York City boarding houses. In the late 19th century, my great-grandmother's parents ran a house on Central Park West and when my great-grandfather moved from the wilds of Connecticut to the big city to make his fortune, they met. (and didn't get married for twenty years but that's another story).
posted by octothorpe at 5:07 AM on March 3 [5 favorites]


Maybe it’s time to rethink an American dream that slots everyone into their own home with a car and a lawn and get back to the roots of humanity. We’re social creatures. It’s weird that it’s weird to live with mom and dad until you have another family or community group to join. It’s better for society and the planet to think in those terms rather than measure personal success by how quickly you got into your own house and got rid of all your “first apartment” IKEA furniture.

The American dream seems to be consumerism.
posted by ZeusHumms at 5:59 AM on March 3


I know people on Metafilter just love to crap on suburbia and on individualism. But they didn't emerge just because Ugly Americans Were Greedy and led around by auto companies. Extended-family living wasn't fun for many people - families can be toxic! - and many women, especially, found relief at not having Mom or Mom-in-law constantly underfoot. There is no way I would have wanted to spend my whole life living with my parents (shudder), and I've known a lot of other people who feel that way.

Likewise a lot of city housing was dirty and pest-filled and dangerous, so when people (white people, that is, for the most part) had opportunities to buy suburban homes they leapt at the opportunity, because they thought it was cleaner and healthier for their kids.

I think there is plenty of room for communal living, but it can't be based upon "elders and men first, women and children last" type of hierarchies like former extended families often were. Living with your parents as an equal, adult roommate can work out great. When your parents treat you like a dependent child and "it's MY house! Under MY roof, blah blah blah" it really sucks, and is a last resort for most.

I have a good friend who lives in a type of SRO but with her own bathroom in a supported-housing situation. She has her own space (and pets) and community as well - there are all kinds of clubs that meet in the community room. Plus the housing is clean and well-maintained. I think that nice boarding houses and SRO's are great. I think they are especially good for people who aren't technically developmentally disabled or mentally ill, but need extra support.

And roommate horror stories are so abundant that we just had a Worst Rommate Ever FPP. I think as Eyebrows McGee said, if we are going to have widespread communal living we need a new code of manners as a guide. We also need screening protocols so that scary cat-abusing and light-fixture-pooping potential roommates can be avoided.

tl;dr: I'm all for clean, nice, respectful and non-hierarchical communal living. I'm against the Bad Old Days.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:14 AM on March 3 [21 favorites]


LA always had a big number of boarding houses and SROs and they weren't always just for the indigent. My great grandfather after years of being a highly sought after railroad surveyor and engineer retired to the Pasadena area and lived in boarding houses until his death in the 20's. A few years back, my mom and I found his headstone a few miles from where I live.

This is a good point. Boarding houses/SROs/etc covered a wide spectrum, from the kind of place a well-off professional would choose to live to much rougher places where you could stay as, say, a wet alcoholic. We lost something when they were mostly eliminated, but in that time people also gained privacy and options that didn't use to exist (eg, single women now have housing choices other than family or a single-gender boarding house). For the less well-off, cheap motels now fill some of the gap that SROs used to provide -- they are furnished, and you can pay cash daily or weekly.

I've had a few years of moving for work where I would have loved to have a housing option more like the kinds of places drewbage1847's great grandfather lived in (especially if they came with at least some meals). Instead, mostly my choices have been renting an apartment or house (unfurnished) solo, or a variety of mostly unappetizing shared situations that often looked like versions of the worst roommate FPP. I can see the appeal of the kind of place described here, honestly; if that was available here I would at the least look closely.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:35 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


I think there is plenty of room for communal living, but it can't be based upon "elders and men first, women and children last" type of hierarchies like former extended families often were.

To add a thought to this:

Living alone - or with very carefully selected roommates - is one way that women avoid those hierarchies. Because even though men will swear up and down that they don't believe in those hierarchies anymore, many will perpetuate them in their personal lives by making any woman around responsible for the house. I would much rather do everything for myself than to be taken advantage of by a selfish man.

There are benefits to SRO living, but I'm really skeptical of the tone of the first article, which seems like it's presenting lack of SRO living as a cause of the current housing crisis, and more SRO housing as at least a solution. But ... a lot of housing of the past was miserable. More privacy and independence was an improvement for a lot of us.

