Nathaniel Barrett is a Strong Towns member and advocate who lives in Dallas, Texas. We're pleased to feature this guest article from Nathaniel.
The toothpaste industry is incredibly segmented and tailored to meet the financial needs of the buyer. I personally like spending as little as possible on a bottle of toothpaste but others like to make sure their teeth get the finest whitening and baking soda available, and toothpaste purveyors are happy to oblige. Why isn’t housing allowed this same flexibility in offerings?
Market Urbanism, one of my favorite websites on urban issues, ran a piece on “The Need for Low-Quality Housing” an excellent exploration of why it takes all levels of quality to serve a society with very diverse needs, as well as how this can exist even without filtering of new housing down to affordable levels. Because developers can and will build low-quality housing—when they're allowed to do so.
When I use the term low-quality housing I mean housing that fulfills the most basic requirements of safety, health, and protection from the elements. Most of this kind of housing has been banned by those in power whether they were well-meaning (“the poor shouldn’t have to live in anything less than the middle class”) or not (“poor people are unpleasant so let’s ban the places they congregate”). The sad truth is that, regardless of motives, the ban on low-quality housing has mostly hurt those who that ban was supposed to help.
I contrast this “low-quality housing” (housing built with the most budget sensitive people in mind) with “Affordable Housing” which has come to mean something rather specific to those who are actually making the decisions about housing. A lot of “Affordable Housing” is produced through government programs designed to incentivize developers to build clean new apartments. You’ve probably seen this kind of housing. Look for apartments of decent quality listed for what seems like ridiculously low rent for the area. Like all under-priced goods, there will be a shortage handled through waiting lists, lotteries, or exclusionary screening.
The difference between an Affordable Housing unit and low-quality housing is the difference between buying a new Toyota Camry at a 75% discount (courtesy of the government) after winning a lottery (since no car maker likes to sell below cost) and buying a used Nissan Versa yourself because it’s all you can afford, gets the job done, and doesn’t require winning a lottery, since car dealers can still turn a profit on a used car at a lower price. Sure, you won’t impress your friends and you might miss the bells and whistles of a nicer car, but it’s better to have a range of choices between walking to work and driving a mid-sized sedan simply because some people think it’s horrible to imagine anyone driving a sub-compact car with manual windows (even if these same people have no practical method of providing new mid-sized sedans to all those in need of cars).
Inspired by the need for low-quality housing, I started looking around my own neighborhood for examples of apartments and houses that, while not attractive by middle-class standards, still provides an option that is better than sleeping on the streets and is affordable to low-income individuals.
My search didn’t take long. Because just a few blocks away from my home is the residential hotel delightfully named “Uncle Buddy’s”.
Uncle Buddy’s is on a quiet street sandwiched between Baylor Hospital and the Historic neighborhoods of Old East Dallas. The building is about 3,000 square feet and has 12 dwelling units. Without taking into account common areas, like the hall, bathroom, kitchen, and stairway, this gives each resident a very cozy 250 square feet.
Uncle Buddy’s was built in 1908, around the time the streetcars were snaking their way into the recently annexed suburb of East Dallas and the dirt roads were being covered with the new bitulithic (asphalt) paving.
Uncle Buddy’s won’t win any architectural awards. It’s a simple prairie foursquare: a wood box divided by a central stairway and clad in wood siding. It could use a coat of paint, the original windows are long gone, there’s no central AC (lots of window units), and the porch is rather shallow and spare. It doesn’t even have any parking!
I spoke to a few residents who said $500 gets you a month in a furnished room, in a safe neighborhood with shared bathrooms and kitchen facilities. They seemed a little wary when I asked, as if I might be there to shut them down. One man said, “This is a good place. It gives us a place to stay.”
Sure, there are other places with apartments for $500 a month. But they’re located in areas like Five Points, a perennial contender for the title of the neighborhood with the highest crime rate in Dallas. Or they're far from the city center, in neighborhoods where a resident without a car can look forward to contending with Dallas’ perpetually under-performing public transit system for every minor errand.
Uncle Buddy’s, less than 2 miles from downtown, is located near several bus lines and has at least four grocery options within walking distance. Old East Dallas isn’t perfect by any means, but compared to a fenced garden apartment located by a loud mini-highway, it isn’t bad.
Sadly, places like Uncle Buddy’s are difficult to build today. A residential hotel like Uncle Buddy’s can’t be located within a mile of another residential hotel. Most zones and planned developments specifically preclude building any form of residential hotel, halfway house, or group residential facility that would allow this kind of single-room occupancy. Even Uncle Buddy’s itself is grandfathered in as a non-conforming use not normally permitted in the zone. These restrictions are based on the theory that, because poor people tend to use these buildings and crime and poverty are highly correlated, we should limit poor people to…somewhere else. Pile on top of this all the usual zoning nonsense like minimum lot coverage, setbacks, architectural guidelines, floor to area ratios etc. and a low margin product like a residential hotel is seldom economical to build.
Like most cities’ leadership, Dallas’ elected officials make a good show of acting very concerned about the large number of homeless citizens in Dallas by blaming massive municipal incompetence or greedy landlords all the while missing the biggest culprit of all: ourselves. We Dallas citizens have kvetched and complained so loudly that our Council Members have listened and made it easy for us to shunt our most vulnerable citizens off to remote corners of our City. We’ve regulated and down-zoned and coded many of the poor straight out of their homes at places like Uncle Buddy’s to the very real dangers of homeless encampments or the literal streets. Chances are your town is the same.
The next time you hear concerns about gentrification, rising rents, and the homeless think about Uncle Buddy’s. Think about how it has safely housed 12 people who might otherwise be homeless, and how it's done it for decades, without subsidy, . Wonder why we can’t have more places like Uncle Buddy’s? We need only look in the mirror.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nathaniel Barrett is a CPA and, thanks to Strong Towns and the Incremental Development Alliance, a small-time real estate developer and advocate for productive places. He lives in the historic neighborhood of Peak's Suburban Addition in Old East Dallas with his wife and two children.