Minimal (Pod) Housing for the (Lower) Leisure Class

This post suggests that the traditional approach to low-income housing is not working. This post focuses on rental housing; another post extends and revises this concept for low-income home ownership.

What makes more sense is pod housing, based on the example of the capsule hotel, as in these photos (click to enlarge):

So let’s talk about the why and the how of pod housing for lower-income people.

The why is easy. Somehow, America got itself into a place where life is expected to be incredibly expensive. Transportation is a great example. To get to work — or anywhere, really — you need a car. And this is not a People’s Car, designed to be inexpensive to fix, inexpensive to operate. No. This is a Lexus or an SUV or some other huge, expensive, luxurious monster, giving each person the constitutional right to spend an hour or two each workday clogging freeways that cost (can you believe this) $10 million or more per mile — as if the whole point were to waste as much steel, concrete, and gas as possible because, after all, the environment is not polluted enough yet. Because what we really needed was to design American residential spaces primarily to accommodate cars rather than people. Because anyone who thinks it should be safe to ride a bicycle deserves to be hospitalized. Nothing pathological about that, right?

I mean, look at what happens when you try to prioritize the practical task of getting people from point A to point B in the most affordable and efficient manner possible. You wind up with a mess, with something like New York or San Francisco — where, obviously, nobody wants to live.

So. Being Americans, let’s try to achieve that same kind of success with the only thing more expensive than your car, namely, your house. If you can afford one, that is, because (as we know from the automobile example) the first priority is to make shelter as expensive and wasteful as possible. Quick quiz: what, in America, is the most desirable form of residence? Answer: the market has sorted this out quite efficiently. In America, the most desirable form of residence is the sprawling estate, with a chunk of land, in a prestigious location, featuring a 6,000-square-foot (or larger) house occupied by one or two people — because, again, the objective is to waste as much as possible. We know this because that kind of housing is at the top of many local real estate markets. Oh, and — as I know from living in such places — the grounds and the pool and everything else in and around that mansion, and its neighbors forming a privileged community, will require rivers of fresh water and pesticides, mountains of fertilizer and mulch for the lawn, vast quantities of electricity to keep the place lit and heated and air conditioned, and constant attention from an army of electricians, plumbers, landscapers, arborists, pool boys, and the like, because (a) things break, and the more things you have, the more breakage, and (b) the market suggests that what you really want to do, once you get such a place, is tinker with it, embellish it, tweak it to prove you have wealth, and to feel luxurious in it, and also to make it more marketable because, after all, the point of having the most desirable form of American residence is, for many such owners, not to have a home — God forbid they should know their neighbors, in that sort of ghetto — but, rather, to make money from selling it.

Nothing pathological about that, either.

Well. Far be it from me to question the market. My only purpose in writing, here, is to contemplate a possible solution for the American “failures” who lack the pathology necessary to stand with pride at the top of the housing heap. I’m talking about ordinary people who just want to live their lives, preferably spending their money on fun things, important things, anything but the ball and chain known as Home.

I spent some time living in my car. Or, more accurately, living out of my car, because it was a Honda Civic. You couldn’t live in it. You couldn’t do much more than sit in it — and use it to haul around a tent, a cookstove, and other basics that you could then set up in the great big outdoors. So, in a sense, your mansion was the size of Montana, if that’s what you needed in order to have a proper view as you munched your granola. Admittedly, the mansion had an insect problem; its restroom facilities were often less than pristine; refrigeration was sketchy; the shower consisted of a jug capable of being poured over the head while standing naked in an otherwise empty camping space. Not everyone could or would want to endure something like this. And yet it was one of the best experiences of my life.

That car-camping experience made use of space without having to own it. That’s also the concept behind the standard apartment rental, of course; but since this is America, the standard apartment — like the ideal house — is designed, again, to be as wasteful and expensive as possible. Do you need a place to cook meals? Fine. You’ll get a stove. You’ll use it, on average, once or twice a day. The rest of the time it will sit there, taking up space. Need a place to take a bath? No problem: a bathtub! You’ll use it a few times a week, or maybe just a few times a year. But it’s there, in case you need it. And (through your landlord) you will pay the full cost of acquiring it, installing it, fixing it when it clogs or leaks — and similarly for your own private heater, air conditioner, refrigerator, toaster, big-screen TV, rowing machine, and everything else you can manage to buy and stick into that place.

Gee, I wonder why housing is so expensive.

It’s all very private and convenient, especially as we become more pathologically avoidant, less comfortable with being around people and more desirous of ways to avoid them — not to mention more lonely, which is also part of living in a wealthier country. A study cited by U.S. News found that three out of four American show serious signs of loneliness. Numerous studies link loneliness with serious health problems. To which, as Americans, we already know the proper response: Yeah! Bring it on! Just as long as it’s expensive and wasteful!

(At this point, insert the sound of the phonograph needle being ripped across the vinyl disk, as we reconsider this whole scheme.)

What if we started over, from a living-out-of-my-car perspective? I mean, start with the very basic basics, and add on from there as needed. The Honda Civic can carry a tent, as I was saying, and a cookstove and so forth. Need a fridge? OK, upsize to a van that can hold it, and add solar panels or a generator to power it. You get the idea.

Realistically, America can’t and won’t live out of its cars or vans. People need a place to call home. But the point remains: people don’t truly need, and many of them can’t afford, to participate in the real estate market as we know it.

What’s needed is the capsule home, as in the picture above.

Capsule hotels exist because, sometimes, a person just needs a place to sleep. Capsule hotels tend to be found in very expensive places, where travelers (especially) don’t want to rent a whole room for a day or more. But the idea of the capsule hotel could be extended and modified to accommodate individuals and (with separate, linked capsules) families who do want their own private sleeping space, but don’t need it to be room- or house-sized.

As the picture suggests, capsule hotels can actually be very nice. Heating can be relatively cheap, because you aren’t heating or cooling so much space: one little built-in electrical heater will suffice; every last sleeper doesn’t have to install (or pay someone to provide) a furnace. Restroom facilities are relatively cheap — even if you put each sink-and-toilet pair into a separate room that a person can go into and lock (rather than offering just one large public bathroom) — because the restroom is another one of those things that people only use a handful of times a day. Capsule hotels don’t necessarily have their own kitchen facilities, but the concept is the same: you could have your own private, locked shelf in an industrial fridge, like the one at the store where you open a glass door to grab a gallon of milk. Maybe the kitchen is staffed by cooks, or maybe residents have their own work-sharing arrangements, according to whether one is best suited to cook or clean or stock shelves. Maybe there’s a shared toaster, coffeemaker, and microwave, like in a regular hotel’s continental breakfast area. The kitchen area could actually be far superior to what most people can afford because, again, there’s space to store the wafflemaker, the soy milk maker, the food processor, and so forth, and you don’t have to buy one of each, by yourself.

So I’m suggesting a modular approach to housing, where we start with what people really need — a restroom, a kitchen facility, a place to sleep — and we add amenities as circumstances dictate. Economies of scale might facilitate the addition of features that might otherwise be available only in expensive housing facilities. For instance, instead of having to buy an expensive membership in a for-profit gym, the place could again borrow from the hotel example and install a basic exercise room. It could have a library, or at least a computer room. Instead of everyone having his/her own dog and having to be home to walk it twice a day and pay the veterinary bills, maybe there’s a kennel, with a dozen different breeds. Families could share the hassles of finding and affording day care for their children. Homeschooling scale efficiencies might allow a parent to teach six or seven kids instead of one or two. And so forth.

But how about the downsides of living with others? This is partly a question of what one can afford. So, starting again at the bottom, let’s suppose the first task of a capsule facility is to provide housing for people who are homeless, living in their parents’ basement, or otherwise unable to afford, or unwilling to pay for, their own apartment. For these people, the objective would be to design a capsule building that pares expenses to the bone. Think cinderblock construction, basic metal lockers, minimal kitchen facilities, and a rule that you have to get yourself and your stuff out by 10 AM, so that they can use a firehose to clean the place. For this, let’s say, a person spends $150 per month, plus an optional food card for admission to a basic mess hall during specified hours. Not everyone will be willing and able to cope with something like that. But for those who can, there’s no better deal in town.

Let’s call that bottom-of-the-line facility Capsule Grade D. It’s a building, or a part of a building, that accommodates twenty, or fifty, or a hundred people, or whatever number seems to be most workable, in terms of cost and also in terms of people living well together. Even in a place like that, one might want to build a sense of community, with no more turnover than necessary, so that people begin to learn to cooperate to keep the place clean, safe, and pleasant. Those who can’t do this can find another place to live — because, at that point, you’re not dealing with people who are homeless due to economic adversity. You’re dealing more with behavioral issues that may require a more heavily staffed facility (e.g., Capsule Grade E).

Now, let’s go to the opposite extreme. In Capsule Grade A, we have a plush building. The capsule size is larger, consistent with whatever is price-effective and comfortable. You don’t have to worry about your fellow residents trashing the bathroom because you’ve known your neighbors for a long time, and those who can’t observe the rules or informal expectations have been demoted to Capsule Grade B. Moreover, during your first few weeks there, you were shifted around to different capsules and maybe even to different Grade A buildings (each, perhaps, with its own reputation: Party Central, the Quiet Place, etc.), so as to find neighbors with whom you are particularly compatible. For Capsule Grade A, the cost is (say) $800-1,000 per month, plus access to a nearby food court or an optional food card for a nice dining room.

Maybe people have been shifted and sorted like that in Capsule Grade D, too, so that those who don’t want a more expensive facility, but who are nonetheless capable of being good neighbors, are moved into Building D-2. It’s still cinderblock, but the rules are adjusted to encourage stability — a sense that this can be a real home, among settled people capable of being good neighbors, maybe even good friends.

Between grades A and D, there are additional levels, each with middling facilities, conditions, and prices. To move up the ranks, you have to turn in a good report from the next lower level over a period of, say, six months to a year, so as to learn and demonstrate a capacity to live considerately with others. Although the concept is described in terms of monthly rental, it would also be possible to buy and build equity, as long as the profit motive doesn’t squeeze out people who need basic housing, or inject turmoil (via e.g., corporate bankruptcy) into the place that people call home.

In any such scheme, there would be many things to sort out, many things that could go wrong. But that is also decidedly true of traditional houses and apartments. Once the basic plan is developed, the number of potential problems in this scheme is vastly smaller than in private residences, where everything is your private headache, nobody is going to help you with it, the landlord can be a pain in the neck, and you can lose your home for reasons beyond your control.

No doubt some people will be unwilling and/or unable to live well with others. That’s fine; they can find someplace that suits them better. But for the many who can get along, the option of making one’s home in a Capsule Residence is a recommended — indeed, it may be an essential — next step, toward helping post-industrial America to live within its means, in a manner that it can enjoy, with a much reduced impact on the planet.

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