Temporary Housing is Permanent
Let's make peace between permanent and temporary housing. We need both.
Bigger Ideas 2 : Where We Go From Here 8
Welcome to the 2nd post of Bigger Ideas, where I explore larger topics in housing and development that go beyond the wonkish and beyond California. For a preview of what is coming, check out my operating list. For California Housing, go here. Suggestions welcome!
I planted a plum tree last weekend.
Planting fruit trees is something I’ve been dreaming of doing for years. I think it was my subconsciousness’s way of telling me it was time to plant roots, time to go home, time to find a home that could be a homestead for a long time.
Since I left my parents’ house at 18, I’ve had more addresses than I can count. Some were what we’d consider ‘permanent’ housing - apartments and houses with proper leases. I rented two different parts of chopped up old houses in Berkeley after college, had one real lease for two years in Park Slope, three different rentals in Berkeley and Oakland during Phd school, two different apartments in Paris, a crappy rented house in Leeds, and a fantastic rented house in Bordeaux where I helped raise a teenager. (The Bordeaux house had an epic fig tree, and boy did I want to buy that house - I think that was when the fruit tree dreams began.) There was an apartment in Toronto where I wrote a book after Bordeaux was done, a cute apartment on the Bernal/Mission border occupied by a cute woman who is now my wife. And now there is an even cuter house in Oakland, one that now has a plum tree in front.
In between and alongside all these ‘permanent’ homes were an even greater number of homes which were either part-time or temporary or both. I lived in 6 dorms in 2 countries in college, not to mention a few summer sublets, including a real apartment in Somerville, MA that made me feel like a real adult and a real city guy all at once. There was a crash pad in the Catskills I got as part of a job, and a series of short term NYC sublets with friends and strangers that helped me ride out losing my job, my girlfriend and my apartment at the same time, all while starting grad school. There were the temporary accommodations in Antioch, Brentwood, Walnut Creek and Patterson that helped me write a book and become a real researcher.
For four years, I lived part-time in Bordeaux, France and part-time in Leeds, UK, as my job and my family were in different countries. I had to take a part time job in Paris to make the travel work, and my friends Manu and Chris and their girls put me up for six Thursday nights every year, even though they lived in a small Paris apartment. I bought a nice house in Leeds with a friend, so that I could live there part time without dealing with a crappy landlord, but I was always coming and going, as were so many friends and tenants and visiting scholars from around the world. There was the free basement studio in SF lent to me by my cousins when I first arrived back in the US, a bit broken but excited to be home. In between all that were weeks and months spent at my parents’ house, including after my separation from my first wife and my job, in which I was technically a middle-aged not-quite-unemployed guy living with his parents.
When you add in all personal and business travel over years, I’ve spent a lot of nights in a lot of places that were not my permanent home. In my case, all this movement, all this mobility, was mostly by choice and often an extension of my privilege - including having parents that were extra stable and didn’t mind having my stuff packed in boxes in the garage. I had some real shitty landlords, and left a few places because I didn’t want to deal with them and had the ability to move. I was never evicted, never displaced by war or famine or disaster, never displaced by violence inside or outside my home.
But many times I had to move. Relationships broke up. I’ve been separated and then divorced. I’ve broken up with jobs that kept me in places. Like many in academia, I was an economic migrant. LIke many across the economic spectrum, I depended on temporary housing to do my job - in my case to do research, attend conferences, network, and even teach.
My ability to move forward in my life - to new economic opportunities, to new relationships, to new places - has depended as much on the availability of temporary housing as it has on the availability of permanent housing. Temporary housing matters, and always has.
Seeing Temporary Housing as Permanent
If you walk down the street either way from my current house in Oakland, you will find my unhoused neighbors. There is a sidewalk encampment one block north, two different encampments to the south.
Around the corner from me are a series of old motels, at least one of which is becoming permanent housing for the unhoused through California’s Project Roomkey. These motels aren’t just there because tourists want to stay in my residential neighborhood. They are right next to a series of hospitals, providing a temporary home for those visiting sick relatives. Like many cheap motels across the country, they’ve also provided a home for the displaced, people who’ve been evicted or just needed to get out of the house for a few days.
In other parts of California, these motels house fire refugees, part of a wave of seasonal climate displacement that will sadly be a permanent part of our housing landscape for generations to come. Over the past two years, many housed COVID refugees, people quarantining because there wasn’t a safe way to do so at home. Other temporary houses host work-from-homers, either people who’ve left their former homes, or who now need to be in an office far away just a few days per month and need a place to sleep when they do.
