The Industry

In Defense of Dorms for Grown-Ups

We need more kinds of housing for every kind of lifestyle—especially in pricy places like San Francisco.

Modern-day dorm living vs. olden dorm living.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Starcity, Library of Congress.

Something undersized is overpriced in San Francisco, and people are mad. “In search of reasonable rent, the middle-class backbone of San Francisco … are engaging in an unusual experiment in communal living,” writes the New York Times Monday in a widely shared piece about a trio of new rental properties. “They are moving into dorms.”

San Francisco, you may have been tempted to tweet, is at it again. Silicon Valley has already luxurified buses, corner stores, and dietary meal replacements in the name of disruption. And now … dormitories? The rooms in question, says the Times’ Nellie Bowles, are inhabited by “many of the non-tech population” of San Francisco, though they are decorated in a fashion and rent at prices—$1,400–$2,400 for a fully furnished 130 to 220 square-foot room, with utilities and internet included—that signal Bay Area bougie. So far, the developer, Starcity, has three properties with 36 units; nine more properties are in development. It has a waitlist of 8,000 people.

Twitter users, predictably, had a field day snarking about this. My own feed—I lived in San Francisco before moving to Cleveland—had the vapors, offering up rustier alternatives—just move to the Midwest!—as morally and fiscally superior and doubling down on the fetishization of cheap real estate. (Never mind that Real America is by and large still struggling out of the housing crisis, has fewer available jobs, and is not appreciably cheaper when accounting for the cost of transportation.)

Dunking on micro units, dormlike arrangements, or other nonnormative housing configurations has a history nearly as long as the Starcity waitlist. As GQ wrote last year, in an article about the “dumb Silicon Valley ‘inventions’ of 2017,” “Some companies liked the idea of co-working spaces so much that they took it a step further, providing individual bedrooms for people to rent and live in, surrounded by other people who are also renting and living in bedrooms. Isn’t that a totally novel idea? Oh wait, that’s just dorms. They’re describing dorms.” The Guardian pilloried co-living in November. Micro units, tiny like dormitories but with in-unit kitchens and baths, were subject to public scorn, with opponents preferring “family units.”

I get the instinct to denounce any new evidence of San Francisco’s crushing unaffordability, particularly when its manifestations rub against what we consider rational. But dorms didn’t make the Bay Area so expensive, and they aren’t actually the issue here. We need more of this kind of living arrangement in every city, not less. And we need more of many other kinds of dwellings, too.

What about Starcity’s adult dorms strikes us as so worthy of ridicule? It is, of course, in part because of their San Francisco setting, that the tenants are mostly white, and that those tenants work jobs that, though middle-class, carry a veneer of cultural rank (“maitre d’s, teachers, bookstore managers, lounge musicians, copywriters, and merchandise planners”). But none of that should be a strike against the form of dormitory-style living itself, which is far from “college, but make it fashion.” It’s true that Starcity is replacing “a residential hotel that served homeless and low-income people in the Tenderloin neighborhood” with 71 pricey dorm-style units, which feels discomfiting. But the chatter around the units themselves is far more focused on dinging the consumptive patterns of a certain cultural-class stereotype associated with San Francisco. Either the backlash riders are unfairly repelled by that type of person, or their bluster is a scrim for the frustration that that type of person, who could perhaps afford a whole house in other cities, is living in something they view as substandard, for San Francisco prices. What they’re ignoring is that San Francisco is better off with this kind of housing than without.

While the caricature of who pays $2,400 to live in a way we associate with college—and what their presence is or isn’t doing to San Francisco—may not be broadly true, it’s powerful enough to elicit an irrational response to a way of living that has a significant precedent. What Starcity is building is merely the latest iteration of a format that has long been a cornerstone of San Francisco’s, and other cities’, housing stock: the single-room occupancy, wherein one or two people live in individual rooms within a multitenant building. SROs were not always safe and not always clean, but those that have remained have been lauded as a last bastion of affordable places to live. The SRO format—as well as micro units—is generally regarded as a constructive addition to cities’ residential inventory, though it’s much harder to build them now (and the ones that are built tend to be pricier) due to zoning and permitting rules and citizen opposition.

That opposition may stem in part from finding the particulars of living in an adult dormitory, like the sharing of bathrooms and kitchens, grotesque. And the finding of those particulars as grotesque stems from what Alon Levy calls “standards of respectability” with regard to urbanism, both in the U.S. and internationally: “There’s a certain American standard of middle-class normality. A detached house for a nuclear family, with a backyard for the children to play in, and a garage that fits a car per adult. A school that has as few black students as possible without making the white middle class feel too guilty. Social engagements and hobbies that are so common, like a knitting circle, that a suburb of 10,000 can support a group. Everything else is deviant and embarrassing.”

We did not always build single-family homes or expect people to live in them to prove their respectability and worthiness. As a recent CityLab piece explains, housing “was much more flexible, fluid, and communal.” In booming cities, rooms, and more specifically beds, could be rented by the day, week, or month—or by the shift. Likely up to half of urban Americans boarded or took on boarders. And homes built around then were often modified gradually over time, shaped by the changing needs of changing households—something made nearly impossible today by zoning regulations. In 1955, New York City banned SROs, which kicked off the rigid encoding of the kind of lifestyle that we believe to be morally and socially correct into our built environment.

Newfangled SROs with cage lighting, midcentury modern furniture, and “wine nights” will not make San Francisco more affordable alone and are likely to perpetuate within themselves class and income divides. Those intractably stubborn problems go beyond housing. But the city is better with newly built, and newly styled, SROs than without: Starcity’s Ellis Street building could be 11 luxury condos rather than the 52 rooms that CEO Jon Dishotsky will turn it into. That’s a relative lot of places to live for San Francisco.

More importantly, the existence of dormitory living is a tiny step toward the acknowledgement that our built environment is overly prescriptive and, in its prescriptions, reductionist and inappropriate for how we live now. Single-family homes have their merits, but they do not fit everyone’s life at every stage. A current exhibit at the National Building Museum, Making Room, contains a “flexible unit” called Open House, which, Fast Company writes, “gestures toward a real need: As demographics have shifted in America, and unconventional co-living situations—from unrelated roommates to multigenerational arrangements—are displacing the typical nuclear family as the most prevalent type of household, our housing stock must evolve and adapt to accommodate these changes.” Our housing needs were never as uniform as the swaths of single-family homes that make up our sprawling exurbs, but we are pushing up against those constraints now more than ever.

Fast Company reports that “single people living alone make up 28 percent of our population,” but “just .87 percent of our housing stock is studio apartments; 11.36 percent are one-bedroom homes,” and “[t]he most prevalent form of housing in America, an enormous 39.82 percent, is the three-bedroom house.” The nuclear family is merely 20 percent of all households in the U.S. We should get comfortable with—and start respecting by building more, different types of housing—the truth that the overwhelming majority of our living situations, by choice or by force, are weirder and less conventional and far more shifting and fluid than our long-held national narrative belies.

As we tussle one of the fundamental issues of our time—housing—we will need to accept that who lives where is tied to form. Our communities won’t become diverse without a diverse housing stock. The belief in single-family homes as the pinnacle of acceptability has a stranglehold on us all. Denigrating the new construction of SROs (even for their aesthetics), performing incredulity at a person’s choice to live in one, and denouncing them as somehow lesser dangerously reinforces it.

Alex Baca has written about transportation, urban planning, and arts and culture for Washington City Paper and CityLab. She lives in Cleveland.