Instant Affordable Housing for All

A few years back, I stumbled on a book “Unlocking Home: 3 Keys to Affordable Communities” by Alan Durning. This book has really expanded my thinking about why so many cities struggle with reasonably priced housing. Basically, a lot of housing that used to be provided naturally by informal arrangements in the free market has been outlawed. 

The 3 keys Durning mentions in his book are 1) easing restrictions on number of roommates/housemates; 2) allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (garage apts, backyard cottages, etc) to be rented out by right; and 3) re-legalizing SRO’s/rooming houses.

In my city, Daytona Beach, we currently have a limit on the number of unrelated people who can live under one roof. Many cities have a limit of 4 people; our limit is just 2 people! Meanwhile, we have a housing crunch.

Even just doing 1) easing the occupancy limit, would go a long way to increase the supply of housing for students, senior citizens, and people who simply prefer to spend less money on rent and/or choose not to live alone.

If this idea makes sense to you as it does to me, here are some talking points that might help you enlist support from your local leaders, neighbors, NIMBY folks, etc.:

– Roommates/housemates offer many benefits besides the financial. They can alleviate social isolation (which has been dubbed the #1 public-health crisis); as well as allow sharing of tasks such as childcare.

– The Daytona Beach News-Journal has a front-page story in today’s paper, reporting an explosion of upscale apartments coming to the Daytona Beach area despite weak wage growth. Although construction of higher-end rental units has been found in many cities to free up lower-priced units for people who really need them, luxury housing cannot by itself ease the crunch on everyday-people housing. The article points out that, because of land costs, construction costs, impact fees, and regulations, it has become nearly impossible for developers to build new residential units for people of modest means. Easing the restriction on roommates/housemates is a free, instant way to help alleviate this crunch.

– The fact that we have groups of students renting houses in gated golf-course communities (yes!! we actually have that situation here!! Crazy huh?) is a sign that there are not enough appropriate housing options for students and other single people of modest means. Many of the traditional demographic of residents in these places are understandably upset about what they refer to as “dorm living,” and the noise and car-clutter it brings. But retaining excessively strict, citywide roommate limits is not the solution here. HOA’s have their own existing rules regarding car-clutter, noise, etc.; they should be able to use those rules to manage their communities. Another point: Gated golf-course communities and the like are not ideal places for students to live; it’s a bad fit for both the students and the traditional demographic of residents. The city could instead proactively market the apartments and other options that are available; maybe interface with the student-life office of each college to make students more aware of the more viable housing options for them. Maybe some of these students, were they to move to apartments located near major retail complexes as well as closer to their schools, would even be able to live car-free if they wanted.

– Families and their living arrangements are changing. Families are smaller, and more people are creating ad hoc adopted families, blended families etc. Biological family members don’t always live near each other, and many houses and apartments are too expensive for just one or two people to manage.

– It’s not just students and young people but also senior citizens who are seeking out group living arrangements. This is for social as well as economic reasons, and is a major national trend.

– Daytona Beach (like many other towns and cities across the USA) has lots of gorgeous old houses with 5, 6, or more bedrooms. It only makes sense to fully occupy them; the alternative is blight and decay, which then become the city’s expensive problem on many levels. 

– We need to try some tiny-house developments, such as the concept of 4 mini cottages on one lot, sharing one car. 

– Regarding students living in sheds and other inadequate shelter: We can’t just kick them out and shut down the landlords without offering them an alternative. If we want students to come to our excellent colleges, and ideally remain after they graduate, we have to provide a well-rounded housing menu including plenty of options that are friendly to students and other people of modest means. 

– We could work with landlords to help them turn unfinished sheds into proper cottages. It not only makes practical sense, but also is the compassionate thing to do.

– Also, artists and other creatives who are typically considered desirable to a city’s economy and social fabric depend on low-priced housing options. In fact, many creative types prefer slightly rustic, less fancy housing as a matter of taste. 

– We need to get to the real root of “roommate elitism” by pointing out that a lot of it is rooted in old restrictions targeting minorities, single women (who historically were suspected of prostitution), etc. 

– In my neighborhood, a family was able to find a house they could all share. There are 10 people including grandparents, daughter, grandkids, great-grandkids. They had previously been in 3 separate apartments paying a total of $3,000 in rent. Now they are all living in one beautiful old house they love, paying $1100 and there is always someone to watch the kids. They share 2 bathrooms and 4 bedrooms. This is a desirable situation and there is no reason why unrelated roommates should not be able to do the same. Excess cars are curbed by parking limitations, 2 parking passes per household.

– If we went through the city right now and rooted out every house or apartment with more than 2 unrelated people living in it, we would theoretically have to evict a large percentage of people; some folks might be surprised how pervasive the situation is! 

– On a personal note … For some years here in Daytona Beach, I was hanging by a thread economically. Roommates have been a key part of what has allowed me to stay here, be a contributing citizen, and, over time, piece together enough paying work to sustain the civic and environmental activism that is my main occupation.

– Expanding max number of occupants is possibly the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to ease the crunch on modest-priced housing. 

The Unlocking Home book is very helpful; I hope you get a chance to read it. Also check out another of my top resources on this topic of freeing up the affordable urban housing marketplace, — search for articles about “missing middle” housing, ADUs, duplexes/triplexes. 

I think that’s it. If I think of any more ideas I will write them out for you. I thank my city leaders for caring about this issue and setting out to formulate a workable rule!