As we struggle with the current moment in California’s housing history, where so many people are living in what many hope to be temporary circumstances, it’s clear that we need to build more permanent housing than ever. We need to preserve the permanent housing we have, and support those who have put down roots or are trying to do so, whether they be spiritual kind of roots or the kind involving fruit trees.
But this push for permanence, for more houses we can call homes, doesn’t minimize the importance of temporary housing.
Temporary housing is essential to human flourishing, and always has been. Nomadism has been part of our lives since before we lived in cities. Nomadism never went away even after large-scale urban agglomerations became dominant, despite widespread stigmatization of everyone from Bedouins to the Roma to Travellers to Mongolian herders. Work from home, #vanlife, boomer retirements, climate migrants, digital nomads - every demographic and economic trend we have points to the need for temporary housing, points to how central it is to human life.
It’s time we housers start to appreciate this, whether or not we like these trends. The need for temporary housing is permanent.
The lost possibilities of the rooming house
My career in housing began in New York City, working as a tenant organizer in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) buildings - rooming houses, old hotels, anything that didn’t have a kitchen and a bathroom inside the unit.
At its peak in the 1950s, NYC had more than 200k SROs.1 There were the Chelsea rooming houses, which at one time housed generations of sailors fresh from the docks, and the (in)famous Chelsea Hotel with its writers and rock stars. There were the Bowery flophouses, some of which didn’t have real ceilings - they had chicken wire and were basically a cubicle for sleeping. A lot of the grand old houses of Harlem got chopped up into rooming houses, and for a long time you could get room and board in many places.
By the time I became an organizer, in 2001, New York was down to 50k SROs and fading fast. A small percentage had been converted to supportive housing owned by non-profits, and some of the old hotels got rented by social services agencies at exorbitant prices, but there were still plenty of people being threatened with displacement. Many SROs were being cleared by landlords and converted to fancier housing units. Some SROs became more tourist-friendly hotels. Some were condemned and torn down, some were vacated through violence and torn down. Every horrible thing that you can imagine in NYC real estate happened in these places.
SROs were housing that had at one point been fluid – no leases, no commitments. If you needed a place for a brief time because you’d been kicked out by a spouse, were fleeing abuse, or had just arrived in town to pursue your Broadway dreams, they were a place you could lay your head for the night – in other words, a place to “flop.” Some of my favorite clients were the often LGBTQ+ folks living on the West Side who made theater possible - make-up artists, costume designers, choreographers, actors, dancers, stage hands and set builders.
By the time I got there, most of the tenants I worked with were doing everything they could to hang on to their SROs as permanent housing. Tenants and organizers had to fight for permanence, because once you left, there was nowhere to go. The housing market had abandoned low-income New Yorkers ages ago. The public housing waiting list was endless, and good luck if you were a single person finding anything in the affordable or supportive sector, especially if your only ‘condition’ was being low-income.
But it always made me a bit sad that the mobility these homes once enabled became a victim of the need for permanence. New York City was the city of dreams, and so many migrants and immigrants landed there and found temporary places to live before they found permanent ones, or before they realized the city wasn’t for them and went somewhere else. Temporary housing was vital to generations of migrants, let alone visitors and tourists and family members coming to experience the magic of the Big Apple for the first time.
The saddest part of the story, and the real lesson for housers, is that it wasn’t just greed and gentrification – whether in favor of richer temporary residents (tourists) or richer permanent residents -- that drove this crisis. The war on SROs was started by housing reformers, who didn’t like the conditions and who labeled the residents as ‘transients’. Rather than just improving conditions, which was admirable and necessary, reformers turned the war on transients into a national trend that continues to this day. Being temporary, in this formulation, means you are part of the problem.
The promise and problem of short-term rentals
When my now ex-wife took a job in Toronto, we had to move. She went first, and I stayed behind in Bordeaux to pack up the house and the cats. Toronto has an expensive and tough housing market, so she bounced around a series of Airbnbs. I did the same when I came to help her find a permanent apartment. Because we had resources, it was actually a nice way to get to know the city. We tried out different neighborhoods, experimented with high-rise living (kinda rad actually!), and took our time finding a very expensive apartment that would take cats.
All across the world, people use short-term rentals for the same reason, and for many more. Medical residents need places to stay for a few months, as do students on exchange and people in training. People with relatives in the hospital need a place to stay for a few weeks. Grandparents whose kids desperately need help with babysitting, but don’t have room for them to stay.
There are so many economic and social reasons why we need short-term housing, and this doesn’t even include the folks who rent short-term space in their homes to make ends meet. Just like with SROs, these housing arrangements have become the subject of debate and stigmatization, with the folks who need them caught between powerful economic actors who don’t care about the damage they inflict and well-meaning reformers who end up stigmatizing an entire form of housing in their attempt to counteract that damage.
