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Chapter Four— Rooming Houses and the Margins of Respectability
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Light Housekeeping Rooms

Light housekeeping rooms were the cheap apartment-style alternative to rooming house life. They were typically one- or two-room suites in flimsily adapted former houses or apartments, usually in declining neighborhoods (fig. 4.25). By the 1920s, the hallmark of a housekeeping room was the "ubiquitous gas plate" on an old crate in a corner of the bedroom, with a rubber hose leading from it up to the wall gaslight fixture.[87] To keep cooking grease from splattering the wallpaper, tenants pinned newspaper against the wall. A pail of water might serve as a sink. There was usually an improvised pantry made by a large soap box, with cheap curtains on the front. Elsewhere, housekeeping meant simply that several tenants shared both kitchen and bath. Managers of light housekeeping units typically supplied a table, two chairs, a bureau, a few dishes, and a few cooking utensils.[88] As with rooming houses, daily management was left to resident women who leased the buildings as a business. By all accounts, housekeeping rooms were sanitary and social problems. They were technically not hotel units because of their cooking arrangements, although some surveys included them in the ranks of single-room occupancy. Even when owners borrowed names like "apartment hotel" or "residence club" for their furnished room buildings, the lineage of these operations led directly back to the worst nineteenth-century slum traditions. In 1939, two-fifths of San Francisco's substandard housing units were housekeeping rooms. The advantage for the landlord was


Figure 4.25
Kitchenette apartment buildings (light housekeeping rooms) on South
Parkway in Chicago, 1941.

income: a building cut into two-room units brought twice the monthly rental income that it produced as five-room flats.[89]

Housekeeping rooms were often crowded by families who had fallen on hard times; social workers called them "dejected families" (fig. 4.26). Unlike poor immigrant families in tenements, tenants in housekeeping rooms were usually born in America and often white. Their trip to housekeeping rooms began when they defaulted on the mortgage on their house, stored their furniture, and moved into some sort of hotel while the breadwinners recovered from illness, continued to drink, or looked for work. If the family's finances continued to decline, they often lost their furniture for nonpayment of storage fees.[90] Thus, they found themselves locked into life in housekeeping rooms. Other families came to choose it over the option of having a full-fledged apartment; when social workers helped them obtain a flat and furniture, the families moved right back into cheap furnished rooms. For such households, the social workers reserved the labels "shiftless" and "tramp families."[91]

More expensive apartments were usually out of the question for people in the rooming house price range. The barriers were entry costs and application barriers more than the monthly rents. Matrons in the YWCA cautioned that "it was a risky thing for two or three girls to take an apartment together" because "if one dropped out the remainder were then forced to bear the financial burden" until a new room-


Figure 4.26
Housework in light housekeeping rooms in Chicago, ca. 1929. Note the rubber tube connecting
the gas wall fixture to the hot plate.

mate could be found.[92] Even when respectable and inexpensive downtown apartments became more available, young single people had neither the nest egg nor the job security to buy the furniture, linens, and kitchen equipment that apartments required. Unmarried or poorly employed people also had a slim chance of getting a lease from apartment managers. Furnished one-room efficiency apartments solved some of these problems, but at $25 to $30 a month they were beyond economic reach. They outpriced an unfurnished four-room garden apartment in the suburbs (table 2, Appendix). So, until their income improved, the low-income renters stayed in housekeeping rooms or in a rooming house.

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Chapter Four— Rooming Houses and the Margins of Respectability
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