As we consider zoning alternatives that support affordability (“Our View: Local zoning drives high housing costs,” Nov. 21), it’s worth looking back to a solution that preserved historic homes, while providing affordable housing to two generations at once. Until the mid-20th century, boarding houses housed many low-wage unmarried workers while also meeting the housing costs of their owners, who were typically unmarried older women.

Boarding House Blocks 1 and 2 in the Laconia Division of Pepperell Mills provided housing for workers and formed an extension of York Street beyond Laconia Street in Biddeford. Courtesy of McArthur Library

My mother and her sisters each moved upon high school graduation to a boarding house on Bank Street in Brunswick. The move made it possible for the girls to take jobs downtown – something that would have been impossible to farm girls who couldn’t yet afford cars.

Because boarding houses existed, they could move to their first “independent” housing with nothing more than the clothing and hobby gear they already owned. They didn’t need enough upfront cash to outfit an entire apartment with furniture, kitchenware and cleaning supplies. And the unmarried woman who owned the house became able, thanks to her boarders, to afford maintenance of the large, traditional Maine property she had probably inherited.

Zoning generally disallows these housing arrangements today, but they provided a housing solution that supported two generations and preserved Maine’s existing stock of homes. At a time when nearly a third of the adult population lives expensively alone and many more struggle with endlessly transient roommate arrangements, we need to make boarding houses part of the housing conversation once more.

Carlene Hill Byron
Topsham

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