If we had the political will, we could make it so that every full-time worker making at least minimum wage could afford a one-bedroom apartment. Low wages, broken incentives in housing development, and lack of regulations and supported housing - these are things we chose to have, not inevitabilities. Pushing SRO living as a solution is uncomfortably close to "you poors need to lower your standards" for me.

That's not to say I'm against SROs themselves. I see the appeal personally, especially while I'm at a transitional stage in my life. I'm just against the idea that as someone who makes around $20,000 a year, an SRO is the best I should ever expect for myself.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:04 AM on March 3 [10 favorites]


I guess people aren't familiar enough with the market to judge the rents?
Probably not. More generally, they don't have the kind of networks in New York that you would need to find a place like your current apartment. They don't necessarily have a place to stay while they're looking. When I moved to New York, I stayed with my mom's cousin, a New York City public school teacher who has a rent-controlled five-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, which she can afford because she's lived there since the '60s. Eventually, I was able to find a good deal on an apartment, which I heard about through word of mouth. I also found my roommate through word of mouth: she was a friend of a friend. If I hadn't had family and friend networks already established in New York, I wouldn't have been able to move there. One of the big markets for boardinghouses and SROs was traditionally new arrivals, who need some time to get their bearings before they can find a permanent apartment.
This is not the Webster Apartments, simple decent living at a budget price.
The Webster has a sliding scale based on income, and it's hard to compare because they require residents to pay for two meals a day, but if you make more than $70,000 a year, the rates are roughly comparable to the Commons ($900-$950 for two weeks.) If you don't eat breakfast and dinner in the dining room, the rates are roughly comparable if you make $50,000 to $70,000 a year ($800 to $880 for two weeks.) Plus, the Webster is only open to women, and they don't let you have men in your room, which would be kind of an infantalizing for a grownup adult person. I find the idea of living in the Webster kind of charming, because it's such a throwback, and I find the Commons kind of aesthetically unappealing, but that's an aesthetic judgment, not a financial one. They basically fill the same need: short-to-medium-term furnished housing that you can arrange without being in town. And that is, and has always been, a real need in cities.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:04 AM on March 3 [5 favorites]


I would love to live in a dorm setting that I could afford. Maybe with a shared kitchen per two singles and one's own bathroom, like I did for a year in my 20s in Barcelona. It was the best living situation I have ever had to this day.
posted by Stewriffic at 9:37 AM on March 3


More generally, they don't have the kind of networks in New York that you would need to find a place like your current apartment.

I wasn't living in NYC when I found my current place, having unwisely attempted to live elsewhere for a couple of years. I found it in one weekend's visit, and I found it through Streeteasy, not an informal social network. (I think that is actually a lot less common than it used to be, especially when we're not talking about shares.) I will absolutely concede that I got lucky in terms of the good qualities of the place I found, but the apartment hunt is waaaaaaay more efficient than it used to be, if you have to get it done fast. The bigger burden for a new apartment these days is the last month's & security deposit, which, since I can't find any marketing proudly announcing they don't require it, I expect Common does, too.

The Webster has a sliding scale based on income, and it's hard to compare because they require residents to pay for two meals a day, but if you make more than $70,000 a year, the rates are roughly comparable to the Commons ($900-$950 for two weeks.)

I would be genuinely surprised if there were many Webster residents who made that much, especially as you can only stay there six (?) years. That kind of salary is just on the brink of an okay outer-borough apartment and certainly enough for a 2-bed share, so at that point a place like Webster is no longer the greatest value. Anyway, I'm not saying that it is the ideal solution for all; I'm merely saying that it is an organic attempt at providing decent-quality affordable housing at a reasonable scale, rather than some VC-funded doofuses renting a bunch of apartments and then renting them out again at a significant markup and selling it as some kind of inspirational "co-living." It's worth noting that a lot of the apartments are located in more "marginal" neighborhoods, presumably because the company couldn't make its healthy margin and still attract its target market in areas where the underlying rents are higher.
posted by praemunire at 9:41 AM on March 3


Living alone - or with very carefully selected roommates - is one way that women avoid those hierarchies. Because even though men will swear up and down that they don't believe in those hierarchies anymore, many will perpetuate them in their personal lives by making any woman around responsible for the house.

