In defence of 'dog kennel' flats

The Guardian writes:

"Hundreds of tiny studio flats, many smaller than a budget hotel room, are to be squeezed into an eleven-storey block in north London as its developer takes advantage of the government’s relaxation of planning regulations.

Plans for Barnet House, used by the London borough of Barnet’s housing department, reveal that 96% of the 254 proposed flats will be smaller than the national minimum space standards of 37 sq metres (44 sq yards) for a single person.

The tiniest homes will be 16 sq metres – 40% smaller than the average Travelodge room. They are legal because of government deregulation designed to promote the conversion of underused office space to help meet housebuilding targets.

Local residents have labelled the Barnet scheme “ridiculous” and “immoral”, comparing the planned homes to dog kennels."

This is of course good news. Due to Britain's extremely restrictive planning laws it is incredibly difficult to get anything built. Supply and demand matter. If we effectively make it illegal to build enough houses (in the places people want to live) then we have two options. Either we effectively price out thousands of people who could live and work in cities like London, or we take existing property (residential and commercial) and divide it up into ever shrinking portions. Neither option is ideal, but for those who would otherwise be priced out the latter is surely preferable. Britain may have some of the tiniest homes in Europe, but better to have small homes than none at all.

Not everyone's happy. The plans have been attacked by local residents, councillors, architects and the Labour frontbench. They argue that these flats are cramped and living in them would be unpleasant even for singletons. I don't disagree. If I were living alone I'd certainly prefer to live in a bigger place and pay more. I suspect many feel the same way. But the law shouldn't inflict my personal preferences upon everyone else.

Economics is about trade-offs (e.g. Would I trade a smaller flat for more beer money?). Preferences differ dramatically from person to person. One-size fits all rules such as minimum floor space regulations can never fully take into account the fact that different people will choose to make different trade-offs.

Take the case of ex-ASI employee Charlotte Bowyer. When she worked for the ASI she was a 'property guardian'. Property guardians keep disused building (e.g. churches, libraries, and offices) safe from squatters and vandalism. In return, they get to live in the building at significantly discounted rents. The buildings they stay in fall well below the standards typically required by planners. As she puts it:

"The first guardians to move in reported mouse droppings (from cannibalistic mice, it turns out, for they proceeded to eat my taxidermy collection), people’s urine and general filth. It's covered in warnings about the asbestos, and we wash in temporary showers by the old cubicled toilets.

There's no way in hell that these kind of properties would get built for human habitation."

Because the normal regulations don't apply to property guardianship schemes she was able to make that trade-off. And while the trade-off simply meant cheaper rent for her, for others the opportunity was life-changing.

"The people I live with range from students to freelance artists to young professionals, some of whom have also signed up for the ‘luxury’ of lower rent and the excitement of living in unique spaces. For others, the scheme has allowed them to move to London to study or set up their business; an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford."

The case is similar with Barnet House's so-called 'Dog Kennel' flats. If they are going to attract renters they'll have to offer cheaper rents. For some that means letting them trade comfort for more money to spend on eating and drinking out. For others, it could mean the security to take a big risk, like starting a new business.

Over at Market Urbanism, Emily Hamilton has wrote about how even the poorest people used to be able to move to great cities like New York. She notes that:

"People of very little means could afford to live in cities with the highest housing demand because they lived in boarding houses, residential hotels, and low-quality apartments, most of which are illegal today. Making housing affordable again requires not only permitting construction of more new units, but also allowing existing housing to be used in ways that are illegal under today’s codes."

In an eye-opening piece for Slate, Alan Durning describes how the ladder was kicked away for low-income people as planners decided to regulate truly affordable housing out of existence. Many of these regulations were well-meaning, but they tended to hurt the people they were designed to help.

As he says:

"In 1909, San Francisco banned most cubicle-style hotels, which were a common form of cheap lodging for itinerant workers and others on exceptionally tight budgets. The city rationalized the policy as a fire-safety precaution. Had fire safety actually been the goal, the city would have demanded fire escapes, fire-slowing walls at certain intervals, and fire doors.

In the following decade, California began regulating rooming houses and other hotels, setting standards for bathrooms (one per 10 bedrooms), window area per room, floor space per room, and more. Again, some of these rules may have had health benefits, and the rules’ proponents certainly thought they were helping. Yet they knocked the cheapest rooms off the market without providing substitutes. Over time, building and health codes demanded ever larger rooms and more bathrooms. They, like codes for other types of housing, also mandated legitimate safety standards such as more exits, better fire-protection features, and ratproof food storage in kitchens. Other jurisdictions followed California’s lead."

Developers taking advantage of lax rules on office conversions are providing the modern-day boarding houses and residential hotels. This time, let's not let planners stop them. We should trash one-size fits all standards and instead let developers provide housing for the very poorest.