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