I think Liz Phair nailed that situation pretty well for 20-somethings in a roommate situation in her song "Help Me, Mary":
Help me, Mary, please
I've lost my home to thieves
They bully the stereo and drink
They leave suspicious stains in the sink
They make rude remarks about me
They wonder just how wild I would be
As they egg me on and keep me mad
They play me like a pit bull in a basement, and for that
I lock my door at night
I keep my mouth shut tight...
posted by msalt at 9:44 AM on March 3


"they don't let you have men in your room, which would be kind of an infantalizing for a grownup adult person."

I lived in woman-only housing in college that had super-restrictive rules about men, which I thought was going to be annoying and infantalizing, but it was actually fucking glorious. It wasn't so much about not having men in your room, but about other people not having men in their rooms. So you could go to the bathroom in ratty PJs and not run into strange men. You could go down the hall in the middle of the night and not run into strange men, who might or might not be drunk, who might or might not be predatory. It was generally very quiet because there weren't a lot of parties without men. It fostered awesome female friendships because we were totally free of the male gaze and its restrictions on grooming and behavior and speech.

And if you wanted to spend some private time with a dude (of the sort that couldn't be accomplished in the very nice commons areas, with different levels of privacy available), well, you could go to his place, or you could go to a hotel. Which, in college, yeah, a hotel was spendy. But if I were a single working adult, I would not mind living in a women's-only place like the Webster, and just grabbing a hotel room from time to time if I needed to.

Obviously people should have choices available to live affordably in places without those kinds of restrictions! But gosh did I love my no-men-allowed dorm and I'd choose it again in a heartbeat!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:31 AM on March 3 [13 favorites]


I was fascinated by the story about Wi-Fi Tribe in the last link until I learned that their screening process includes completion of a Meyers-Briggs personality test, which made me question the whole operation. How can anyone NOT know that the test has been discredited?
posted by she's not there at 4:29 PM on March 3


they don't let you have men in your room, which would be kind of an infantalizing for a grownup adult person

Often lost in our threads is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to any particular thing. We'll often have a thread where folks will pile on some topic because something is bad, wrong, or even evil, because few can conceive how such things can be preferable. This thread is a welcome exception.


I know people on Metafilter just love to crap on suburbia and on individualism. But they didn't emerge just because Ugly Americans Were Greedy and led around by auto companies.


Indeed. One of the things I hate is how often things like automobiles and suburbia and sprawl are sold as some kind of conspiracy from powers beyond our control that pushed people out of cities and living arrangements in ways We All Disapprove Of Now. Without consideration that things like cars and individual houses etc. were, and remain, very attractive to many, even most, people. And not because people have been brainwashed or circumstances have forced them into these choices. Talk about infantalizing...
posted by 2N2222 at 10:32 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


On the other hand, it's not like boarding houses went out of business naturally. They got regulated out of the market.

And early suburbs were explicitly the results of top down planning. It's not like Mr. Levitt had a nefarious scheme to destroy the fabric of American society, but he was deliberately creating a neighborhood based on his own ideas of the American dream, where everyone owned their own acre. And it's been more top-down planning - zoning laws, investors, whatnot - that progressively pushed out and limited choices for people who can't afford to buy a damn acre. And it's fair to say that the homelessness problem we have today is a result of all those top-down decisions in aggregate.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 12:29 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Not to mention that suburbs were designed explicitly to exclude African-Americans, in many cases by legal convenant as well as by redlining, denial of mortgages from federal programs, etc.

In that sense, it was exactly the kind of conspiracy you deny. And I hope to hell that We All Disapprove Of It Now.
posted by msalt at 1:38 PM on March 4 [8 favorites]


I know people on Metafilter just love to crap on suburbia and on individualism. But they didn't emerge just because Ugly Americans Were Greedy and led around by auto companies.

No, it also helped that the government put a huge amount of money into building highways to the suburbs and at the same time bulldozing huge swaths of city neighborhoods.
posted by octothorpe at 2:08 PM on March 4 [6 favorites]


No to mention that suburbs were designed explicitly to exclude African-Americans, in many cases by legal convenant as well as by redlining, denial of mortgages from federal programs, etc.

This is nonsense. The concept of "suburb" pre-dates by decades racial restrictive covenants, redlining, and federal mortgage programs.

