Modern take on ‘flophouses’ could ease homeless problem


Homelessness is an expensive problem that many American cities are straining to afford. Yet in their zeal to fix the problem, policymakers have ignored some of the lower-cost options such as increasing the availability of inexpensive single-room occupancy apartments. Pejoratively known in the past as flophouses, these units – ranging from inexpensive motel rooms to cheap, temporary apartments above storefronts – often provided a temporary solution that beats sleeping in a tent in a public park.

Let’s first look at the current situation. This year’s approved budget for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority in Washington is $253.3 million. San Francisco spends at least $1.4 billion a year on the problem. Yet that money doesn’t seem to be making a measurable dent in the problem. We have tent cities, structurally higher crime, and thus ongoing pleas to “do something” about homelessness from business owners, citizens and civic organizations.

Western states’ “Housing First” policies, which seek to build new affordable units for low-income and homeless people, are a failure as the costs per unit soar above $700,000 in places such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. There simply isn’t enough public money to build an adequate number of units at that price – and certainly not quickly.

Read this Free Cities Center article by the Pacific Research Institute’s Wayne Winegarden about “Housing First.”

Some of the homeless could, however, be served by a system that had historically been in place before the real-estate boom and regulatory restrictions reduced the supply of these modest, private accommodations. These were smaller lodgings that were often in ill repair and in sketchy neighborhoods. They were not terribly expensive and frequently dealt in cash. They were in many ways undesirable places to live but – and this is an important but – were better than homeless encampments.

Obviously, we can’t expect cities to promote seedy, rundown rooms as a public policy, but they can try to incentivize or at least allow a modern habitable alternative. In some ways, efforts to build low-cost tiny home neighborhoods are a step in that direction, although the key point is being able to check into one temporarily for a modest cost rather than sign up for a government waiting list.

In How the Other Half Lives, muckraking journalist Jacob Riis wrote about cheap lodging houses in New York City in 1890. He quoted one magistrate railing against “the ten-cent lodging houses.” Riis conceded that quite a bit of crime was associated with them, with beds available at 10 cents per night. But he insisted that the good flophouses, at a quarter a night, didn’t have nearly so many problems.

“The twenty-five cent lodging-house keeps up the pretense of a bedroom, though the head-high partition enclosing a space just large enough to hold a cot and a chair and allow the man room to pull off his clothes is the shallowest of all pretenses,” Riis added. A quarter a night in 1890, adjusted for inflation, comes out to about $8.43 today. A search of the lodging finder for rooms in New York for the “night of October 8” at or “below $100” returned precisely one hotel, at $71 a night, yet that bill ballooned to $281 for the night when all taxes and fees were tallied.

America has seen a marked decline in such accommodations since the 1980s, pressured on one side by market forces and on the other side by well-meaning but clueless reformers and regulators who want to improve the poor’s living conditions.

For instance, some Southern California cities such as Anaheim purposefully tried in the early 2000s to shut down many of the low-cost motels that lined an older commercial strip. These 1950s era motels were built to serve the Disneyland resort area, but had become seedy – and largely served as cheap lodging for the near homeless. After the city limited stays to 30 days, many of the residents moved into tents near railroad lines. In recent years, Anaheim has recognized the role they can play in battling homelessness and has sought to convert some into temporary housing for people living on the edge.

Watch this Free Cities Center video on homelessness.

“Historically, the bottom of the scale for inexpensive housing was not the rooming house but the flophouse – essentially a hall of bunks or sleeping slabs. Aside from homeless shelters, North America no longer has flophouses. A century of regulation shut them down,” Sightline Institute founder Alan Durning writes in the book Unlocking Home.

Don’t be dissuaded by the arcane term “flophouse.” Durning points out that modern Tokyo has “capsule hotels” with sleeping capsules often only large enough to accommodate a mattress. “Yet they each offer air conditioning, a radio, and mini-TV, a reading light, and a privacy screen. Guests share bathrooms, showers, and a lounge, restaurant and bar,” he reports.

That setup would not fly in American cities, Durning explains: “In the Northwest, such twenty-first-century flophouses would be illegal on any number of grounds. The ‘rooms’ are much too small: habitable rooms may not be smaller than seven by seven feet in Seattle, for example; sleeping rooms must be bigger still. And Seattle has one of the more permissive housing codes in Cascadia. The hotels do not provide off-street parking for each room, and some do not have enough bathrooms to satisfy Northwest codes, which typically require one bathroom per eight units. The ‘rooms’ themselves – the capsules – are code enforcers’ nightmares.”

A temporary, low-cost housing approach could help given some of the details of the current situation. An annual survey from the group Continuum of Care tells us a few relevant numbers. One, the recent trend in homelessness has been a gradual rise – from 549,928 in 2016 to over 582,000 in last year’s count. Two, the problem has been worse before, in this century. In 2007, the number of counted homeless in America stood at 647,258. It proceeded to fall by about 97,000 people over the next decade before the rise started again.

The fact that homelessness was greatest just before the great housing bust and then began climbing again at roughly the same time real estate prices started soaring again lends credence to one theory of homelessness: that it is caused by a shortage of affordable housing. There are, roughly, four recognized major causes of people not having what it takes to keep a roof over their heads. These are substance abuse, mental-health issues, reentry problems for military veterans and hard luck cases.

Low-cost modest lodging could be of particular help for the latter category. About 11.6 percent of Americans, or 37.9 million Americans, live in what is designated as “poverty” in 2021, according to the U.S. Census. Only a small fraction of those were homeless and when you screen out drug abuse, mental health issues and troubled veterans, it’s a smaller fraction still.

The length of time that the hard-luck homeless spend in this category is likely influenced by both the availability of housing and how hot the current real estate market is. Boom times can eventually call forth more construction, but many city, state and national laws slow that down.

In the meantime, units that might have been available for rent get put up for sale instead. This decreases the number of rental units available and makes rents more expensive. When people who live paycheck-to-paycheck have to stretch like that, their finances become very brittle and can snap with only a little pressure.

At a time when rents are, in many municipalities, very expensive for low-income workers, many people are going to fall off the bottom rung and onto the streets. It would be good if there were inexpensive, modest rooms for them to check into instead.

Jeremy Lott is a journalist based in Washington state.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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