The Return of the Flophouse


Historically, the bottom of the scale for inexpensive housing was not the rooming house but the flophouse—essentially a hall of bunks or sleeping slabs. Aside from homeless shelters, North America no longer has flophouses. A century of regulation shut them down. But in Japan, they live on in modern form in “capsule hotels,” which rent enclosed sleeping spaces by the hour or the night. In one $30-a-night Tokyo hotel, the sleeping capsules are stacked in pairs and are just big enough for a single mattress. Yet they each offer air conditioning, a radio and mini TV, a reading light, and a privacy screen. Guests share bathrooms, showers, a lounge, restaurant, and bar.

In most American cities, such 21st-century flophouses would be illegal on any number of grounds. The “rooms” are much too small: Habitable rooms may not be smaller than 7 feet by 7 feet in Seattle, for example; sleeping rooms must be bigger still. The hotels do not provide off-street parking for each room, and some do not have enough bathrooms to satisfy codes, which typically require one bathroom per eight units. The “rooms” themselves—the capsules—are code enforcers’ nightmares: Among other things, they lack the windows, fire-safe doors, smoke detectors, and closets required of each legal bedroom. If regulated as dormitories (bunkhouses) rather than as separate bedrooms, meanwhile, they would violate other rules: They lack the requisite unencumbered floor space, for example.Yet Japan has many such hotels, and its fire-safety record is better than that of the United States.

Once upon a time a century ago, the poor, young, and single could find a room at a flophouse to stay in for 35 cents a night ($8 in today’s dollars). As housing standards were developed, flophouses became illegal in the U.S.

Slate has an excerpt from Alan Durning’s new book, Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Communities, which argues, in part, why flophouses should make a comeback.

Photo: Mr. Littlehand

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15 Comments / Post A Comment

I’m really starting to agree with Matt Yglesias that NIMBYism and misguided urban planning diktats are one of American liberalism’s biggest self-inflicted injuries.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@stuffisthings Learned recently that one reason for America’s unforgivably spotty cell coverage is because communities won’t allow towers to be built. NIMBY indeed. Good thing we built the electrical grid before the meek city councils inherited the earth.

@aetataureate “We want affordable housing and services for the poor, the homeless, the recently incarcerated, and the mentally ill! Just, like, nowhere near where WE live.”

theotherginger (#1,304)

@stuffisthings and you have summarized gentrification.

UrbanGarlic (#4,303)

While I think there’s a place for this type of housing, the safety regulations are the kicker for me. It’d be nice to know that wherever people are living can be escaped during a fire or other disaster.

@UrbanGarlic We already solved that problem for college dorms, hotels, military barracks, bunkhouses for loggers and others who work in remote areas, etc. Many of the regulations that killed SROs were aimed at simply killing SROs.

UrbanGarlic (#4,303)

@stuffisthings Those have windows, though, at least in my experience. I’d feel wary of sleeping in any place without a window for an extended period. Yes, I understand this becomes an issue high enough off the ground.

selenana (#673)

@UrbanGarlic The capsule hotels aren’t used for living, they’re usually used by businesspeople (usually men, some capsules take only men though they do have ones for women – usually they have a separate floor) and they usually just have curtains. They’re almost like fancy bunk beds rather than “rooms.” Not sure if the fire safety standards would apply in that case – Japan actually has pretty good safety standards (Daiichi notwithstanding).

probs (#296)

I actually found an ad for a rooming house here in DC while looking for housing recently. It was, perhaps not surprisingly, Christian, weird, and female-only.

Lily Rowan (#70)

SROs seem like a great alternative to these overpriced “microapartments.” I mean, how many of the people who live in them need a full kitchen?

@Lily Rowan Exactly! I would have loved an SRO/boarding house kind of arrangement when I was fresh out of school. I had zero stuff to store, no interest in cooking beyond limited stovetop and microwave activity, and found all of the crap you have to do to keep up a whole apartment to be pretty obnoxious. I liked living around groups of people and would have enjoyed a shared lounge or something, I didn’t need much space or a full kitchen/private bathroom, and man, I would’ve paid a premium to live in a place that threw in partial board, or even coffee. I remember reading about those women’s boardinghouses in New York in ages past and thought that sounded pretty rad.

Not to mention, they seem like they would fill SUCH a need for people who are planning on being there short term because they are new to the area, or interning, or on a short contract, or between leases, or whatever.

sony_b (#225)

@bowtiesarecool What about a boarding house that costs a bit more but has an in-house chef? That’s what I was thinking – as a single person starting out that would have been awesome – share the costs of having a person who actually knows what they are doing to have your breakfast ready every morning before work, opt-in for a packed lunch or dinner for more $$$.

selenana (#673)

Actually, semi-homeless people in Japan who rent micro-spaces are often found in the much-cheaper manga cafes, where you can rent a cubby with a computer for the night for a lot cheaper, often around 1,000 yen ($10) for the overnight period.

In both capsules (which like I said above are more used by office workers who miss their last trains) and manga-kissa, you are required to leave during the day. So pretty different than SROs or boarding houses, as you can’t leave your stuff there and take up semi-permanent residence.

One of the sites I’ve written for did a piece on this awhile back:
Virtually sleeping

planforamiracle (#4,034)

Here in Toronto there are a handful of “rooms by the week”-type rentals that are technically hotels, but known to be flophouse-type establishments, patronized by street-involved folks. Does that count? I’ve never seen the inside of them though I assume the rooms are modest-sized.

theotherginger (#1,304)

@planforamiracle modest somehow makes them sound nice…

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