Cities were historically thick with horseshit, coal smoke, rats, and raw sewage, not to mention vastly higher rates of crime than we could imagine now. Those who could live on the outskirts did. When railroads and streetcars came about, that became a possible option for more people—who were generally white, because almost everyone with an upper middle class income was white. The suburbs were not "designed" to exclude black people any more than the dollar bill was, at least not initially. Yes, I am aware that Levitttown was, etc etc. That is old news.

I get that hating on suburbs is super hip, but you can't just look at a complex and varied demographic phenomenon, cry "racism! racism!" and expect to be taken seriously by people who are actually interested in understanding why people live where they do.
posted by andrewpcone at 3:41 PM on March 4


Looks like there's a similar start-up in San Francisco. The founder seems to have affordability as an explicit goal, but I'm not sure the rooms seen like such great deals. Maybe if you have to have a brand new room/building? NYT
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:13 AM on March 5


It's tough, because co-housing and non-profit co-op housing (as opposed to luxury equity co-ops, which I know is more what that usually signifies in the States) are both really appealing, and something that I would love to see more of. Non-profit co-ops are a pretty great tried-and-true way of organizing housing without landlords or profit, which rules.

"Common" is similar in form, but designed to profit developers, sort of an astroturf version, so I can see why some of the comments here seem to be talking at cross-purposes.

From where I stand, it's the financialization of housing, not the form that housing takes, that's the problem.
posted by ITheCosmos at 4:21 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


From where I stand, it's the financialization of housing, not the form that housing takes, that's the problem.

It's more complex than that. As the article notes, a lot of women with an extra room in their house used to monetize that room by letting it out to tenants and cooking meals for them as well, in exchange for stable money that helped keep a house afloat. The problem isn't profit, so much as the ruthless extraction of that profit. When people rent out their rooms roughly to what the market will bear, that's not a problem - when a corporation uses a computer algorithm to find out the biggest margin of profit by skimping on soap and amenities, it is.
posted by corb at 6:23 AM on March 5


And look what I found just this morning to add to this discussion: Dorm Living in SF
posted by MovableBookLady at 6:32 AM on March 5


Well, sorry, I missed matildatakesovertheworld had already posted this.
posted by MovableBookLady at 6:33 AM on March 5


who were generally white, because almost everyone with an upper middle class income was white.

Which wasn't due to racism, it was due to..white people being inherently superior at earning money? Think harder man. Lots of us have studied this stuff.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:17 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]


Which wasn't due to racism

Right, I didn't say it wasn't. My point is about the suburbs, not some strawman "racism doesn't exist." Jesus.
posted by andrewpcone at 9:09 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


This is nonsense. The concept of "suburb" pre-dates by decades racial restrictive covenants, redlining, and federal mortgage programs.

I'm pretty sure no community or housing systems in the US predate whites-only residential laws. Leaving cities for less-crowded, cleaner areas did happen before 1875, but before automobiles, streetcars, and train lines were common, "leaving the city" usually meant "moving to the country," not "moving just outside the city," because inner-city jobs were for inner-city workers who could get there every morning.

Mass transit and (sub)urban racial segregation were tied together from the beginning. Redlining and the mortgage programs came in later - after it was officially illegal to just say "must have skin at least this pale to buy property in this district."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:51 AM on March 5 [8 favorites]


One argument against high turnover in a neighborhood: people have less incentive to do the hard work of understanding the regulatory environment and organizing with their neighbors and working for improvements that won't pay off within their expected tenures.

You see this in university towns all the time: with 25% turnover year-on-year, the property management companies get away with things that would make a New York slumlord salivate. I once had someone knock on my door and demand that I box up my things and walk out that day. Some other unit was late on rent, and this was his idea of filing for eviction.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:17 PM on March 5


I'm pretty sure no community or housing systems in the US predate whites-only residential laws.

What exactly is a "community or housing system?" There have been housing and communities, since, uh, people lived in housing and communities, which is more or less always. So this question reduces to the question "how old are whites-only residential laws." The answer to that is lookupable, and does not inform the original question of whether any given housing arrangement—be it Common or the suburbs—are more "racist" than others.

Mass transit and (sub)urban racial segregation were tied together from the beginning.

This is the sort of statement that makes me unable to take the academic left seriously. It means nothing. There was no closer association of transit with racial segregation than there was any other aspect of life. It sounds clever, like you've uncovered some wellspring of injustice, but really all you've done is package together two obvious facts of history—transit and racial segregation—claim they were "tied together," and leave it at that. I mean, what exactly are we to conclude from this sentence? That the suburbs were associated with mass transit, which, because it was "tied together" with segregation, is therefore racist and evil? Because that is some weak ass shit.

people have less incentive to do the hard work of understanding the regulatory environment and organizing with their neighbors and working for improvements that won't pay off within their expected tenures.


