Where I live: defining my home

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 44-bedroom rooming house catycorner from my alma mater, the University of Oregon.

Because the building provides not only room but also board (chef-prepared meals served in a dining hall downstairs), boardinghouse may actually be the more accurate term, making it an even rarer beast in the United States in 2019.

Each resident here has a 220-square-foot micro-apartment with a private bathroom, a huge and ingeniously designed closet, and a small balcony that fits two chairs, so a friend and I can enjoy the late-afternoon Oregon sun in the spring, summer, and early fall.

Each micro-apartment 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 sought 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); co-living residence; and/or 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 — <naturally occurring affordable housing> (NOAH), in housing-policy jargon. A century ago, a passable room might cost 35 cents per night (the equivalent of $8 today), and required no screening or background check, no rental or credit history, and little or no deposit. According to Living Downtown; The History of Residential Hotels in the United States by Paul Groth (available online at no charge), SRO units may have numbered as high as 90,000 in San Francisco in the early 1930s.

Unfortunately, SROs were virtually eliminated in city after city in more recent decades. Portland lost 40% of its SROs between 1978 and 2015, although the nonprofit Central City Concern, formed in 1979, has acquired and preserved many as low-income housing. In 1910 San Francisco, 15.6% of residents lived in SROs; in 2016, the figure was 2.2%. Most are now managed by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (tagline: <Opportunity knocks only if you have a door>), which houses over 4,800 people — most with an annual income of less than $15,000.

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 live in federally funded public housing in the city, which comprises 6,096 permanently affordable units and another 10,000 people housed via Section 8 vouchers. More of the fascinating history of SROs in San Francisco is chronicled here and in Up from the Deep, creation of the late, gifted photographer and historian Mark Ellinger, whom it was my privilege to know.

In May 2018, when I stumbled across the listing for my current residence while researching how to find affordable housing in DC for The Young Leaders Guide to Internships, Scholarships, and Fellowships in Washington, DC, and Beyond, I wasnt thinking about honoring the venerable history of SROs in America, or even of living a bit as the acerbic writer Dorothy Parker had in her later years, in a residential hotel (the Volney). I just jumped at the chance to live affordably, have meals made for me, and relocate next to my beloved alma mater. As a writer yearning to live a simple, stress-free life in a culturally stimulating place, I felt I had found nirvana.

So what happens when a 55-year-old woman moves into a 220-square-foot room with 47 college students, and founds a local organization (which you can join for free) to spread awareness of + increase opportunities for microdwelling? Read on!

About this blog

What happens when a 55-year-old woman moves into a 220-square-foot micro-studio alongside 47 college students?

That’s what my friends all wanted to know. I started this blog to record my thoughts, but I hope to also spread awareness of the growing number of micro-dwelling and co-living options, to connect with others who might like to live this way, and to encourage the development of many more micro-dwelling opportunities in the United States — for all ages and types of people.

In addition to chronicling my own life, this blog will include accounts of other micro-dwelling communities and situations, some of which I’ll be exploring with a local group I have founded. And shortly after I began the blog, Eugene was declared #1 in unhoused residents per capita in the nation — ahead of LA, San Francisco, and New York City, among other places. So I will be exploring why this is, what the solutions can be, and why they havent been implemented yet.

How did I get here? That’s not such a happy story (but the blog will be).

I’m an only child. From 2002 until their deaths in 2006, 2015, and 2017, I was responsible for the finances and health care of my mother, my father, and a childless aunt.

All of them lived to be in their late 80s or early 90s.None of them had made plans for their later years.

My mother and aunt suffered from undiagnosed clinical depression. My father was a legally blind, disabled hoarder who happily lived in ant- and rat-infested filth. The home where I grew up was ultimately condemned by the city as a fire hazard. (I ended up selling it to Habitat for Humanity as is; they carted what was usable to their ReStore, hauled away the rest, updated the home and added energy-efficient features, and sold it at market rate to fund more of their work. I consider that a win-win.)

After devoting thousands of hours to my elders’ affairs, and making countless difficult and thankless decisions, upon their deaths it fell to me to dispose of all their possessions.

Before my aunt and father died, I undertook stages of stuff-disposal on their behalf. I moved both Aunt Pauline and Dad from their homes to smaller homes, downsizing their possessions each time. My aunt refused to participate in any way (“Just get rid of it all!”), while my father was psychologically incapable of discarding anything. For both of them I had to decide, item by item, what would stay and what would go — and then I had to figure out how best to dispose of the castoffs.

After their deaths, I spent many months searching for a way out of the morass my own neglected life had become. I realized that I not only wanted but needed my remaining years to be simple as possible — simpler than in any lifestyle I had yet experienced. And when my time came, I didn’t want anyone presented with the burden my elders had foisted on me, of having to post-mortemistically dispose of mountains of possessions that had no meaning.

Discovering this microhousing community, this privately run dorm, this nouveau rooming house, saved my life. It showed me that a modestly paid, single freelance writer/editor could have an intellectually and culturally stimulating life in America, with all basic needs taken care of, in a way that is affordable, simple, and nearly stress-free. I seized the last room available, having discovered it in a random web search, and made optimistic plans to move in a month later. (It took two months, at the end of which I had to reluctantly rent a small storage unit to house my Unfinished Business for six more months.)

After I put down my deposit, my downsizing began. With my 220-square-foot target in mind, I kept the essentials, along with selected items special to me, and distributed the rest to a motley collection of friends; acquaintances met through Craigslist, NextDoor, and the neighborhood Buy Nothing group on Facebook; and local thrift shops and agencies serving low-income people and the unhoused. What a small joy each time something was matched with someone who would use or love it, and what a feeling of liberation every time something departed! It was a bit like overseeing my own funeral, but then being free to go on living. It still took three or four car trips, by me and various helpful friends, to get everything to my new home. And now I have spent a pleasant year here, and have begun to reach out to others.

Microhousing communities are still quite rare in the United States, especially outside of major cities, and those offering meals, like this one, are even rarer. Having lived in 220 square feet for a year, more than ever I want this lifestyle to be available to everyone in America who wants it.

Of course I know that micro-dwelling and co-living isn’t for everyone. Many Americans want, or need, or feel they need, a multi-room home, a chef-worthy kitchen, appliances and cookware that they alone control, a backyard for children or pets, gardens to tend, and a fence ensuring privacy from neighbors.

But an increasing number of people — of all ages — have embraced the sharing economy and have come to feel that less is more. They sense that having fewer rooms, possessions, and household responsibilities can leave them with more energy and time for pursuits they value more. If this describes you … join me on my adventure, and let’s learn about micro-dwelling together.

Tags: affordable housing, microhousing, co-living, downsizing, personal

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