Housing Complex

D.C. Needs Apodments!

Found on R Street off 14th Street. Good luck, you poor schmuck.

Dan Reed at Just Up the Pike had a good piece the other day on the need for housing that's affordable to 20-somethings just starting their career—a constituency that's currently paying a huge percentage of what they earn to live someplace cool, or just going elsewhere. He brought to my attention a form of housing that seems like such a good idea I can't believe it hasn't showed up in D.C. already: Apodments, or one-room units that can be rented for much less than the more fully equipped apartments going up all over town.

The old version of this kind of housing is rooming houses—longer-term hotels that house transients and poor people. There are still a lot of them in some cities, most notably San Francisco. In D.C., single-room occupancy buildings are generally set up for formerly homeless people, like the new facility that will replace La Casa Shelter in Columbia Heights.

But small, cheap apartments needn't be flophouses or a better version of homeless shelters. Rather, think of them simply as micro-studios, with the same kind of lease as a regular apartment. Just look at the Videre in Seattle, where 46 units averaging 130 square feet go for between $495 and $650 per month, including access to communal kitchens. They're leasing so well that the landlord has since raised the rent.

At the moment, young people headed to D.C. after college have the option of facing the terrifyingly subjective group house market via Craigslist, where only the most charming prevail, or paying through the nose to rent in a big apartment building, which are rapidly getting more expensive. (Anecdotal evidence: My friend paid $850 for an efficiency in the Woodner on 16th and Spring Street NW in 2009 and 2010. She left for a year, and when she came back, could only get a similar unit for $1,025.)

What if, instead, they could walk in and rent a small room for six months or a year until they earn enough money to get more space, if they wanted it? That could do a few things:

  • Take the pressure off rowhouses that would be better used by young families who might otherwise move to the suburbs.
  • Allow more people to live around metro stations and not need cars.
  • Prevent people from moving to Arlington in search of cheaper apartments.

It's especially important in D.C., where height limits prevent apartment buildings from responding to as much demand as there is in popular neighborhoods. That would do a lot to help out neighborhood retail and restaurants—not just because of the additional people, but because those people would have more money to spend on sandwiches, or whatever. It might allow some of those in this troublingly immature generation to move out of their parents' houses. Of course, this kind of housing needn't be limited to young people, either; it would be equally useful for adults who've lost their apartments and want to stay off the streets, without paying for a hotel or waiting in line for city assistance.

The city could make this happen. Right now, they're piloting a program that will pay people for living near where they work. Why not instead offer tax incentives for single-room occupancy buildings near Metro stations, or sell off city land with the requirement that it be used for this purpose? Places like Parcel 42 in Shaw, Hill East, and still-empty lots in NoMa would be ideal locations. At a time when it's more difficult to make housing affordable through subsidies, apartments can at least be made affordable through size, and I guarantee they'd lease up immediately.

Unfortunately, apodments will probably run into resistance in some neighborhoods that don't even like rentals at all. If it does, it should be ignored—the need for affordable, flexible housing is too great.

  • Chris

    I think this is a great idea - sort of like a dorm for (almost) adults.

    But I don't know about your choice of proposed locations. Rents are already lower in places like Hill East, Noma and Shaw, which is the reason younguns are moving there in the first place. The type of people that end up in more affordable areas like Hill East and Brookland tend to be those willing to sacrifice some coolness for a larger house and a yard (usually, not single people). I live near RFK and love my house, but I would never have chosen this neighborhood if I was looking for a tiny apartment.

    Capitol Hill and Dupont would be great locations for this type of thing, but why would anyone provide affordable housing for the twenty-somethings in these neighborhoods when they're already willing to pay out the nose for a "cool" address?

  • TM

    "Take the pressure off rowhouses that would be better used by young families who might otherwise move to the suburbs."

    But Lydia, "can't people live in smaller places with children"?

    But seriously, I think the reintroduction of guest houses could work, but I wonder how wide the appeal would be. I guess if the price and location is right, then a demand would be there.

    Interesting fact! Many scenes in the Day the Earth Stood Still take place in a guest house at 1412 Harvard St. in Columbia Heights.

