Design a site like this with
Get started

A History of Boarding Houses: Ideal Forms of Affordable Housing

Tacoma Boarding House in 1890

In this article I will be exploring the history of boarding houses, rooming houses, lodging houses, guest houses, “pensions”, residential hotels, SROs, co-op living establishments, intentional communities, and similar establishments, in the United States primarily but also in Europe.

While such establishments are often seen as a relic of the past, one of the primary reasons for the writing of this article is that I believe these types of housing still have considerable value today, as they offer some of the most affordable of all affordable housing. For this reason I will argue that they should not be subject to the marginalization or overt exclusion from many neighborhoods, which is too often their plight today. This is something being argued by many others, such as Alan Durning in this article:   See other articles making this point below.  As Durning points out, we have essentially “outlawed” the bottom end of the housing options.  We’ve banned private-sector affordable housing.  And how did this come about?  I will go into more detail below, but essentially, the loss of these very affordable accomodations came as a result of “well meaning” people who were appalled by some of the conditions they saw in boarding homes, as well as “greedy” people or “NIMBYs” who didnt’ want to live next to the poor.  

A summary of books and articles I used to write this article can be found at the end, under “References.”

The Beginning of the Boarding House

Immigrants in East Coast Boarding house

The boarding house came into prominence in the United States in the 1830’s to 1840’s. (The Physiology of New York Boarding Houses, pg xi) They actually came into being in a response to conditions much like those we find today in many urban centers on the East and West coast: that of rising real estate prices and housing shortages.
“Boarding out” was a phenomenon that became very common, in a way, “as American as apple pie.” In 1842, the poet Walt Whitman referred to Americans as “a boarding people.” New York city was the “capital” of boarding houses at that time, and Whitman noted that fully 75% of Manhattan’s adult population either had lived or were currently living in boardinghouses. In Boston in the 1830’s, between 33% to 50% of the city’s entire population lived in boarding houses.  In San Francisco 100 years ago, five-sixths of hotel dwellers were either working class or poor, and a passable room might cost 35 cents a night ($8 in today’s currency).

 As indicated in a Wikipedia article on this subject, between 30% to 50% of urban dwellers in the 19th century, lived in or ran boarding homes. Several of my own ancestors, immigrants from Europe in the late 19th or early 20th century, lived in boarding houses either in New York City or other urban centers in the East.

There were boarding houses in Europe and other continents as well, but it was in America where this phenomenon was most prominent. The proprietors of boarding houses tended to mostly be women, often widows struggling to make a living without a husband to bring in income. In this era, given the few options for women to earn an income in the marketplace, running a boarding house became a common choice. As Wendy Gamber says in her book The BoardingHouse in Nineteenth Century America, “Boarding house keeping was women’s work: landladies, not their spouses, typically met boarders, collected rents, and presided over dining tables.” (pg 13)

As Whitman indicated, “boarding out” was very common and not just a choice of lower income individuals. Many prominent Americans lived in boarding houses, including: Charles Brockden Brown, William Cullen Bryant, Walt Whitman himself, Edgar Allen Poe, Harriet Jacobs, Herman Melville, George Lippard, Phyllis Wheatley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Emily Dickinson.

The Jane Long Boarding Houses in Texas saw some well known guests.   Jane was called “The Mother of Texas.” Among her guests were Sam Houston and William Travis.  

The fascinating culture of boarding houses was well illustrated in Thomas Butler Gunn’s book, The Physiology of Boarding Houses, wherein he sought to develop a “typology” of such homes. These included:

  •  The Cheap Boarding House on a Large Scale
  •  The Fashionable Boarding House
  • The “Hand to Mouth” Boarding House
  •  The “Serious” Boarding House
  •  The “Theatrical” Boarding House
  •  The “Spiritualism” Boarding House
  •  The “Mean” Boarding House
  •  The Vegetarian Boarding House
  •  The Medical Students Boarding House
  • The  “Pension Francaise”
  •  The German Gasthouse
  •  The Chinese Boarding House
  • The Sailors Boarding House

And more! As Wendy Gamber states , “There was a boarding house for everyone — Swedenborgians, tailors, amateur musicians, “respectable colored people”, southerners, teetotalers, and disciples of the food reformer Sylvester Graham. 

