Last fall, Washington, D.C., Councilmember Vincent Orange (At-Large) proposed building 1,000 “tiny houses” for low-income residents and millennials. His bill — “The Minimum Wage, Living Wage, and Millennial Tiny Housing Amendment Act of 2015” [PDF] — quickly drew criticism as being “gimmicky” and potentially discriminatory. What many don’t know is that Orange’s initiative wasn’t the first time District leaders sought to solve big housing problems with small houses.
In Washington’s earliest years, alleys housed horses and privies. As African Americans began streaming into the city during the Civil War, most alleys were converted to residential uses and many small wood shacks went up. These quickly became overcrowded and concerns about disease and crime followed.
Between 1872 and 1878 nearly 1,000 houses in Washington’s alleys were condemned, with housing reformers and public health activists pushing to clear out these blighted, crowded, and “insanitary” spaces. But in 1878, Congress re-organized the District government by creating the commissioner system. Unlike the earlier government, the reconstituted Board of Health lacked the authority to condemn insanitary buildings.
That led to a return of tiny houses in alleys. In 1890, the Washington Evening Star described the concentration of poor people in DC’s alleys as a result of increasing property values. Small houses in alleys created housing for Washington’s poor and profits for the city’s real estate speculators, the paper reported.
Critics assailed the move as pandering to influential real estate speculators. “Construction of houses in the alleys promised profits,” James Ring told Congress in 1944. Ring was the administrative officer for the National Capital Housing Authority and the Senate was holding hearings on extending a deadline to vacate Washington’s remaining alley dwellings.
What Ring said next about the period between 1880 and 1892 is important: “There were philosophically inclined persons who sincerely believed that well-built little houses in the alleys were far better socially than insanitary alley shacks.”
Ring went on to describe a construction boom in Washington’s alleys, what he called “a very active period of buying and selling the rear ends of street lots.”
In a 2014 the DC State Historic Preservation Office published a survey of alley buildings, along with a history of their development. Architectural historian Kim Prothro Williams wrote that the 1880s construction boom simply replaced small insanitary wood buildings that lacked indoor plumbing with small insanitary brick buildings that lacked indoor plumbing.
Washington’s first tiny house movement ended in 1892 when Congress passed a law prohibiting construction of new houses in alleys less than 30 feet wide and lacking sewage connections. The Washington Post astutely observed that the new health laws would have an immediate impact on the city and its growing suburbs. “Cheap abodes for the poorer class of people within the city limits will no longer be obtainable,” the paper reported in April 1892. “Facilities will, therefore, have to be found for transportation to the suburbs, where the man drawing a moderate salary can own a lot, build a comfortable home, and then be able to reach it.”
Fast forward 100 years to a Washington that is increasingly unaffordable, with a growing population, and which is struggling with finding ways to reduce reliance on the automobile. The roots of these contemporary urban ills may be seen in the solutions for nineteenth century problems.
Most of Washington’s alley dwellings were eliminated in successive waves of 20th century slum clearance and urban renewal. As early as the 1940s, Washington’s middle class residents began transforming what newspapers like the Washington Post and Evening Star called slums in a wave of private-sector redevelopment. Historians Chris Meyers Asch and Derek Musgrove have dubbed this redevelopment boom Washington’s second gentrification wave.
Today, many of the District’s remaining alleys are located within historic districts and are protected from demolition. Some of them are being re-gentrified with former stables and light industrial plants being converted into housing and upscale eateries, bars, and boutique businesses.
Orange’s tiny houses proposal could mean Washington may be coming full circle to embrace the benefits of housing and economic diversity. Though the Washington City Paper compared the potential outcome of Orange’s proposal to the creation of new fangled Hoovervilles—
© D.S. Rotenstein