THE REAL ESTATE 12:20 P.M.
In Praise of Shared Toilets
By Kim Velsey
Photo: Volkmar Heinz/picture alliance via Getty Images
Last week, the New York Times published an essay that asked the question “Do I really need a toilet?” The writer, Stephen Ruddy, was reflecting on the indignities of apartment hunting after 17 years in the same space. That’s an experience a lot of New Yorkers can identify with, but the detail that really seemed to stick with people was the toilet. Or rather, the lack of one. One of the apartments the writer sees is a too-good-to-be-true prewar on Carmine Street, “a genuine two-bedroom, with soaring ceilings, tremendous light and unobstructed views of Greenwich Village, all for $1,995 a month.” The catch? The john was out in the hall, shared with the other apartments on the floor.
In the days after the story ran, a number of friends texted me about it, all variations of “Did you see this?” followed by “Can you believe it?” I typed back some version of “I know, right? I would have taken it!” Which was not, it turned out, a popular opinion. But it’s not as though there wasn’t a toilet — it was just a few steps outside. The apartment had its own bathtub and sink, in a passable bathroom, no less, not the kitchen, as many unrenovated tenement apartments still do. And you just know the place is rent stabilized. Sure, a proper bathroom would have been preferable, but it’s not as if the apartment didn’t have anything else to recommend it — the windows were enormous and arched, and it was less than $2,000 a month in the Village. As any real-estate agent in New York will tell you, there are always trade-offs. What’s so terrible about a shared bathroom?https://f046138638aaaaf36734bfc3b2f4c9f5.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?upapi=trueAD
Not that there aren’t some legitimate questions, which the writer brings up: How many people would be sharing it? And who would clean it? (In SROs, the responsibility typically falls on the landlord, and when I reached out to Ruddy, he said the toilet was small but clean.) Could the tenant use the bathrooms on other floors if his was occupied? We never learn the answers because the writer considers and then ultimately decides against the apartment after learning it wouldn’t be possible to add a toilet without major renovations — which is also likely the reason the landlord never bothered to. (Although when spoke with him, Ruddy told me he was pretty conflicted about this decision: “I lived overseas at different points growing up, and hallway bathrooms are not uncommon. It never bothered me that much.”)
I’ve never really understood the obsession with having a bathroom of one’s own. Not so long ago, many homes, including the one I grew up in, had just one bathroom. Only in the past few decades has it become common in new construction to have a 1:1 bed-to-bath ratio, often with a spare half-bathroom on top of that. I spent more than a decade living in house shares, including a townhouse in San Francisco with nine roommates and two bathrooms — one of those was split, with a toilet on one side of the hall and the sink and bathtub on the other — and I can’t recall any real issues coming up. I had my own sink once, set into the dormer of a pretty old house in Connecticut, which was nice. But I’ve never had a bathroom all to myself, and I’ve never found it to be a problem. Granted, sharing with neighbors is different from sharing with roommates or family members, but it’s hardly unworkable unless someone is truly disgusting (or a real bathroom hog).
Bathrooms and kitchens are the most expensive spaces per square foot to build and renovate; given the soaring cost of housing in the U.S., it would make sense to have fewer of them. Instead, the trend has gone in the opposite direction. Stephen Smith, the co-founder of Quantierra, a real-estate tech company, tells me it’s because many multi-bedroom apartments are designed for roommates rather than families. Even dorms, one of the few communal-living experiences many Americans have, are increasingly private or semi-private bed-and-bath suites.
Those preferences were also likely created in part by zoning codes in the U.S. that push developers in cities to build bulky buildings with a lot of windowless interior s