Thursday, November 13, 2008

America’s Invisible Homes

I haven't been posting much because of school, but I recently wrote a book review for school, and was very impressed with the book because it tackles an important subject and has a Sacramento connection. Living Downtown addresses the history of residential hotels, destroys many myths about them, and presents a strong case that not only do we have to save the few such residences that are left, we will need a lot more.

One of the main criticisms of "new urbanism" and "smart growth" plans is that they are generally very expensive. At first glance, the core ideas of new urbanism (building dense, transit/pedestrian oriented neighborhoods) don't seem to rule out low-income residents, until one actually compares the types of housing people used in pre-automobile American cities to the kinds of housing in most "new urbanist" developments.

Even when such housing is referred to as dense infill, the housing units themselves are generally far larger than the spaces urban working people occupied during the era of residential hotel use. New urbanist units tend to be small compared to contemporary suburban McMansions, but even the 600-800 sf "loft" apartments (the small end in most developments) is pretty huge compared to an SRO residence. If an objective of new urbanism (especially in the Andres Duany "traditional neighborhood development" sense) is to recreate historic housing forms, how can working people be housed without the traditional housing mode used by working people in cities?

While most of the book focuses on San Francisco, there is a Sacramento connection: a reference to a 2000-unit replacement housing project planned to house the thousands of migrant workers and single men living in Sacramento's old West End, currently the site of Old Sacramento, Interstate 5, and other bulldozed properties. It was unusual in that it was one of the only projects even proposed that suggested building replacement housing for SRO residents, instead of simply pretending that they would vanish. However well intentioned, though, the replacement housing project was never built.

So here's the review:

Groth, Paul. Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. ISBN 0-520-06876-9. xxii+401

In Living Downtown, Paul Groth argues that the residential hotel, associated by many with squalor and decay, was once the housing choice of millions of Americans of all social classes. American reformers allowed these buildings to be destroyed without replacement, at a profound social cost. Groth also argues that living downtown promoted a distinctly public, urbane lifestyle that ran contrary to reformers’ preferences for suburban family living. The book is national in scope, but most of the research is focused on the city of San Francisco, a city that he considers a prominent example of residential hotel life, and the problems of the anti-hotel era.

Groth opens the book with a quote from Goethe: “There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” Central to his approach is the idea that the reality of residential hotels was very different from the perception of these buildings, and their residents, in the minds of urban reformers. Because these buildings defied an evolving American suburban ideal, reformers actively ignored the realities of residential hotel life. They did not include hotels in surveys or studies, and did not plan for their replacement when planning public housing projects in conjunction with slum clearance. They did not address the housing requirements or social needs of the people who lived in these buildings. The result of the difference between the reality of hotel housing and reformers’ narrow vision has proven catastrophic, resulting in a nationwide housing crisis and widespread homelessness.

Groth separates residential hotel life into four classes, including the elegant and expensive palace hotels, comfortable mid-priced hotels for the middle class, inexpensive working-class rooming houses, and the cheap flophouses of the urban poor. All shared many attributes. They were centrally located, allowing convenient access to urban workplaces. They were inexpensive compared to other housing of the same class, providing social opportunities for the nouveau riche, and an alternative to sleeping in an alley for the poorest. Their relative lack of home amenities meant that hotel residents’ homes extended into the streets of the city: their kitchens were nearby restaurants, their washroom was a nearby laundry, their parlor was the hotel lobby, a nearby bar or billiard hall, or even the streetcorner. Hotels’ typical pattern of using their ground floor for commercial spaces was economically beneficial to the hotel owner and convenient for the residents. This use of public space helped a uniquely urbane mode of life flourish in American cities. Because hotel residences were closely spaced within the central city, people of many social classes lived in close proximity. However, this mode of planning was anathema to city planners and reformers who sought to separate home life from the workplace and the marketplace.

Reformers of the Progressive Era were the initial advocates of hotel regulation, as part of their overall efforts to mitigate the problems of urban life. Groth states that many of the initial attempts to regulate residential hotels improved hotel life, like regulations mandating ventilation, minimum square footage, ratios of toilets to rooms, and other health and safety rules. However, for many Progressives, the density, proximity and adjacency of hotel life were problems as serious as sanitation. City planners used new tools like zoning to prohibit new residential hotels and boarding houses in the central city, but also prohibited their construction in new suburbs. The model for Progressive residential districts was based around family life, with lawns, open space and detached dwellings. Land uses dictated by zoning were reinforced by federal agencies, including the Federal Housing Administration, who encouraged new suburban construction and excluded central city residential construction, specifically hotels.

Groth keeps his focus on deliberate ignorance in his discussion of the redevelopment era in American cities. Backed by earlier Progressive ideas about slum clearance and zoning, business interests in central cities wanted valuable downtown lots for expansion of the business district and new freeways to carry suburban residents to downtown businesses. Hotels were not counted as residential units, and thus did not require replacement before demolition, and their residents were not eligible for relocation assistance or public housing. Federal policies for public housing counted only families, not individuals, and thus completely ignored the massive population of hotel dwellers displaced by urban renewal. This population crowded into the remaining existing SRO housing stock, or became homeless due to the lack of other options.

Groth paints a grim picture of present-day residential hotel life. Problems with the handful of remaining stock of buildings include long-deferred maintenance, crime, an influx of mentally ill and disabled after the closure of state mental hospitals, and hotel owners unwilling or unable to maintain their building. Groth lays the blame for the poor state of surviving hotels on the failure of public policy to recognize the value of these buildings, and the willful ignorance of reformers, planners and social workers that allowed their destruction. He concludes with a call to action, describing the beginnings of the pro-SRO movement, and the current state of public policy. Living Downtown sheds light on a little-explored aspect of urban history, and the author’s approach suggests that study of the history of residential hotels can inform contemporary public policy.