In Praise of Shared Toilets


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?

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 space, Smith notes, which they fill with bathrooms and walk-in closets. (Like this two-bedroom apartment with two and a half baths.) “What else are you going to do with all that space?” he asked. New multifamily dwellings in cities are lately taking their design cues from upscale houses in the suburbs, packing in immense en suite bathrooms with double sinks and mammoth kitchen islands even if those features waste our limited urban space.

We are, I think, a little too attached to the notion that bathrooms are somehow unseemly, that the goings-on there are too shameful to be shared in any way. It wasn’t always like this. A few months ago, I read The Making of ‘The African Queen,’ by Katharine Hepburn. Instead of being shot in a studio, the movie was largely filmed on location, which was comparatively rare in the early 1950s and involved some mishaps and inconveniences, including what Hepburn describes as an awkward toilet situation: She, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall had to share a row of outhouses with only thin partitions between them. Rather than risk sitting in an outhouse next to Bogart, Hepburn opted to use a chamber pot in her cabin instead. Because she had used chamber pots as a child, she knew a trick, she added: line the inside with newspaper. It’s unfathomable that a movie star today would disclose either her feelings about toilet sharing or offer a pro tip for pooping in a bucket. Whereas our current mind-set has led us to a situation where obsessive focus on privacy is hogging square feet that could, especially now, be put to better use: as offices, extra bedrooms, or a better dining area where you can sit with friends.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Years ago, I interviewed two long-term residents of the Chelsea Hotel who told me they were perfectly content to share a bathroom in the hall. Not only was it convenient to have the space stocked and cleaned by someone else, “it’s a matter of principle,” one of them, Ed Hamilton, told me. “It’s an affordable way to live.” And yes, okay, that was the Chelsea Hotel, but less storied buildings, like a renovated SRO in Harlem that rents out rooms with kitchenettes and shared hall bathrooms for around $1,500 a month, has attracted a steady stream of young professionals. (At the moment, only one of the building’s 20 units is available.) As for the Carmine Street apartment, the writer reconsidered after seeing the price had dropped to $1,850. But before he could get back in touch with the agent, someone else had rented it.

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