Expanding Urban Housing Access for Women

Until the mid-twentieth century, boarding houses provided a key source of housing for women moving to American cities. They also provided an opportunity for women to earn income by owning and operating boarding houses during a time when they were shut out of many other industries. But since then, zoning rules have outlawed most boarding houses along with other low-cost housing options, eliminating a low rung on the economic ladder for women seeking to begin their careers in urban job centers.

Boarding houses are homes that were built for a single family, or larger purpose-built housing, where guests rent out rooms for a short or long period. You may be familiar with fictional characters who lived in boarding houses, including Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Mattie Ross in True Grit.

During the mid-nineteenth century, up to half of urban Americans lived in boarding houses, either as roomers or owners. For many single women, they presented a new opportunity to leave their family homes. Factories provided boarding houses for their women workers, creating a socially acceptable way for women to earn income and live independently.

Starting in the 1920s, opportunities for women in shops, offices, and teaching expanded. Rooming houses and residential hotels provided an important source of housing for them, both by providing housing they could afford and because they freed women from having to do their own cooking and cleaning. In his book Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States, Paul Groth writes,

“Many of these women were not merely sojourners. Married or not, they were escaping female roles in traditional households and fully expected to live in hotels for at least several years. A journalist writing in 1930 characterized these people as the vanguard of the 'new woman.'"

Women ranging from low-paid shop girls to Grace Kelly used boarding houses as the place where they found their footing, and sometimes a social network, in the country’s rapidly growing cities.

In the mid-twentieth century, the number of city residents living in lodging houses, boarding houses, and residential hotels declined dramatically. In part, economic growth caused their decline. As incomes rose, a larger percentage of workers could afford their own apartments. Innovations like household appliances and prepared foods lowered the burden of housekeeping for men and women, who then found it easier to do their own cooking and cleaning.

However, local land use regulations caused the near extinction, rather than mere decline, of boarding houses. Starting in the 1920s, cities and suburban jurisdictions began using zoning to exclude boarding houses, residential hotels, and apartment buildings from single-family neighborhoods. Jurisdictions implemented bans on housing affordable to low-income people to exclude those who couldn’t afford the more expensive housing that remained.

Groth points out that these zoning rules harmed women who had an opportunity to run or own boarding houses at a time when they had fewer opportunities for entrepreneurship,

“Rooming houses had allowed women to make a living within one of their traditional roles, keeping house. Zoning in effect eliminated expansion of these women’s businesses.”

In addition to taking an economic opportunity away from boarding house operators, zoning laws that limit new housing supply to single-family units reduce the amount of new housing available within a jurisdiction and drive up housing costs. They prevent households from sharing valuable land, a roof, a kitchen, and other expensive features. In effect, setting minimum standards for housing increased the minimum income young women needed to move to cities and land the kinds of entry-level jobs that lead to careers.

Regulating away affordable housing options that don’t fit the single-family mold continues to hurt women disproportionately. More than 13 percent of non-elderly adult women are in poverty, compared to less than 10 percent of men. Among single mothers, the poverty rate is over one-third. Lower-income American residents are more likely to be renters compared to their higher-income counterparts, and they’re more likely to spend a larger share of their income on housing. Taking away the option for these women to live in low-cost apartments makes their situation more difficult. 

While fewer people would choose to live in boarding houses today than did in the 1920s, there is still demand for low-cost communal living. In Washington, DC, before new homesharing laws banned the practice, some large homes were rented out on AirBnB on a nightly basis to tenants who might stay indefinitely. AirBnB’s don’t require a security deposit, their rooms come furnished, and they may include free breakfast. These advantages, flexible terms and low cost, are important to someone moving to a new city without the financial resources that a long-term lease may require.

Some startups, such as Common, seek to bring boarding house living back to high-cost cities more broadly. However many regulations against sharing kitchens or bathrooms along with density restrictions stand in the way of these startups providing a low-cost housing solution.

The market is working to bypass nearly-100 year old regulations that have prevented people from earning a living and living independently. Liberalizing zoning rules would allow for this time-tested living arrangement to flourish again. 

Photo credit: cincy project/Flickr