The term “boarding house” tended to refer to a residence where, in addition to renting a room, the tenants would all be given regular meals in a common dining area, something included with the rent. Thus this was “room and board.” The houses where renters were not given meals, were instead termed “rooming houses” or “lodging houses.”
Boarding houses were not just places for those wishing longer stays, but were also used by families on vacation, as boarding was an inexpensive alternative to hotels. So for such vacationers, boarding houses could be seen as the early form of “Airbnb renting.” Or, to look at that in another way, Airbnb renting, short term stays in private homes, and all sorts of contemporary bed and breakfast accomodations for guests, are the modern version of an older tradition stretching back in US history for at least two hundred years…and further if we go to Europe and the history of Pensions and Guest houses for travelers.


European Pension
El Paso Boarding House
Christian Boarding Home in Westcliff-on-Sea, England
Boarding house in Braamfontein, South Africa
Boarding house in Helensburgh, Australia

Boarding houses were a powerful cultural force from their origin in the early 19th century, through to the mid 20th century when they tended to fade away due to more zoning regulations that marginalized them. They allowed many people to move to large cities, who otherwise would not have found housing there. Social mixing was promoted, an early form of “diversity” promotion and “multiculturalism.”

Boarding houses were both private family homes opened up to additional lodgers, or buildings set up only for the boarders and the proprietor to live in. Gamber writes (pg 16) that some of those who ran boarding homes considered them “private homes” with lodgers. For instance, regarding one Susan Brown, a boarder of Mrs R.H. Haskell who ran such a house in Boston, “Although 25 to 30 boarders crossed her threshhold each year and she housed 7 to 10 of them at any one time, in Browns’ view she very likely offered accomodations ‘in a private family’. Middle class establishments that housed boarders were private families, working class ones were boardinghouses. ” Thus the respectable establishments could be distinguished from disreputable ones.

Boarding houses were not entirely oriented to young people, though most of the lodgers were young. Gamber writes a story of one woman named Catherine Thorn, who at age 78, after the death of her husband, moved into a boarding house. (pg 17) There she lived until her death at age 89.

Stories of Boarding Houses

This article explores the story of a boarding house in Tacoma, WA in 1890:

Tacoma Boarding House in 1890

History of Rooming houses in Toronto:
History of Rooming Houses in Toronto

Here’s a short article about an old boarding house now used as a family home:

Some boarding houses were rural ones used primarily for workers, such as mine workers. This is the case with the one pictured below, which was in the mountains of Nevada, used by the Sutro Tunnel, connected to the Comstock Lode, where gold and silver were mined. 

The Sarah Jordan boarding house in New Jersey:

The story of a Temperance Boarding House in Colorado is here:

Sunset of Boarding Houses

Urban reform which began in the 1880’s began to critique and marginalize boarding houses. There was a push for uniformity in neighborhoods, which contained an outward bias against single people and a bias towards the nuclear family, a bias built right into the term, “single family home”, which continues to this day all over the US.
As homes became less expensive to buy in the mid 20th century, there was a decline in boarding and lodging houses, and cities ignored them or eventually passed laws banning them from “single family home” districts.

The Moral Turpitude of the Boarder or Lodger

Not only did boarding houses fall out of fashion, but there was a whole movement which conceived this form of housing, and its residents, as of questionable moral character. The fact that this conception of the moral turpitude of the boarder was an invention of the 19th century or Victorian mindset, seems of little concern to those who would otherwise dismiss antiquated or “Victorian” attitudes about contemporary issues.
As Wendy Gamber states in her book “boarding…would become the bete noire of mid 19th century moralists”. (pg 9) The boarding houses violated bourgeois norms in that they encouraged social equalizing and played a role as crucibles of diversity. (pg 31). They demonstrated how a community of ostensible “strangers” or unrelated adults, could in fact make a “home.”

