Behre: Could our affordable housing crunch be solved by looking just down the hall? | Commentary

Behre: Could our affordable housing crunch be solved by looking just down the hall? | Commentary

It was a time when Charleston’s economy was humming and housing was in critically short supply. No, not last year or the year before that, but 80 years ago, during an era when most would describe the city as a proud but sleepy backwater.

The United States had just entered World War II, and demand for workers at the Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard was soaring, drawing many new faces to town who — much like today’s new faces — struggled to find an affordable place to live. This was a national problem in other military cities, and Charles Palmer, who was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Defense Housing coordinator, was trying to tackle it. He had this to say in 1942:

“In almost every large city there are thousands of dwellings which can be made into homes for defense workers. These structures are located on paved streets and are served by existing utilities lights, gas, water and sewers. They are near shopping centers and are already provided with adequate transportation.

“If we can utilize these existing structures, our work will be greatly reduced. There will be an important saving in money, time and critical materials. Moreover, such a program will preserve community assets and avoid the dangers of overbuilding during the crisis.”

A key irony is that downtown Charleston’s building boom in recent decades has appeared to do little to increase the actual population of the peninsula, which reached a peak of about 70,000 but is now only half that. Clearly, the construction boom has built dormitories and hotel rooms that house a lot of people who will not show up as local residents in our U.S. census count, so that describes some of the apparent disconnect between all the new building without much new peninsula population growth.

But an equally big part of the explanation is we simply are living more alone. The average household in Charleston has fewer than 2½ people, and that long downward trend explains why the peninsula has not returned to anything like its early 20th century population peak.

One entrepreneur, Derek Snooks, hopes to reverse that, at least a little. His company, CoLife, essentially acts as a screening service that connects homeowners interested in renting out a spare bedroom with young professionals searching for a centrally located, more affordable place to live. “This is an old pattern of human history that we’re just bringing back,” he says, adding he has placed about 100 renters in the company’s short history.

Interested renters pay $75 for a background screen, money they get back if CoLife doesn’t find them a room to rent. There’s also a transaction fee of between $99 and $199. CoLife makes refunds after 30 days if the arrangement doesn’t work out, but its success rate has been about 96% so far, he says. Since properties are individual homes, CoLife has more flexibility to consider personal attributes of renters and landlords to try to ensure a proper fit. Snooks’ current challenge is trying to work on insurance to protect homeowners and renters in such arrangements.

It remains to be seen to what extent this new business model can address our serious housing crunch, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

The city saw its greatest density when boarding houses were legal. Today, zoning laws in the city (as in many others) prohibits more than four unrelated people in the same home or rental unit.

In the 19th century, the United States experienced the heyday of boardinghouses, which ran according to a somewhat different model than CoLife, says Indiana University history professor Wendy Gamber, author of “The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America.” Boardinghouses offered food, lodging and housekeeping for money. Most boarders were single men.

Boarders ate meals together at a common table, and the house’s keeper was often a woman who rented the property as a business. “They depended on the rents they collected from boarders to pay the rent they owed their landlords, which goes a long way toward explaining boarders’ complaints — cheap furnishings, bad food, bedbugs, dirty linens, etc.,” she says. “In other words, boardinghouses were for-profit enterprises, even though the profits usually were very small.”

“For this very reason, boardinghouses got a bad rap in 19th-century popular culture,” she adds. “They emerged at the same time as the idealized single-family middle-class home, which was supposed to be a haven from the rough and tumble ‘world’ of politics and economics. In fact, I argue that boardinghouses helped to construct the idea of ‘home’ because they seemingly were everything homes were not.

“The problem, as many cultural commentators saw it, was that boardinghouses were creatures of a corrupt marketplace; in boardinghouses women did work for money that in homes they supposedly did for love. So while many boarders’ complaints concerning the quality of their accommodations reflected economic realities, they also reflected the common cultural belief that boardinghouses were inferior simply because they were not ‘homes.’  That doesn’t mean that boardinghouse communities couldn’t function like families; in some cases they did.”

About a century ago, boardinghouses gradually were replaced by lodging houses in which no food or cleaning services were offered.

While it’s unlikely boardinghouses will return any day soon, one wonders if at least part of our housing affordability crisis couldn’t be solved by making better use of empty bedrooms down the hall.

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