I can use many phrases to describe the way I live now, and yet none fully does it justice, because the way I live now is almost nonexistent in the United States.
One way: I live in a furnished 220-square-foot room in a 44-bedroom rooming house next to a college campus, with healthy, delicious chef-prepared meals served in a dining hall downstairs. (Because it offers not only room but board [meals], boardinghouse may actually be the more accurate term, making it an even rarer beast in 2019.)
Each resident here has a furnished microstudio with a private bathroom, a huge ingeniously designed closet, and a tiny balcony that fits two chairs so a friend and I can enjoy the late-afternoon Oregon sun.
Each microstudio comes with a microwave and mini-fridge, but not a full kitchen. Our daily meals are made downstairs by a team of chefs, and an array of snacks, beverages, basics (dry cereal, oatmeal, bread, peanut butter, apples, coffee and tea, and too many fresh-baked desserts) are available in our dining hall 24/7.
Any leftovers from meals are packaged in single-serving containers and put in the communal fridge, and usually disappear within 24 hours.
Another way: I live in a privately run dorm, constructed in 1989 by a mission-driven developer who wanted to provide academically minded students with an atmosphere suitable for “quiet enjoyment.” Luckily for me, he also admits non-students who are attracted to that lifestyle. Applicants have to submit three character references, and applications are taken all year; by April or May, there’s already a waiting list for the coming academic year (late September through mid-June).
Some other terms: microhousing (a term not yet well known in the US outside major cities, and often even within them); residential hotel (back in the day, these were common, especially for single working women in major cities; the Barbizon Hotel in New York City is a well-known example); and SRO, or SRO 2.0.
Personally, I usually avoid using the term SRO because of the unfortunate associations it conjures. Ninety years ago, SROs were a common form of housing for people of modest means. According to Paul Groth, author of the excellent book Living Downtown; The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (available online for free), SRO units may have numbered as high as 90,000 in San Francisco in the early 1930s, meaning they were nearly as prevalent as apartments. Unfortunately, SROs were virtually eliminated in city after city in the 1970s.
Only a relative few survive, in places such as San Francisco, Portland, and Chicago, thanks to the dedicated work of advocates for low-income housing. According to San Francisco’s Central City SRO Collaborative, that city’s 518 SRO buildings are home to more than 30,000 people — far more than federally funded public housing in the city, which operates 6,096 permanently affordable units and places another 10,000 people via Section 8 programs.
If you’re interested, you can read more of the fascinating history of SROs in San Francisco here,
When I stumbled across the listing for my current residence while writing a book chapter on finding affordable housing in Washington, DC, I jumped at the chance to relocate next to my beloved alma mater. As a writer yearning to live a simple, stress-free, home-maintenance-free, affordable life in a culturally stimulating place, I felt I had found my nirvana — at least for the foreseeable future.
What happens when a 55-year-old woman moves into a 220-square-foot room with 47 college students, and attempts to promote this way of life throughout the community? Read on, and share my adventures in microdwelling.