A book written in 1905 well captured this condescending view upon the boarding house.  
The Lodging House Problem in Boston was written by Albert Benedict Wolfe. He set out to view boarding houses and rooming houses indeed as a “problem”, not a cultural phenomenon.  He thought that lodging houses constituted a “grave and far reaching social problem”.  (pg 6), and describes them as universally unclean.  He claims that whole districts were changed from private residences to lodging houses, and that the women who ran these establishments, only did so because of personal “misfortune” (pg 54).  He claims that “the lodging house district is a sort of sink into which are drained all the homeless vagabonds…”  (pg 137).  Given the contemporary phenomenon of these same homeless vagabonds living on tents in sidewalks or under freeways or in a vehicle in front of some random person’s home, one has to ask if Wolfe could grasp that it might be better to have a “lodging house district”, than to have those same people living in a garbage pile of tents and debris. 

In addition to the alleged “moral turpitude” of the boarder, I think in this point in time we have another collective and similarly too often prejudicial idea of moral turpitude.  One can glean what this is from reading various discussions on housing in neighborhood e-lists.  
In her article Boardinghouses: Where the city was born, Ruth Graham points out that “boardinghouses seemed an affront to convention because landladies made money by performing domestic tasks that women were ‘supposed to’ perform for love.”  Likewise, renters may now be “affronted” by another phenomenon:  people able to run a business and make money from something that they need.  It’s become nearly automatic to many to make statements jettisoning the morals of those who offer housing to others, The phrase “greedy landlord” is bantered about quite a lot and really the implication is, that every landlord is greedy, there’s hardly a one who is not contemptible.  

Contemporary Obstacles to the Boarding or Rooming House

As mentioned early on in this article, the boarding house actually came into being as a response to a housing crisis in a wholly different era. Two hundred years later, we have the same type of housing crisis. I would therefore submit that the boarding, rooming or lodging house, by whatever term one wishes to call it, has as much to offer now as it did two hundred years ago, and that cities should be open to questioning their zoning and other regulations which have sidelined this form of housing.

Here are some examples of the problems that would attend anyone who wanted to set up a boarding, rooming or lodging house at this time in history:

  • In many cities and neighborhoods, it is prohibited to have more than a certain number of unrelated adults living in the same home.
  • In many cities, “rooming houses” or “boarding houses” are prohibited, or require a conditional use permit to set up. Such a permit might cost $7500 a year or more. 
  • Some cities, such as those most ardently seeking to expand rent control, have argued or set up questionable laws, stating that whereas Single Family Homes are exempt from rent control, rooming houses are not exempt from rent and eviction controls.

In fact, there has been a quite dramatic decline in the number of boarding or rooming house, as well as “SROs”, since the mid 20th century.  As stated in this article, in 20 years from 1965 to 1985, Massachusetts lost 96% of all its rooming house units. Boston in its turn lost 90% of its units, and went to 2000 rooming house units at present, from 20,000 in the 1960’s.  This has led to a huge number of homeless people: as the article states, “What private owners are stopped from doing cheaply, the government is allowed to do at exorbitant cost.” 
As well, during this era, those with serious mental illnesses were de-institutionalized, and they tended to live in rooming houses, which eventually came to be termed SROs, for “single room occupancy.”  The increase in this type of roomer in these properties, led to increased concern about these establishments.  Ironically, as I think about this, it seems to me that wherever we try to house those with serious mental illness, we have had problems.  There were problems when they were institutionalized, there were problems when they were in rooming homes, problems now that they are living in tents on sidewalks, and problems when they are living in our libraries, on our subways or in our prisons, which have become “de facto psychiatric wards”.  
In the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, four rooming houses owned by one woman, Willa Mae Brothers, were shut down by the city, who the government did not allow to evict bad tenants.  The government then took control of her buildings and turned them into homeless shelters: again, the government turned around and did at higher cost what it prohibited a private party from doing at lower cost.  

As well, some of the issues I mention below about the changes in laws which remove more owner control from boarding and rooming houses (eg, setting them under rent control so that it becomes more difficult to evict roomers) can easily be seen to put into motion a viscious cycle. Reduced owner control means problem renters cannot be removed, which results in greater problems in the rooming house, and eventually into a disreputable home.  The disrepute that results from government -imposed lack of control, is then used as evidence by that same government, to legislate against boarding and rooming houses and further marginalize them or prohibit them entirely.  

