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Dan Reed at Just Up the Pike had a good piece the other day on the need for housing that’s affordable to 20-somethings just starting their career—-a constituency that’s currently paying a huge percentage of what they earn to live someplace cool, or just going elsewhere. He brought to my attention a form of housing that seems like such a good idea I can’t believe it hasn’t showed up in D.C. already: Apodments, or one-room units that can be rented for much less than the more fully equipped apartments going up all over town.

The old version of this kind of housing is rooming houses—-longer-term hotels that house transients and poor people. There are still a lot of them in some cities, most notably San Francisco. In D.C., single-room occupancy buildings are generally set up for formerly homeless people, like the new facility that will replace La Casa Shelter in Columbia Heights.

But small, cheap apartments needn’t be flophouses or a better version of homeless shelters. Rather, think of them simply as micro-studios, with the same kind of lease as a regular apartment. Just look at the Videre in Seattle, where 46 units averaging 130 square feet go for between $495 and $650 per month, including access to communal kitchens. They’re leasing so well that the landlord has since raised the rent.

At the moment, young people headed to D.C. after college have the option of facing the terrifyingly subjective group house market via Craigslist, where only the most charming prevail, or paying through the nose to rent in a big apartment building, which are rapidly getting more expensive. (Anecdotal evidence: My friend paid $850 for an efficiency in the Woodner on 16th and Spring Street NW in 2009 and 2010. She left for a year, and when she came back, could only get a similar unit for $1,025.)

What if, instead, they could walk in and rent a small room for six months or a year until they earn enough money to get more space, if they wanted it? That could do a few things:

  • Take the pressure off rowhouses that would be better used by young families who might otherwise move to the suburbs.
  • Allow more people to live around metro stations and not need cars.
  • Prevent people from moving to Arlington in search of cheaper apartments.

It’s especially important in D.C., where height limits prevent apartment buildings from responding to as much demand as there is in popular neighborhoods. That would do a lot to help out neighborhood retail and restaurants—-not just because of the additional people, but because those people would have more money to spend on sandwiches, or whatever. It might allow some of those in this troublingly immature generation to move out of their parents’ houses. Of course, this kind of housing needn’t be limited to young people, either; it would be equally useful for adults who’ve lost their apartments and want to stay off the streets, without paying for a hotel or waiting in line for city assistance.

The city could make this happen. Right now, they’re piloting a program that will pay people for living near where they work. Why not instead offer tax incentives for single-room occupancy buildings near Metro stations, or sell off city land with the requirement that it be used for this purpose? Places like Parcel 42 in Shaw, Hill East, and still-empty lots in NoMa would be ideal locations. At a time when it’s more difficult to make housing affordable through subsidies, apartments can at least be made affordable through size, and I guarantee they’d lease up immediately.

Unfortunately, apodments will probably run into resistance in some neighborhoods that don’t even like rentals at all. If it does, it should be ignored—-the need for affordable, flexible housing is too great.