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In extended-stay hotels, one writer sees a solution to lots of housing problems

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What did Joe DiMaggio, Tennessee Williams and Bob Dylan have in common? Well, they each, at one time or another, lived in a hotel. At the middle of the 20th century, lots of Americans did this - from the rich and famous to those barely scraping by. Hotels were considered housing, but residential hotels of all sorts have largely vanished. And in an article for Slate, Henry Grabar argues it's time for a comeback. He says extended-stay hotels could help alleviate some of today's biggest housing problems from shortages to homelessness. And to understand how, you have to first start with just how many people hotels once served.

HENRY GRABAR: For people who are at the very top, they offered this sort of all-included lifestyle where, you know, you could get room service, someone would come clean, make your bed every day. But further down the income ladder, they were also really important. You know, in the early 20th century, families would live in hotels because they spared women usually the labor of furnishing a place, cleaning a place, decorating a place. And then further down the income ladder still, for single people, the hotel was really the place that you went when you first arrived in a city, and you would rent a room by the week or by the month. And this was sort of your entry point into the city's housing system.

CHANG: OK. So it used to be a thing where hotels were viewed as just sort of another type of housing for a lot of people, people all over the income spectrum. When and how did that begin to change?

GRABAR: I think there's two things that happened. In the middle of the 20th century, to some extent, our need for residential hotels starts to disappear. The federal government subsidizes the development of suburbia. Homeownership becomes cheaper and more accessible than at any point in the country's history. New economic models compete with the hotel and offer the thing that the hotel had long offered. I'm talking about places like retirement homes, right? Like, hotels were a big source of naturally occurring housing for the elderly. And retirement homes kind of fill that niche. Timeshares do a similar thing for vacation communities. So to some extent, the residential hotel declines because we don't need it anymore. But there's another part of this story, which is that there was a tremendous moral opposition to hotel life.

CHANG: Right. What did they fear about life in a hotel?

GRABAR: Yeah. In the beginning, I think there was suspicion that hotels were places where women in particular would not focus on, basically, homemaking because a lot of those functions were taken care of by the hotel. Later in the 20th century, there was a more concerted opposition to the idea that residential hotels were places where drunks and hobos and prostitutes would live. And cities actually undertook to basically get rid of residential hotels. And to a large extent, they were successful.

CHANG: Right. So as the housing that these hotels used to provide began to diminish, what did that mean for the groups of people who used to rely on this kind of housing? And I would like you to first focus on people who may have lived in a single-room occupancy building because they couldn't afford a typical apartment. Where did those people end up going?

GRABAR: So at the bottom end of the residential hotel picture was always something called the single-room occupancy. Those were places where people would rent rooms that maybe didn't - they certainly didn't come with their own kitchens. They often didn't come with their own bathrooms. We're talking really just the bare minimum. And then some of those facilities would be shared. And that was the place that people ended up when they had nowhere else to go. And when cities began to target SROs for demolition, beginning with urban renewal and then later tried to zone them out of existence in the '60s and '70s, the people who lived in the SROs really had nowhere to go. And I think there's now a consensus that the abolition of SRO housing in cities is one of the reasons that we now suffer from such a serious homelessness crisis because this bottom rung on the ladder of the housing system has been completely eliminated.

CHANG: But we should be clear, like, many of these single-room occupancy buildings - they were horrible places to live. Like, it's not uncommon to hear stories about roaches or bedbugs, housing code violations, issues with crime. I mean, how nostalgic should we really be about the disappearance of SROs?

GRABAR: No doubt. Yeah, I'm not trying to sugarcoat the living conditions in SROs. And I think to some extent what you're talking about is it's a long debate in the history of American housing reform between the desire to improve conditions through regulation, through inspection and also the recognition that if you impose too many conditions on various housing types, you might end up eliminating them entirely. And I just want to put some numbers to the decline of the SRO. New York lost 100,000 SRO units in the '70 and '80s. Los Angeles and Seattle lost half their SROs. So however bad the conditions may have been, the question is - where did those people end up afterwards? Did we provide an alternative for them as we eliminated the SRO? And the answer is no, we didn't.

CHANG: It's as you say in your piece - I mean, there has been this constant struggle between maintaining some standard of habitability in housing but also not getting rid of too much supply because people need a place to live.

GRABAR: Yeah, and I think with SROs, reformers are right to focus on dangerous, unsanitary conditions in SROs and ask, how can this be improved? What can we do to make sure that the people who wind up living in these places can live with dignity? But I do not think that should be confused with the idea that an SRO hotel is an uncivilized form of housing that ought to be eliminated.

CHANG: So beyond lower-income people who would more heavily rely on SROs in the past, what other groups of people have been affected visibly now that long-term hotels aren't really available?

GRABAR: I think the biggest result of our elimination of the residential hotel is the rise of Airbnb. Stays of longer than a month now make up a quarter of the company's bookings. It's the fastest growing line of business that the company has. So it's clear that the desire that Americans have to go someplace for weeks at a time never went away. And because we have lost the residential hotel, Airbnb is filling that niche. And that's very problematic because Airbnb takes units out of the long-term housing stock, and there are a lot of restrictions as a result of this sort of mid-century quest to abolish the residential hotel that prevent hotels from setting up shop in a lot of the neighborhoods where Airbnb is the most popular. So if you look at a place like New York City, for example, New York City has all but banned new hotel construction in most residential neighborhoods.

CHANG: You do say that you are seeing small signs that we could be returning to some of these long-term hotel models. What kind of signs are you seeing?

GRABAR: Yeah. The hotel industry is definitely hot on the idea of extended-stay hotels. There have been some big investments in this space in recent years. I read one report that suggests that 1 in 10 U.S. hotel rooms are now extended-stay rooms. So that is becoming a bigger part of the market. Some of that is aimed at traveling workers, but some of it, I think, is also aimed at people who have fallen out of the housing market. And these extended-stay rooms out in motels by the interstate make up basically the last step before homelessness, sort of fulfilling the same role that SROs once did, although obviously in a location where it's much harder to see.

CHANG: That is Henry Grabar, a staff writer at Slate. Thank you so much for joining us.

GRABAR: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ MAKO'S "BLU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Bridget Kelley
Bridget Kelley is the Supervising Senior Editor of NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, All Things Considered.