I live in Berkeley, where the Established Community Members are frequently myopic NIMBYs who couch their selfishness in phony communitarian altruism, and the student and younger people typically take a more principled view of development. The former whine about parking, the latter tend to think more long term. And I've heard the parking-whiners whine endlessly about the devil-may-care students, making this same "lack of long term incentive" point. I've never seen a shred of evidence it is true.

Maybe it's more accurate in other places, I don't know. But I don't believe "short term" corresponds with "less responsible." It just hasn't been my observation.
posted by andrewpcone at 1:38 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


So this question reduces to the question "how old are whites-only residential laws."

Answer: Racial discrimination in housing predates the foundation of the United States. Slavery predates the Declaration of Independence.

>>Mass transit and (sub)urban racial segregation were tied together from the beginning.

This is the sort of statement that makes me unable to take the academic left seriously. It means nothing. There was no closer association of transit with racial segregation than there was any other aspect of life.


The rise of functional "suburbs" relied on mass transit availability - and as soon as that option existed, many suburbs were established as white-only. Transit didn't invent racial segregation, but it allowed for easy spread of white-only communities, supported by both pay inequalities and white control of the legal system.

Lake Forest, IL, a distant suburb of Chicago, was created before the Civil War specifically to be a secluded refuge from "immigrants with their dangerous socialist ideas and sinful alcoholic libations." It's 33 miles from Chicago and 9 miles from Waukegan - close enough to participate in the area's money, far enough to avoid casual visits. It's connected to the metro areas by two train lines, and it finally dropped its racial discrimination laws in 1990.

I maintain: As soon as transit was invented that would allow people to live elsewhere and work in big cities, white people started making sure their "elsewhere" could contain only white people. There were also mixed-race and nonwhite single-ethnicity suburban communities, but that doesn't change the fact that a whole lot of white people worked really hard to push everyone else away.

There is no practical discussion of suburbs without discussing the racism that so many of them were founded to support.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:59 PM on March 5 [8 favorites]


"Lake Forest, IL, a distant suburb of Chicago, was created before the Civil War specifically to be a secluded refuge from "immigrants with their dangerous socialist ideas and sinful alcoholic libations." It's 33 miles from Chicago and 9 miles from Waukegan - close enough to participate in the area's money, far enough to avoid casual visits. It's connected to the metro areas by two train lines, and it finally dropped its racial discrimination laws in 1990."

That's a very sexy factoid, but Wikipedia miscites the source text they use as the source for it. Racially-restrictive covenants -- the method Lake Forest used to restrict African Americans and Jews in its early days -- became illegal in Illinois in 1948, and by the 1960s had been largely stamped out in the area. The reference to 1990 is when the director of planning and development for the village says that the town has a substantial Jewish community "as of 1990" -- one of the groups that were restricted by the pre-1948 restrictive covenants. It did not have racial discrimination laws until 1990! The cited source that provides Wikipedia that data point actually says that Lake Forest did not use laws or zoning codes to effect racial discrimination, but the restrictive covenants on the sale of houses. The cited source doesn't support Wikipedia's claim there at all.

And frankly the idea that a wealthy Chicago suburb could have maintained racially discriminatory laws in 1990 without getting sued by any of dozens of housing advocates, racial advocates, Jewish rights advocates, and other groups that are quite strong in Chicago, and smacked down by local, state, or federal courts is too outrageous to believe! How on earth do you think a wealthy and prominent Chicago suburb managed to keep "sundown town" laws on the books until 1990 without anyone suing over it? When something is THAT unbelievably outrageous on Wikipedia, it probably deserves a second look. And honest to God, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin were living up there before 1990! Mr. T lived there in the 1980s! There are so many Jews in Lake Forest they close the public schools for the High Holy Days, and have since at least the 80s! The claim doesn't pass a second of the smell test!