When short-term rentals became easier to find – first through Craigslist, then of course through Airbnb, VRBO and others -- many celebrated the new ease with which mobility could happen. Sadly, and all too predictably, most of the companies involved in this new wave didn’t care about the externalities, the damage caused when landlords, developers, and short-term rental entrepreneurs exploited the new technology and the pent-up demand to evict long-term tenants and once again pit temporary housing and permanent housing against each other. Rather than acknowledge what was clearly happening, these companies hired massive PR machines and denied, denied, denied until they couldn’t anymore.
But the damage was done. Rather than have a needed dialogue about how to make permanent housing and short-term rentals compatible, the two were pitted against each other in a war that was fought jurisdiction by jurisdiction, that is still raging in historic city centers, ski towns, and tourist destinations. Short-term rentals have in turn become a dirty word in housing circles, seen as anathema to permanence and stability and root-growing and sustaining, when they are a vital and necessary part of any healthy housing landscape, just as SROs were. Stability and mobility didn’t have to become enemies, but because of how many in the short-term rental industry acted, we’re now stuck in another senseless housing war.
Camps, trailers and immobile Homes
If we were to look for the most quintessentially American place where temporary and permanent housing collide and collude, it has to be mobile home parks and their extended family - campgrounds, trailer courts, RV parks. It’s also the place where we can see the dysfunctional relationship between permanence and temporariness most clearly.
“Mobile homes” are, of course, not mobile at all. They are a form of permanent housing that has historically been granted the least amount of rights, as if their residents don’t deserve to be considered citizens. Their homes have a pad, not a foundation. Their plants are often in pots, not in the ground, for they own only the trailer, not the land upon which it sits. They are a place where you can be a landlord and tenant simultaneously.
Many mobile home parks are and were hybrids. Some people live year round in single- and double-wides, while others drive their RV’s and trailers into the park for a week, a month, a season. Temporary residents live alongside permanent residents, and many are somewhere in between. If you spend every winter in the same place, are you temporary or permanent? If you have deep relationships with folks, sometimes over decades, are you really a transient?
Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, and the Frances McDormand movie which made it famous, shined a spotlight on the ways camps live at the intersection of so many different housing communities. This includes many who have been ground up by the cruelties of the labor market, the housing market, the health care market, or some combination of the three. Housers are starting to realize these hybridities, how the vanlifers and digital nomads can be camped next to the snowbirds next to the folks living in their cars because there was nowhere else to go.
In the world of housing, there has been amazing activism around improving the rights and possibilities of (im)mobile home park residents, granting them proper tenant’s rights or trying to convert the parks into community land trusts or other forms of resident-ownership. In most cases, this is a great thing and something where consensus can be reached, at least amongst those of us who prioritize housing people.
But things get funkier when we’re talking about less permanent versions, especially places without proper trailers and double-wides. Consensus drops away and people get nervous if you start talking about safe parking lots, where you can sleep in your car and have some basic toilet facilities; authorized campgrounds; tiny home parks; or any other type of living arrangement that doesn’t look permanent or isn’t meant to be.
For some, anything that doesn’t meet a certain criteria of what they think is ‘housing’ doesn’t meet the ‘housing first’ model most reasonable folks in housing support for helping the unhoused and unwell. But isn’t a safe parking spot better than a congregate shelter, where folks live on cots in a big room? Is having a safe place to camp with a real place to shit and shower not better than whatever ‘alternative’ we’re offering my unhoused neighbors right now?
One of the issues is that trailers and camps are not permanent enough for some people, and too permanent for those who fear what will happen if poor folks occupy space together for too long. Many don’t want to put resources into places we don’t think people should stay, so we let them stay somewhere worse. And we expect people who have been traumatized by any number of things that can fuck you up these days – war, work, family, friends, drugs, death, life, landlords -- to commit to permanence, when many can only commit to today and maybe tomorrow.
But a huge part of this fear of the camp, this fear of the place that shouldn’t be a home but has became one because there was nowhere else to go, is that this isn’t supposed to happen in America. When people fight to stay in the park because they don’t trust that anyone will actually house them, and because they have turned the park into community, it doesn’t fit America’s conception of itself. Despite our deep history of both radical inequality and temporary housing, despite a long relationship with shanties and tent communities, we pretend it's not American, and we try to erase it.
Temporary and permanent housing policy, anyone?
If we are really going to rebuild our housing system, and really going to bring our friends and neighbors into better housing situations, we must finally come to terms with how important it is to be able to live somewhere temporarily. A night, a week, a month, for work or pleasure, because you are fleeing something horrible or dreaming of something better.
Too often, policy and politics are about trying to decide who is worthy, what is a worthy reason to do something, what is the ‘best’ thing to do. This is the type of mentality that foments division between different policy visions or between different ways of living. We don’t spend enough time trying to make sure that all of us have real choices, not just based on what we want, but on what we may need at any given time. And almost all of us, at some point in our lives, will need to spend a night somewhere else.
When we accept temporary housing as a permanent and important part of housing, we can start to reconstruct the political economy of housing around making both permanence and temporariness accessible, safe, and supported. We can start to craft policies, investment standards, ownership rules, tenancy regulations, and community standards specific to both permanent and temporary housing, recognizing their difference but supporting them differently but equally.
Consider tenure regulations. We can and do have different tenure regulations for permanent and temporary housing, with different rights and expectations. But our rules and regulations for each aren’t as clear and strong as they could be – landlords oppose protections for permanent residents, and tenants groups often oppose temporary housing. We can and should push for a political deal that codifies stronger and clearer rules for both categories, protecting residents and neighbors of both kinds of housing, especially when they are mixed together in the same building.
What about land use regulation? Public zoning and investment policy can (and does) encourage both types of housing, but temporary housing is mostly the purview of the economic development and tourist agencies, not our housing department. Ensuring adequate temporary housing isn’t generally part of housing plans, save perhaps for the one kind of temporary housing most people agree is the least desirable of temporary tenures - congregate indoor shelter.2 Imagine if we actually had to plan for a certain number of units that we designed to be temporary, but were actually decent places to rest your head and store your stuff? Imagine if we assumed a certain number of climate refugees and displaced residents per year, and planned accordingly?
Or most controversially, think about investors. Permanent housing needs deeply patient capital that maximizes resident-control and stability. Because the market for permanent housing doesn’t work like the market for consumer goods, regulations on price and cost and stability make sense, and the emphasis of housing politics should be on maximizing resident-controlled housing for all permanent housing. Certain types of temporary housing - for disaster victims and the unhoused - needs charitable capital with no expectation of return whatsoever. Other forms of temporary housing - for tourists and workers and visitors - can function more like an open market, and can thus tolerate and even benefit from a more wide open investment regime with different expectations in terms of returns. We should channel patient capital willing to adhere to strict rules into permanent housing, charitable capital into serving the desperate, and allow higher-return seeking capital into certain forms of temporary housing
Making peace between the temporary and the permanent
All of these deals to grow and stabilize both permanent and temporary housing options only work if we treat both types of housing with respect, and if the most powerful actors in the real estate market agree to a detente. If any permanent home can be made temporary over the objections of the permanent residents, we will never be able to stabilize either form of housing.
Ending the fight between the temporary and the permanent also requires making peace with having a lot more structures in which humans can spend the night. So long as we have severe scarcity, there will always be tension. But temporary housing can actually help the push for more permanent housing - it can help absorb any overproduction that may come from a much needed building boom, providing a security option to ensure that units don’t sit empty.
We also need to start seeing all the ways in which someone’s permanent home can become a temporary home for others. This has been the biggest revelation of short-term rentals, a legitimate benefit that should not be denied. If you’ve spent a lot of time in short-term rentals, you’ve likely rented from both speculators who pushed out permanent tenants, and tenants or homeowners who really needed your cash. We can and should find a way to certify that a short-term rental is really benefitting permanent housing.
I’ve also tried to make my own homes a place for short-term visitors, and not just for friends - also to pay my own mortgage. The home I owned in Leeds became a needed source of temporary housing for so many low-income visiting students, scholars and friends - while being permanent housing for my co-owner and a permanent tenant, a source of wealth building for my co-owner and I, and a way to keep the rent cheap for our tenant. In addition to my plum tree, my new home will have room someday for temporary and permanent residents, as I try to build a homestead that practices what I preach.
So much more becomes possible in housing once we confront some of our deepest held beliefs. Nobody ever labeled me a transient, because I was middle class and white and had choices. But I certainly was transient, and now I have a plum tree. The tree isn’t a symbol that I have fixed a problem, for I was never broken.
I was just moving around a lot, and now I’m not.
This is a nice piece on NYC rooming houses by Cait Etherington. There has been an uptick of writing of late by folks trying to rethink what we have done to all the cheap housing that used to pervade cities in earlier eras. Check out this Sightline by Alan Durning for a west coast perspective. Check out this law review article for a history of the destruction of SROs, and attempts to save what remained.