The Truth About Rooming Houses In Philadelphia

A point of discussion that i’ve watched come up in conversation a number of times since I started in the Real Estate industry is whether or not rooming houses are legal in Philadelphia. This has always been a peculiar topic in my opinion because having been in this city going on 10 years now, it is clear to me that these types of living arrangements are very common. So it was to my surprise about a year ago when I first heard a panelist at a Real Estate conference state that they are illegal. Since that day, I have heard everything under the moon, and it has led to confusion about what the guidelines for rooming houses actually are. I thought it would be of value to do some research and finally come to terms on the case with rooming houses in Philadelphia

The Zoning Code

Based on the city’s zoning classifications, there are a few specific zoning codes that include rooming houses under their guidelines: they are the IRMX, CMX-3, CMX-4 and CMX-5 zoning classifications. These are all intended to serve a variety of uses and they are some of the more broad zoning classifications. As far as rooming houses go, the city defines them in the zoning code as such: “an establishment where more than three people not related by blood or marriage live together.” Though this may be an outdated definition, what this goes to show is that rooming houses in Philadelphia can undoubtedly be legal. The issue and rave about them is more a conversation about properties being used for rooming houses when not zoned for them

This more communal way of living is no stranger to America. In fact, throughout the entirety of history up until World War II, families tended to live more communally. It was more economical. Single-family homes aren’t cheap. A standalone home needs its own heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical infrastructure, among a slew of other requirements. Over the last 75 years, however, rooming houses have become less abundant due to the norm of privacy that was adopted in the States and changes in zoning laws. This fact is evidenced in a city like Philadelphia, where in the last 13 years only 82 rooming houses have been legally established

The Informal Economy

One of the reasons why the City of Philadelphia is an attractive place to live is because compared to some of the other major cities in the country, the cost of living is reasonable. However, an often ignored fact (or at least it seems that way given how stagnant the statistic remains) is that Philadelphia is the poorest of the major cities, with one quarter of its population living in poverty. Adjusting zoning laws to include more legal rooming housing could do wonders for a city where cost of living tends to take up a significant part of your income. There is a clear need for it in the market, and the reality is that this need is actually being met, just without the oversight of the city. In many parts of the city for instance, including North Philadelphia, rooming houses are common. Rowhouses that are unable to be singled out from others on their block serve as de-facto affordable housing complexes and answers for cheap rent in the city

Last March a fire occurred in the city where four lives were taken. It took days before the bodies came up because the three-story North Philadelphia Rowhome that the family was living in was zoned single-family but was illegally subdivided into as many as six units. This incident brought the conversation around rooming houses in low-income sections of the city to the front of the table. However, it’s important to note that around college campuses in the city students are also often occupying rooming houses, like in converted Victorians, and they are not always legal. It’s a need, and it’s one that should be addressed

The Sharing Economy

the sharing economy has introduced in recent years co-living to the housing equation, and this concept is being applied and repeated by many individuals and companies. Individuals are getting participating in the relatively new AirBnB rentals by leasing out rooms for short periods of time either through complete ownership of their properties or master leasing. And then companies like Starcity in San Francisco, WeWork’s co-living branch “WeLive” in New York and Washington D.C., and Ollie in Boston and Pittsburgh are encouraging more robust co-living experiences

These modern co-living concepts that companies are experimenting on may not always be the most affordable, however it shows the trend towards the openness around communal living, as we’ve seen before in history. The confusion with rooming housing mostly stems from the fact that these business models driven by the sharing economy are operating and iterating, while resistance continues when it comes to government zoning and the way housing is run by the city. Add to it the numerous rental properties that run as rooming houses but are zoned nothing like it, and you can understanding why the conversation around rooming housing is unclear

The City of Philadelphia needs to redefine in today’s time what rooming housing should be and make the appropriate changes to the zoning code to allow more of them to operate legally. This will increase oversight around the housing stock, force landlords to update their properties to increase safety, and decrease uncertainty around potential incidents. At the very least it’ll demystify the current lack of clarity around rooming houses in the city


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