I mean, yeah, Lake Forest is a wealthy white suburb once frequented by racists and is, in fact, on a pair of train lines. But it's not that distant, it's didn't have racial segregation laws until 1990, and it officially dropped racially-restrictive covenants with the rest of Illinois in 1948 and had them actually gone by the 1960s. And frankly a lot of the purpose of Lake Forest and other suburban lakefront villages was to escape all the summer cholera in the literal swamp of Chicago. It was actually too far to commute from when it was founded -- it was where wealthy businessmen sent their wives and children for the summer in order to not die; the businessmen stayed in their city houses for the summer and went up on the weekends. Not that they weren't racists and xenophobes and all, but it wasn't a weekday commuter suburb for racists chosen because it was the right distance to live there full-time while still working in Chicago; it was where you had your summer home to escape the cholera. Those families still lived in the city limits 8 months of the year. Not until WWII -- right about the time the restrictive covenants became illegal -- did it become feasible to live full time in Lake Forest and commute to Chicago. It was technically possible in 1931 (I looked up the interurban service schedules), but not really feasible until train service upgrades in 1950.

(And, incidentally, Lake Forest has been chock fuckin' full of dirty Irish Catholics since the 1840s and has hosted some notable Catholic institutions -- Barat College was in the city and Mundelein Seminary, which serves as the seminary for the entire Chicago Archdiocese, was right next door -- so WASPs attempting to flee the dirty Catholic immigrants by moving to Lake Forest were doing a piss-poor job of it!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:48 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Sorry for not checking the complete details - I didn't assume it was firmly segregated until 1990, but rather that the laws had managed to stick around, still on the books but not formally enforced, until then.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:27 PM on March 5


In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants were unenforceable. They weren't actually outlawed by the Federal government until much later, but they were irrelevant after 1948, because they couldn't be enforced. Did Illinois outlaw them, or are you thinking of that ruling? Anyway, there were lots of restrictive covenants in the city of Chicago, not just the suburbs. There was a famous Supreme Court case in 1940 involving the family of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and they were barred by a restrictive covenant from buying a house in Woodlawn, a neighborhood on the South Side that is right near the University of Chicago.

I'm honestly not sure what this whole discussion of the suburbs has to do with dorms for grown-ups, to be honest.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:28 PM on March 5


I'm honestly not sure what this whole discussion of the suburbs has to do with dorms for grown-ups, to be honest.

Because before you can get into whether or not dorms for grownups are good ideas, you have to confront the other American ideas about what The Good Life entails. And that entails confronting the issue of the suburbs. Are they for everyone? Should they be? Could they be? It's hard to get people excited about SROs when owning your own home is the Great American Dream. And it's hard to talk about the Great American Dream without people pointing out that dream was never accessible for everyone. And so on and so forth.
posted by corb at 4:51 PM on March 5


The idea that a Supreme Court ruling against restrictive covenants in 1948 eliminated their effect seems very ... utopian. No one would suggest that Brown vs. Board of Education six years later instantly eliminated school segregation.

Richard Rothstein wrote a detailed and heavily researched book on this subject, The Color of Law, last year. He talks about a number of federal, local and private (redlining) policies that combined to enforce housing segregation, including FHA loan restrictions, zoning that pushed disruptive industries into inner city and minority neighborhoods, interstate freeway construction that often went through minority neighborhoods, urban renewal (ditto), different standards racially by banks (which continued at least through the 2008 banking crisis), etc.

Many of these policies -- including FHA restrictions with blatant racial intent -- lasted at least until the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, if not longer. FHA loan grade standards literally defined the green or highest graded neighborhoods as "homogenous." Meanwhile, the criteria for yellow (danger, discouraged) neighborhoods included
expiring restrictions or lack of them; infiltration of a lower grade population; the presence of influences which increase sales resistance such as inadequate transportation, insufficient utilities, perhaps heavy tax burdens, poor maintenance of homes, etc. "Jerry" built areas are included, as well as neighborhoods lacking homogeneity.
So even if restricttions were technically unenforceable, the FHA discouraged lenders from issuing mortgages in neighborhoods that lacked them. This article from the Atlantic goes into admirable detail, and looks specifically at the Chicago area among others.
posted by msalt at 5:12 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


"The idea that a Supreme Court ruling against restrictive covenants in 1948 eliminated their effect seems very ... utopian. "

Right, but the sources that Wikipedia cites, in the article Eris relied on, notes that the use of restrictive covenants in Lake Forest had basically died out by the end of the 1960s (as I noted in my comment). I don't think anyone in this thread is saying they disappeared in 1948, just that they became unenforceable/illegal.

