What’s old is new again: boarding houses and other forms of shared housing


What does a newly retired, older woman with modest savings and a large, old eastside home do to enhance her financial security? One option is to do what women did 100 to 200 years ago: open a boarding house.

Boarding houses are described in Lansing’s zoning code as “a structure, other than a hotel, where, for compensation, and by prearrangement for definite periods, lodging or meals, or both, are provided for at least three but not more than 20.”  In my case, because I am not preparing meals for my tenants, I simply rent suites in my home while providing lots of additional common space (kitchen, dining room, living room).

The plaque on Joan Nelson’s house.
The plaque on Joan Nelson’s house.

I find the history of boarding houses fascinating, not the least because of the gender impacts. For many older women and widows, operating a boarding house in the 1800s and early 1900s was a way to generate income when few options were available.  Further, boarding houses were the respectable lodging of choice for young women coming in from rural areas to find work. Indeed, the YWCA operated highly supervised boarding houses for young unmarried women, sometimes referred to as “bricks and mortar chastity belts.”  

 In 1800s America, boarding houses were ubiquitous. “Between one-third and one-half of 19th-century urban residents either took in boarders or were boarders themselves,” according to historian Wendy Gamber in her book “The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America.”

The 19th century saw massive urban growth and a quadrupling of the American population. During that time, boarding houses contributed to the dense, cheap housing that provided an initial landing place for a rich mix of people arriving in urban centers.  They enabled immigrants, the young and the old, traveling businessmen and poor laborers to live affordably and within walking distance of work and shops providing for daily needs. In Lansing, according to Capitol historian Valerie Marvin, members of Michigan’s Legislature generally lived in one of the downtown’s many boarding houses. 

Because living entirely alone was socially stigmatized at the time, singles were a staple of boarding houses. (That stigma no longer exists, as noted by Diana Lind, author of “Brave New Home,” who reports that while only 3% of adults in 1890 lived by themselves, a whopping 28% of adults do so today.)

Ben Franklin, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and Moms Mabley lived in boarding houses. So did literary characters such as Jo March and Sherlock Holmes. George Bailey’s mom resorted to turn her home into a boarding house in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I’ll bet if you ask a few of your older relatives, a boarding house operator or resident will reveal themselves.

Near the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, boarding houses began to fall out of favor along with other forms of shared housing, such as co-operatives, rooming houses, lodging houses, multigenerational housing flats, duplexes and quads.  Many factors contributed to this increasingly negative view of dense or shared housing, including public health concerns about overcrowding.  Moreover, mid-century saw the dramatic growth of home ownership due, in part, to the GI Bill. Unfortunately, the period also saw a myriad of new restrictive zoning laws and restrictive covenants that prioritized single-family homes and reinforced racial and class segregation.  Over the second half of the 20th century, most forms of shared housing steadily declined.  Boarding houses were discouraged because, in the language of the day, they encouraged unhealthy mixing of people across race, class, sex and ethnicity. 

Fast forward half a century and we arrive at a time when city planners are grappling with chronically low housing inventory and rising costs. This has prompted a national conversation about resurrecting the shared housing options of yore to re-establish housing density, diversity, affordability, and community. 

Locally (and nationally), there are barriers to incorporating these once-common shared housing options. The most significant barrier is that single-family zoning covers about 83% of Lansing’s residential districts. Never mind that the U.S. Census reports that only 40% of U.S. households feature married or single parents with children under 18. 

Form-based code, adopted here in 2021, provides a bit more flexibility on Lansing’s east side, where only 70% of the area is zoned single family. According to Andy Fedewa, Lansing’s principal planner, “because the eastside has a higher rate of multi-family residential (theoretically up to 6 units), there are opportunities to allow further development” along these lines. There is another problem, however, in that the zoning code does not allow more than three unrelated people to live together. Further, Lansing’s code forbids Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs, sometimes called ‘mother-in-law cottages’), a related strategy that has been enabling increased density/housing variability in other cities.

Time will tell whether Lansing will follow the recent example of cities such as Minneapolis, which converted almost entirely to multi-family zoning. This inclusive zoning allows a wide range of housing options (co-ops and other co-living spaces, boarding houses, quads, ADUs, etc.) that serve not only traditional families, but groups of unrelated friends and other people that want to share a home.  

Lansing’s zoning code is periodically reviewed by the Planning Department, which discusses community feedback with members of City Council. According to Fedewa, the next review is scheduled for this summer. Let’s begin now to discuss how to create modern-day versions of flexible, historic, and affordable shared housing options in our neighborhoods to help alleviate our housing shortage while meeting the diverse needs of Lansing citizens. 



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