The old 'flop house' emerges as solution to affordable housing crisis

Bob Bono stands on the front step of a rooming house.
Alliance Housing Inc. property manager Bob Bono stands on the front step of a rooming house owned by the company in Minneapolis on April 17.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Communal housing, long-rejected as urban blight, is gaining traction as a way to address acute shortages of affordable housing in Minnesota and across the country.

Historians say there was a time when about a third or more of people in American cities lived in boarding homes. They had private rooms but shared baths and a kitchen. Boarding homes, also called rooming or lodging houses, were largely wiped out in urban renewal campaigns after the World War II.

One still remains at 2011 Pillsbury Ave. S. in Minneapolis, where 25 single men and two women live together in what was once a single-family mansion. Now, the big tan stucco house is owned and managed by Alliance Housing, a nonprofit whose mission is providing housing for homeless, poor and other marginalized people.

Residents here have their own bedrooms. They share a laundry as well as a kitchen and bathrooms. Rents are typically about $350 a month.

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Second Street boardinghouse
Second Street Boarding House in Minneapolis in September 1939.
John Vachon | Courtesy of the Library of Congress file

To the newcomer, the chopped-up mansion might seem quite a bit less regal now than when it was built more than a century ago. Don't tell that to the residents.

"Man, this is a $1 million mansion to me," said Gregory Maurice Mure, 56. He was homeless before he was able to move in a decade ago. He loves the place for the peace, safety and stability it provides.

"I'm not the living at the Ritz," he said. "But this is my home. It's very important. It's like my stronghold. I sure do appreciate it. I'll never let it go."

Tenant Craig Spivey, 56, said the boarding house provides decent housing for people who can't afford an apartment on their own.

Craig Spivey stands in his studio apartment inside of a rooming house
Craig Spivey stands in his studio apartment inside of a 27-unit rooming house. "It's a place for working guys that ain't got nobody," Spivey said of the rooming house.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"It's just for us, guys — minimum wage, physical labor guys," Spivey said. "This is the ideal place for us. This is a rooming house, man. And we ought to have more of them."

Some housing policy wonks couldn't agree more — Anne Mavity, for one. She heads the Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that advocates for more affordable housing.

"Single-room occupancy, that model we get. Right. That it is healthy for folks to live in community, healthy for them to live together and a great way to reduce the housing costs that folks are paying," Mavity said.

But communal homes face zoning and other restrictions, including caps on the number of unrelated people who can live together. Alliance has tried unsuccessfully to get Minneapolis to lift a 1980s prohibition on new licenses for rooming and boarding houses. The city decided they contributed to blight and undermined neighborhoods with single- and two-family homes.

It's time to rethink those policies, said Bob Bono, property manager for Alliance Housing.

"Rooming houses, if run properly, can be a big part of the solution to the housing crisis and the affordable housing crisis," he said.

Alliance spent about $55,500 per unit to acquire and rehab the rooming house. That's merely a fifth or so of the typical cost of building an apartment in a low-income housing development. Catholic Charities built about 200 single rooms with shared kitchens and bathrooms in its Higher Ground housing project in downtown St. Paul. Each of those units cost about $128,000. CEO Tim Marx said the bedrooms are small, like a college dorm room.

"We emphasize the common space, the various amenities which other people could utilize," he said.

Catholic Charities also has 74 single-room-occupancy units in Minneapolis.

From the 1820s to the 1900s, it was common for unrelated people to live together, said Wendy Gamber, chair of the history department at Indiana University Bloomington, who has written a history of the boarding house, "The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America".

"Some historians have estimated that between a third and a half of all urban residents, either took in boarders or were boarders themselves," she said.

In Minneapolis, for instance, in the 1920s, the Woman's Christian Association of Minneapolis housed more than 1,000 female boarders in a dozen residences.

A boarding house in Minneapolis in September 1939.
John Vachon | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Gamber said rooming and boarding houses varied quite a bit in price, quality and clientele.

They faded in popularity and acquired an unsavory reputation, as apartment homes became more common.

By the 1950s, rooming houses were widely seen as "flop houses" where the poorest people lived. Gamber said their destruction in the '70s and '80s contributed to an explosion of homelessness.

But now shared housing is emerging as a viable option even for middle-income residents in markets with soaring rents.

Alliance Housing Inc. property manager Bob Bono stands for a portrait.
Alliance Housing Inc. property manager Bob Bono stands for a portrait on the front step of a rooming house owned by the company in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Housing expert Matt Murphy, executive director of New York University's Furman Center, which fosters research and debate on housing, said cities are starting to recognize that restrictions on communal living are out of step with the desire of many single people these days to shave their rent by sharing their space.

Policymakers are reimagining communal housing, he said, envisioning well-designed and well-managed buildings where people have their own rooms but share other spaces.

"You not only are getting more people you're also getting more rent into a building. And what this does in turn is basically limit the amount of public subsidy that needs to go in in order to make it into affordable housing."