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Rooming Houses No Longer Seen as Bad for Neighborhoods; Recent Trends Show Benefits

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the January 2019 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

Affordable housing, in the view of many, is the number one economic issue in the District, especially in light of the recently reported population increase to over 700,000. That’s good for the local economy, but it also means demand for housing is going up. Meanwhile, the District went from having 65,200 units priced under $800 in 2005 to only 35,000 in 2012, a decrease of over 31,000 units. At the same time the cost of renting has increased, though wages of working- and lower-income workers in has remained stagnant.

“My grandparents met, fell in love and married out of their Rooming House experience,” said Dupont Circle Neighbor Joel. Further, as Mary, another Dupont neighbor, asked, “I wonder if rooming houses could be a partial answer for the aging,” continuing, “rooming houses might give them a sense of community and may set the stage for easy assistance.”

What if one could draw a connection among between loneliness, lack of affordable housing, and rooming houses?

Loneliness is being characterized as “an epidemic.” We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization. Yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.

As reported in the November 21, 2018 Wall Street Journal article, “US Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survery 2003-2015,” recent research indicates that many of those at age 80 in the United States spend an average of eight hours alone versus three hours alone when one is 15 years of age.


Rooming houses — aka boarding houses — have a rich history in the United States. During the 1920s through the 1950s, many famous writers and artists traveled about the country and staying in rooming houses. In that era, often when a woman would get a downtown job, she started out living in a rooming house since she was not paid much and did not have a car. Old photos record the hundreds of women government workers who lived in those establishments in Washington between 1935 and 1945.

Jill from Columbus, Ohio, opines: “Did rooming houses run out their useful life? It seems to me that rooming houses came about in the years surrounding the Depression when jobs were scarce and many men had to leave home and go to other cities to earn a living for their families. Those renting the rooms were frequently widows, or single women in need of extra income to keep from losing their homes. Transportation was also slower, so commuting would not be practical. Once jobs became more readily available, and travel from longer distances more practical, the concept of rooming houses faded.”

But, during the 1970’ and 1980s they took on a sinister glow resulting in neighborhood problems of neglect and crime. Often, rooming houses attracted the most vulnerable, including the homeless. Cities, including Washington, began regulating them – actually, almost regulating them out of business. In so doing, they may have inadvertently pushed them into a shadow economy.

Today, however, a new generation (including students) is bringing about a reversal of the negative reputation as a new sort of “mini”-rooming houses are coming into vogue – though municipal regulatory protocols have not kept up.

When it opened in 1928 at the corner of 14th Street and Otis Place, NW, the Cavalier was then regarded as a luxury hotel. Although called an “hotel,” it may have served more or less as a boarding house for working people in the neighborhood who lacked cars and by residing there had easy access to the streetcars that ran along 14th Street and provided easy connections to other streetcar lines serving the District.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau comments that “[t]his site has a great deal of history, later becoming Cavalier apartments and then after a decline and then under the incredible leadership of Leon Hubbard, became what it is today, Hubbard Place. It is managed by Somerset and the tenant president is Ms. Smead. In 2009, owners effectuated a full exterior renovation. It is a Landmark Building and is on the National Register.”

DC Rooming Houses Regulations

DC’s regulations for this business category follow the standard set out under code section 721310-1 in the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).<> NAICS is the standard used by federal statistical agencies in classifying business establishments for the purpose of collecting, analyzing, and publishing statistical data related to the U.S. business economy.

This classification applies to businesses which “use, maintain, or advertise a building or part of a building — other than a hotel — as an enclosure where meals and lunches are furnished for a consideration to five or more transients or borders who have sleeping accommodations upon the premises.” (DC Municipal Regulations, Title 14, Chapter 11.)

Just based on the above, one can see that the services of an attorney are already necessary. DC classifies rooming houses as “transient,” thereby triggering a variety of fees up to $258. In addition, a basic business license must be obtained along with a Certification of Occupancy from the Office of Zoning Administrator. Then there must be a health inspection carried out by the DC Environmental Health Administration’s Bureau of Food, drug and Radiation Protection. Also a Fire Marshall inspection is necessary. Finally, these buildings must be in compliance with the DC housing regulations.