  • http://blog.inshaw.com Marie

    When the city bothers to try to make affordable housing it isn't college educated 20something that fill them. It the 20 to too-young-for-senior-housing native DC-MD set who have been looking for housing longer than the just off the plane midwesterner that gets those spots.
    When developers build multifamily unit housing, they know as Chris writes, that there are lots of 20somethings willing to pay out the nose for a cool address.
    Anyway good luck with trying to have what is a boarding house (more unrelated people than a group house). Nothing gets residents riled up like boarding house or a half-way home. In the meantime encourage the english basements, group houses, and homeowners renting out their spare bedrooms.

  • oboe

    The old version of this kind of housing is rooming houses—longer-term hotels that house transients and poor people. There are still a lot of them in some cities, most notably San Francisco. In D.C., single-room occupancy buildings are generally set up for formerly homeless people, like the new facility that will replace La Casa Shelter in Columbia Heights.

    You've stumbled upon a truth here: entry-level and workforce housing is dry scarce in DC and the DC area because we spend a lot of money paying poor people to live here (with housing subsidies). There's an argument to be made subsidizing poor folks housing in the close-in areas is better for them, but the cost is paid by lower middle-class would-be residents

  • Lydia DePillis

    @TM

    Families can live in smaller spaces--like divided up rowhouses--but never teeny pods! Save your gotchas for when I really deserve them.

  • xmal

    @oboe: Interesting lens onto the situation.

  • Almah

    The cost is paid by "lower middle-class would-be residents"?
    Why the zero-sum game?

  • JM

    In many ways the lack of affordable housing is a myth. In reality there's a lack of affordable housing in <>. A 20-something can easily find an affordable apartment or house in Hyattsville, Mt Rainier, Riggs Park, or many other quiet, safe neighborhoods in NE or SE. I'm skeptical that DC needs to change land use policy in order to accommodate the desire of college grads to live cheap in the most desirable parts of the city.

  • JM

    Damn special characters...

    In many ways the lack of affordable housing is a myth. In reality there's a lack of affordable housing in *the most popular parts of the city loaded with restaurants and bars*. A 20-something can easily find an affordable apartment or house in Hyattsville, Mt Rainier, Riggs Park, or many other quiet, safe neighborhoods in NE or SE. I'm skeptical that DC needs to change land use policy in order to accommodate the desire of college grads to live cheap in the most desirable parts of the city.

  • TM

    @Lydia

    Well it was more of a joke than a gotcha, but I wasn't saying that families should be in the tiny apartments, more I was pointing out that you criticized Kent for saying that in order for families to have place to live in the city, rowhouses shouldn't be broken up. You appear to now agree with Ken here.

    (Or is it that you're saying that rowhomes should still be broken up, but that by providing the pods to young singles, more of the apartments in broken-up row homes will be available to families?)

    Marie hit it on the nose. The more practical answer is to liberalize interior accessory dwelling units (i.e. basement/English/garden apartments). They already exist all across the city, but in many places the current zoning code makes to too difficult to do it legally (so most simply do it illegally). The new zoning rewrite will hopefully liberalize this practice.

  • mj

    good pt JM

  • stupidquestion

    Why do we consider the height limit in DC set in stone again? This city is growing far too quickly to maintain the absurd height limit.

    Why not maintain the height limit in the business district/downtown. But the rest of the city should be able to exceed the height limit, which I assume is to maintain the beauty of the mall. There's no reason Adams Morgan/U Street/Dupont etc. need to be subject to the height restriction.

  • Dave B

    Part of me thinks young people might not go for these. As colleges build nicer dorms, kids arent having the college "slumming" experience. Throw in their sense of entitlement and why would they expect to downgrade once they leave college. Hence, the propensity to pay for expensive high rises (possibly with parents money). Having said that it would be a shame if DC was only attracting graduates with rich parents. That might noe be the rental markets fault though. It might be the fault of the politcal career path. Take useless, low paying intern job and pay high rent. Kids who worked themselves through college are more practical and probably arent drawn to that career path anyway

  • Dr

    "Prevent people from moving to Arlington in search of cheaper apartments." GASP!!! You mean people might have to move all the way to Arlington? My God....what have we done? The horror.... (can you taste the sarcasm?)