Let’s look at some of these issues.
The following links show prohibitions on boarding houses in a variety of US cities:

San Diego prohibits rooming houses

Bellevue WI Conditional Use Permit required

San Marcos CA rooming house prohibited rent to 4 or fewer individuals only

Engelwood NJ No rooming house w/o license

NY Boarding house threatened

The assertion that rooming houses do not belong in “single family home” neighborhoods is in my view a vestige of the antiquated morality of the Victorian mindset and should be questioned. Particularly in this era, when we have an increasing number of people defining “family” in new ways — either as unmarried individuals living together, or as tenants-in-common purchasing a building cooperatively, or as intentional communities of adults, or in any other way that an individual seeks to live — I see no rationale for privileging the nuclear family, which is what zoning on single family homes currently does.
Moreover, as I write about on my previous article about how the expansion of rent control does not facilitate the development of more housing, cities need to come to terms with the fact that force and violence inflicted by governments on property owners, will not succeed in producing more housing. Forcing rent control on more and more property owners, coming up with larger fines, or higher mitigation fees or affordable housing offset fees, is not the way to go. Rather than keeping building costs high and then trying to force developers or property owners to rent at rates that would not allow them a reasonable income, use common sense: lower building and permit costs, and focus on how to provide the kinds of rentals that offer the lowest rents.
One of the best ways to produce affordable housing involves common sense: allow more housing of the type that is most affordable. This means, among other things, changing zoning laws to allow more rooming houses, boarding houses and potentially more “SROs” of the type that used to be a wonderful refuge for those individuals who had the least means.

boarding house in Monroe Iowa

Legally Questionable Attempts to put Rooming Houses Under Rent Control

In Berkeley and Oakland, some of the worst of the misguided liberal West Coast governments attempts to help renters by expanding rent control, figures into the rooming house issue.

It should be obvious to anyone who thinks about this issue in any but the most superficial manner, that any type of community of residents living under one roof, in a “single family home”, would be destroyed if it became impossible to remove a problematic renter from the premises. This was evident to 19th century widows and female proprietors, such as Mrs Haskell in Boston, who “quite likely evicted” a boarder named James Haining, “for maintaining the respectability of one’s establishment was an essential part of boarding house keeping.” (pg 16, Gamber)

Yet within the last few years in Berkeley and Oakland, rent boards in both these cities, eager to expand their power and control, have made the legally questionable assertion that rooming houses are subject to rent control and thus as well to eviction control. And placing a property under eviction controls, in essence means it becomes nearly impossible to evict a renter for any reason but nonpayment of rent….if even in that case. 

In Berkeley, in 2011, the Berkeley Rent Board began to assert that it had a communication with John Burton during the development of the Costa-Hawkins Housing Act, wherein Burton told them that when Costa-Hawkins exempted single family homes from rent control, there certainly was no intention to exempt single family homes used as rooming houses from rent control. 

Berkeley law on Rooming houses

Thus the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, on this assertion of a privileged communication with a senator who was not one of those drafting the law, passed law 403.5, claiming that rooming houses were not exempt from rent control

This is highly legally questionable on a number of levels. First, Senator John Burton was not one of the key drafters of this legislation.  Secondly, the Rent board has produced and likely will not be able to produce any evidence of this alleged communicaiton with John Burton.  Third, the definition of “rooming house” is not standard throughout the US or even within California.  The number of rooms that would be required to be rented in order to call a property a “rooming house” varies, from 2 rooms in Newport Beach, to 5 rooms in Berkeley, and Palmdale.   This 2012 letter to Los Angeles legislators regarding the boarding house issue in that area shows
that definitions varied quite a bit even within one county, from 2 rooms rented to 5 or more, to constitute a rooming house.  Thus any state law attempting as great a task as clarification of properties exempt from rent control, would certainly have to get more specific than to have some alleged discussion of rooming houses behind the scenes, by minor players in the drafting of the legislation, and using terminology not defined in the same way across the state.  
Los Angeles Discussion of Boarding Houses

Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program also has recently sought to expand rent control to “rooming houses”, also through legally questionable means.   In the case Owens vs City of Oakland , the Rent Adjustment Program asserted that since Jon Owens rented out 3 bedrooms in his home, where he lived in a 4th bedroom, he was not exempt from rent control.  This in spite of the fact that Costa-Hawkins law clearly exempts single family homes, of which Owen’s home was one, from rent control, and also in spite of the fact that (as far as I am aware) in Oakland a rooming house is not defined as one in which 3 bedrooms are rented out, but rather one in which 4 or more are rented out.  Documents in the Owens case: 
Owens vs City of Oakland Petition for Writ of Mandamus
Owens vs City of Oakland Motion for Judgment on Writ of Mandamus

Owens vs City of Oakland Respondent Opposition to Motion

Owens vs City of Oakland Respondent Request for Judicial Notice

Owens vs City of Oakland Denial of Writ of Mandate

In this case, the judge oddly concurred with the Rent Adjustment Program and against Owens, who is now appealing this bad decision in a higher court.  

Do Modern Progressives Prefer Soviet-Era Brutalist Public Housing…..

….rather than allowing small property owners to have more roommates and build backyard units? 

Given the illogical support for rent control among progressives — it is difficult to find a single economist anywhere who believes that rent control can provide more affordable housing, or even, that rent control is on the whole beneficial — as well as the eagerness among city governments and rent boards to capture more prisoners under rent control laws…one has to wonder about their ultimate goals.  
It sometimes seems, an observer of this situation lately pointed out to me, that progressives cannot tolerate that small owners, people with faces and lives like you and I, would be able to make any profit from other’s needs for housing.  Scratch that, they would prefer to see much, much more government owned public housing…perhaps like the well known concrete block towers in Russia..the whole city blocks of concrete block.

A new residential district in the southwestern section of Moscow, shown July 9, 1971. (AP Photo/Novosti)

This way, perhaps they reason, those profiting from others’ needs would not be people like you and I who could potentially derive comfort from running a business.  Instead, the profiteers would be miserable petty bureacrats, people who the progressives are content to see, already live miserable lives.  So the tenants, unhappy about what they perceive they cannot have, could at least be content that more people are as miserable as they are.  
I have theorized, when seeing yet another ballot measure pass which seems to have little point other than punishing small property owners and making their lives more difficult, that unhappy tenants realize that expanding rent control will do no good.  And that they may be dimly aware that they will not succeed in being able to punish others into creating vastly more affordable housing.  However, I wonder if , given the opportunity to make small property owners miserable, they will be happy to take that as a consolation prize.  

“Misery Loves Company” 
If I can’t get what you have, I will try to destroy what you have and uglify the world to boot.  

These theories are shared by others — in the article about the loss of rooming houses resulting in an increase in homelessness, the Small Property owners association author concludes by saying: “Are we right that housing laws and public policies are being constructed and lobbied for by legal aid lawyers and salaried advocates for the poor with the goal of putting private housing providers out of business so that the tax-funded developers of subsidized housing can take over?”   


The plight of the “rooming house”  as it stands today, is well expressed in this article, which asserts that the outlawing of rooming houses has led to an increase in homelessness:
Hence, there are many who are calling for a return to the very affordable living that is made possible with boarding houses, rooming houses and similar establishments.  For instance, in this article by Emily Badger from 2013:

(This article is still under construction and will be added to over the next few weeks….) 
This Texas boarding house in the photo to the left, was built in 1887.  

It now is run as a guest house and is listed on Homeaway, which is a nice instance of a continuation of a long tradition.

The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth Century America by Wendy Gamber published in 2007
The Lodging House Problem in Boston, by Albert Benedict Wolfe published 1905
Boarding Out: Inhabiting the American Urban Literary Imagination, by David Faflik published in 2012
The Secret World of the Victorian Lodging House, by Joseph O’Neill published in 2014
State Tenement House Act and State Hotel and Lodging House Act of California published in 1917
The Physiology of New York Boarding Houses by Thomas Butler Gunn published in 1857
Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States published in 1994
Rooming Houses: History’s Affordable Quarters by Alan Durning published Nov 14 2012
History of Rooming Houses in Toronto  by Philippa Campsie, Sept 1994
Boardinghouses: Where the City was Born  by Ruth Graham Jan 13 2013
No. 1 Cause of Homelessness: Rooming Houses Outlawed by SPOA
Bring Back the Boarding House by Emily Badger 2013

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: