The other week, I was walking to the grocery store -- a little over a mile, by alley as much as possible. Alley-walking is one of my favored pastimes. I can forage for building material, avoid cars, and get a little exercise.
I came across this house, 3815 Crowther Street, tucked at the end of a dusty gravel no-mans land between Hickory to the east and Falls to the west, hemmed in on all sides by alleys (though I guess one of them is technically a street.) It faces nothing, with an abrupt front only made discernible by the slope of the roof. For the last two years I've been living in this neighborhood, I passed the house dozens of times -- windowless, unpointed brick standing like a little kid's bad dream. It struck me as a great fixer upper -- I'll get in cheap, strip it down clean, whitewash everything, studio downstairs, living space above -- but the location was unusual.
According to property records, it had been built in 1920. From my memory of previous walks, it had been set up as two town homes, with two doors along this front facade (now bricked up halfway and turned into windows.) Some enterprising contractor has now combined the units, enclosed the back yard, put in a granite kitchen, a bunch of bedrooms, and is selling for $326,00. The realty listing said it last sold for $35,000 in 2012. It is touted as a quiet, kid-safe dream, tucked away from traffic with convenient off-street parking.
I had to admit I was kind of incredulous about the whole thing. But is it really so crazy? Home values and rents in major cities like San Francisco, London, and New York are hyper-inflated right now, leading to political finger-pointing and fears of a resurgent housing bubble. Distorted real estate valuations give way to distorted real estate use, like buying apartments solely to rent them on AirBnB, or micro-unit buildings that have quickly been dubbed "dorms for lonely Millenials." Other big cities have seen subdivision of existing lots turn into high-design opportunities, as growth cordons preserve open space outside the city core.
Re-densifying our cities, especially ones like Baltimore that haven't yet lapsed into the high-rise condo-ification like our neighbors in Washington, D.C., is a critical piece of keeping housing affordable. It is a doubly critical piece of keeping our cities sustainable and socially active, preventing the isolated fortress mentality that living in a suburb can breed. Alley housing has along history in Baltimore, as rowhomes were priced on a hierarchy from townhomes facing public squares (most expensive) to side-streeters with no front porches (middle class) to alley-facing 12-foot wide working-class homes (cheapest).
The most logical way to densify our existing street grid is to build small one-bedroom houses, apartments, or guest shacks in backyards or on small, leftover parcels on alleys and side streets. However, zoning laws are typically pretty unfriendly to accessory dwelling units because fire marshals get worried about truck access and hydrants rarely exist in alleys. Minimum lot-size ordinances (an old chestnut from the arsenal of exclusion) can prevent their construction at the neighborhood level. Organizations like Houselets and research universities like U.C. Berkeley are working to change these codes, but it is a different process in nearly every state.
The Awl, an online magazine, recently published The Guilded Age, a stream-of-very-logical-consciousness examining AirBnB's organizing of host 'guilds' in 100 cities ahead of the 2016 election. This came on the heels of the very good series Instasurfs on Benjamin Walker's Theory of Everything podcast, about the perils of working in the sharing economy. Then, this week, just about every design blog on the Internet seemed to post about Muji's new prefabricated houses.
AirBnB hosts were looking for political legitimacy. We may all be eventually consigned to contracting out slack time in our cars and houses. And high-design pre-fab accessory dwellings were being sold cheap, already stocked with appliances and furniture. It is housing-as-service, with a whole new category of rent payers looking for unconventional arrangements. This could go one of four ways, the first three of which aren't mutually exclusive:
1. Housing-as-service continues to be primarily for recreational use by a more affluent customer base.
2. A segment of the housing-as-service market evolves into a medium-to-long term arrangement with flexible, pro-rated lease agreements (for example, a student renting for a semester of college.)
3. Another segment of the market evolves to be a radically affordable transitional housing option for veterans, previously incarcerated folks, people in addiction recovery, formerly homeless, recently graduated students, or anyone on a tight budget who doesn't need much space.
4. We all end up warehoused in vast slums of algorithm-landlorded tiny houses.
I hope we can find a middle way, one where tech-enabled homeowners can make some extra money by providing affordable housing. There's also got to be movement on the regulatory end to change zoning codes; the business end to change leasing structures; and the design side to come up with new form factors for small but accessible living. Accessory housing won't solve the affordability crisis, or Baltimore's vacants problem, but it is a valid piece of the strategy.