The point is that Eris is claiming Lake Forest had racially-restrictive laws on the books until 1990, to show how racist American commuter suburbs are. But almost no part of her claims are correct -- Lake Forest wasn't a "commuter" suburb when it was founded (it was a summer-home town, too far to commute); it wasn't a place to escape immigrants (it was full of immigrant Catholics with several notable Catholic institutions and some of the oldest Irish Catholic parishes in the Chicago area); it didn't have racial discrimination laws on the books (that was done through restrictive covenants, NOT the law, and the cited book specifically notes Lake Forest did NOT use laws or zoning for racial restriction, but relied on those private contracts); and the quote citing 1990 was a town official talking about the diversity of the town in 1990 to show its success in moving beyond the restrictive covenants of the pre-WWII era. (And it's kinda diverse? For, like, a very limited definition of diversity -- they have all different kinds of rich people there! It's like 12% racial minorities; the state is about 29% racial minorities. So not very diverse, really.)

I mean, yo, mass transit allowed for racist suburbia and enabled white-flight, that's unquestionably true. But picking out a wildly sensationalistic example in order to show how the Perfect Racist Suburb came to be and having that turn out to be wrong in all of its particulars tends to undermine the claim, and the racial segregation of American housing is way, way too serious a subject to undermine with easily-disproved stories designed to shock. There are plenty of shocking stories out there without making them up! Just in the past five years, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been doing fantastic reporting on Chicago's history of housing segregation in particular, if one wants to use a Chicago example in particular. I can think of a bunch of suburbs I might pick on as early white-flight destinations or post-war white-flight destinations (including the one I'm in right now), or current bastions of de facto segregation. And look, Lake Forest is no racial utopia. (I think it's a ridiculous place, frankly, and you could not pay me to live there.) But it is not the right example to support any of the claims here; the facts are just flat wrong.

Lake Forest would actually be a great example of a superficially non-racist community that uses extreme wealth as a sorting mechanism to ensure that only "good" members of minorities who share the class consciousness of the town move there, and therefore they don't ever have to contend with their participation in systems of oppression, because -- yeah -- nobody's going to be overtly racist in public in Lake Forest and people who live there are generally well-educated, tolerant, and cosmopolitan citizens of the world, who just happen to never socially interact with anyone who makes less than $200,000 a year, except for their nanny.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:16 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


OK, fair enough. I know nothing about Lake Forest. It sounds like Lake Oswego, Oregon, the wealthiest suburb of Portland -- white and rich and racist, colloquially "Lake No Negro" -- where yes, several Portland Trailblazers who are African American live but few other minorities. It's enforced by a lot of things including blocking any freeways or mass transit that might come near, hyper-aggressive police patrols on the 25-mph limit two lane highway that comes through town, which seems to nab a very high percentage of minorities (and anyone in a cheaper, older car) and simply the inertia of high prices at this point.

I was responding more to the points of andrewpcone, who seems skeptical that suburban flight had any element of racism. I think sources like the two I cited nail that down pretty tightly, though I tend to think that mass transit tends to reduce segregation, and that the interstate freeway system has been a much more segregating influence, both enabling white flight and bulldozing ethnic neighborhoods along the way.
posted by msalt at 7:24 PM on March 5


I was responding more to the points of andrewpcone, who seems skeptical that suburban flight had any element of racism.

No, that is not remotely what I said.
posted by andrewpcone at 10:20 AM on March 6


Your statements are ambiguous and tendentious at best.

Me:>>Not to mention that suburbs were designed explicitly to exclude African-Americans, in many cases by legal convenant as well as by redlining, denial of mortgages from federal programs, etc.

andrewpcone: >This is nonsense. The concept of "suburb" pre-dates by decades racial restrictive covenants, redlining, and federal mortgage programs. ... The suburbs were not "designed" to exclude black people any more than the dollar bill was, at least not initially. Yes, I am aware that Levitttown was, etc etc. That is old news.


It's disengenuous to dismiss segregation in suburbs by appealing to the very early 19th century history of suburban development, a handful of cities, and then dismiss the archetypal modern suburb's explicit segregation -- 50 to 100 years later -- as "old news."

The VAST majority of American suburban development took place in the post-WW2 era under blatantly segregationist principles, driven by the Interstate Highway System much more than mass transit.
posted by msalt at 12:21 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]


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