(For “amateur” landlords Urban Turf offers guidance in an article outlining seven steps, the first one titled “Make Your Place Legal.”)<>

As stated by the Administrator of the consumer and regulatory affairs department’s Business and Professional Licensing Administration, Vincent Parker, “the DCRA Business Licensing Division licenses Rooming Houses. DCRA issues Basic Business Licenses (BBLs). There are currently 80 Rooming House BBLs issued in the city.” Parker also stated that he did not know whether the number is increasing or decreasing nor who is staying in these establishments.

To find a listing of the rooming houses in the city, DCRA maintains an accessible database; first click the option for License Category and then from in the drop down menu field find rooming houses. Among those listed in The InTowner’s reporting area are the following:

2005 Columbia Road, NW; advertised as American Guest House and listed as a licensed bed and breakfast with a starting nightly rate of $209, this 12-bedroom Colonial-style home dates from 1893.

1313 Harvard Street, NW; owned by Superior Services.

1422 Harvard Street, NW; known in the neighborhood as a hostel.

1353 Irving Street, NW; built in 1900 as a private home, this now small apartment house last sold 10 years ago $704,000.

■ 2420 K Street, NW; this four-unit, three-story 1935-built zone R5D Foggy Bottom multi-family building, has off-street parking for six cars.

1329 Q Street, NW; this is a 2,000 square-foot multi-family home with four bedrooms and two baths, built in 1895, and assessed in 2014 at over $847.000.

1338 R Street, NW; known as the Anna Cooper House in honor of the distinguished late 19th-early 20th century African-American scholar and anti-slavery advocate Anna J. Cooper, is owned by S.O.M.E. (So Others Might Eat) and being operated as an SRO providing affordable, long-term housing for residents needing housing and other assistance.

2822-24 Sherman Avenue, NW; now serving as permanent, affordable Single Room Occupancy (SRO) for men operated by the Coalition for the Homeless.<>

1727 Willard Street, NW; this 2,900 Square-foot, four bedroom, five bath house built in 1890 is valued at $1.6 million.

3611-14th Street, NW; known in the neighborhood as the Tourist Hostel.

2451 18th Street, NW; owned by Stephen G. Schutter, this facility started up in 2016 and is a member of the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District.


Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau shared the following thought with The InTowner: “The District has a rich history of diverse housing stock. Now, more than ever, we need options for housing at every income level and lifestyle to meet the growing demand and to address the increasing housing prices.” Maybe the terms “boarding houses” and “rooming houses” have worn out their welcome. The trend now is to use the terms “co-living,” “shared housing” or “communal living.” This trend reflects not only choices of Millennials but older persons seeking to save money and build a sense of community.

As for the communal living idea, consider properties like the historic Chastleton Apartments at 16th and R Streets, NW where its 300 co-op residents value the spacious common areas. Similarly, the residents of the Samuel J. Simmons NCBA Estates apartment building at 14th and Harvard Streets, NW.

And, while it might be a stretch to include the luxury Hepburn apartment building at 19th Street and Florida Avenue, NW behind the Washington Hilton  or The Residences at the Ritz Carlton at 22nd and M Streets, NW, in the idea of “community living,” am argument can be made. In their ads and marketing promotions, they highlight that residents will be spending little time in their apartments but instead in the common areas —  game room, library, business center, fitness center, rooftop pool and cabanas; that there will be arranged outdoor entertainment, pet washes and grilling stations.

All this suggests that the time has come for the DC government to recognize these communal living trends and instead of outdated regulations, recognize the need to re-think public policy leading to an encouraging regulatory environment.

*Larry Ray is a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) in both Columbia Heights and Dupont Circle. He is a Senior Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University School of Law. He serves as the NextDoor Liaison for NE Columbia Heights neighborhood, NW.

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.