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    FWIW, I've written about this for years. One of the points I made is that you could design an "apartment building" to have multiple types of housing, with separate entrances, etc.

    You could set up the first 3 levels of a building to function like plexes, as apartments, or condominiums.

    You could make another floor or two of a building function like SRO.

    And the rest regular apartments or condos.

    No bank would finance it though.

  • RB

    As a youngish person in DC I'm amazed at some of my cohort's sense of entitlement when it comes to the city lifestyle in this expensive-ass town. What happened to "live like a student now, so you don't have to later"?

    I moved here from a much less expensive rust belt town at the same time as a lot of friends, who opted to blow their salaries to live in "happening" parts of DC. After paying out the nose for a few months I sublet my apartment, moved to a cheaper place in NE, missed out on a lot of $7 beers and got mugged once. Two years later, I'm a homeowner (in the same neighborhood, which ended up growing on me), and the people still living in the "cool" areas are consistently broke.

    If you want to find an affordable place to live in DC and don't want to move out to the burbs, you can take your chances on a marginal neighborhood. And it's the combination of affordable housing and urban proximity that draw in the kids and make a neighborhood turn "cool" in the first place.

  • Mrs. D

    This is a great, useful idea, and is something that I would have been interested in when I was first starting out here, if the place were habitable. Many of the group homes I looked at looked like broken-down flop houses, or had crazy people living in them (I seriously went to a VEGAN group home, that did not disclose this in their ad, among other stupid things when looking for a cheap room at first...note: disclose craziness, people...I'm sure there are plenty of people who are willing to live in a vegan home, but there are many more who aren't, and you shouldn't waste their time, or YOURS). The ONE "rooming house" I looked at was HORRIFYINGLY awful. But done nicely in a decent, convenient area...this woman bordering Gen-X/Millenial would have eaten that up for the first 2-3 years I lived in DC. It would have saved me a boatload of cash, I would have been totally comfortable (again, IF it were nice), and it provides a nice balance among the privacy of living alone, the affordability of living with roommates/in a group home, and the social options of having others in close proximity (without roommate tensions).

    In my mind, the ideal would be something like the apartment I recently rented in Hong Kong...a private bed and bath (tiny, with just a living area with an extended twin, closet, wall-mounted TV, shelf with a stool for eating and working on the computer, and a few storage shelves; and the bath with just a pedestal sink, toilet, and small shower...don't really need much more than that) with an en-suite kitchen sink, mini-fridge, and microwave. Add to that the nicety of a real, shared kitchen and a small common sitting area with a larger TV and table...I would have dug that! A nice enough place could even throw in housekeeping service for the common areas a few times a week, without breaking the bank (if 700 square feet will run you $2K a month, ~150 square feet plus a portion of a shared kitchen and housekeeping should be much cheaper to provide, especially considering that large apartment buildings are already providing housekeeping for the hallways in the rent). My dorm was actually like this in college (we had 20-ish single rooms off of a common kitchenette and sitting room, with mini-fridges and microwaves in each room, though we had a couple of shared baths, so the small, en-suite baths would add a little floor space). It was a great place to live, and all the people around my age seemed to agree, as there was a long waiting list for these dorms (you could move to the top of the waiting list by maintaining a high GPA...good for me :)). The entitled crowd can continue to pay through the nose for crappy, private apartments, but I'd wager there'd be good demand for places like this proposal.

  • anon

    It's an interesting idea, but it would take positioning in the right neighborhood. Close to transit without a current price premium, and lack of enough established organized residents to oppose it as they inevitably would.

    I'd actually welcome this kind of housing in my established urban neighborhood. The alternative is high end market rate luxury condos, where everyone not only has one or more cars, but also different expectations about neighborhood amenities. The trend towards expensive eating establishments and spa services is elitist and out of character with our neighborhood fabric. Neighborhoods experience gentricification differently -- mine is moving from solidly middle/upper middle class to upper middle class/wealthy, and I don't view that as a positive trend.

    I'd welcome post college, bike sharing, public transit using younger set, and this would be preferable to the shared houses that make the SFH rental market tight and decrease availability for young families.

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