Why For-Profit Housing Ruins Kitchens

When profit is the bottom line, functionality and human enjoyment do not matter.

As someone who enjoys cooking and is a serial apartment renter, I am constantly frustrated by kitchens. Or, should I say, the parts of living spaces which we now call “kitchens”? If you’ve rented recently, you know that the kitchen in a typical apartment is truly crappy—cramped, devoid of storage space, and open to the sight (and smell) of nearby rooms. But why? My theory is simply that the work of cooking food is not considered a priority in the design of these units. It’s simple: if profit is the sole motive for a landlord to rent out a space, your living experience as a renter is not important. Let me explain.

Nowadays, many apartments feature “open” living plans which make kitchens less functional and cooking more difficult and less enjoyable. I’m talking about the spaces that architecture critic Kate Wagner describes as “open concept.” These spaces are easily recognizable. They’re spaces without walls, a trend in domestic architecture over the last few decades that has replaced the previous trend of spaces without doors. These spaces consist of an “entry-kitchen-dining-living combination that avoids any kind of structural separation between uses.” To my mind, these are a scourge of the modern renter, and they’re one of my pet peeves because they turn a kitchen into something of a non-kitchen. Often, you’ll have a kitchen take the form of a single wall with appliances, a sink, cabinets, and countertops (but no pantry) built directly into it. This resembles a studio apartment, but it’s not a studio because the apartment otherwise has walled-off bedrooms.

Wagner notes that the kitchen was the last room in the home to lose its closed form. For kitchens in an “open concept” plan, this means that the work of preparing food spills out into the living space, which I very much dislike. Who wants a particularly pungent ingredient to be detectable all throughout the home? Who wants to look at piles of dirty dishes, produce peelings, and strewn dish towels from the view of the nearby living room couch—where, by the way, you might have guests seated waiting for the food? And, as Wagner puts it, “Nothing is more maddening than trying to read or watch television in the tall-ceilinged living room with someone banging pots and pans or using the food processor 10 feet away in the open kitchen.”

There’s more to dislike about apartment kitchens: the frustrating lack of counter space; tiny, shallow sinks1 that make washing even a medium-sized pot difficult; the cheap faucets that splash water everywhere; a lack of hooks to hang dish towels (and keep in mind, the application of adhesives for stick-on hooks is strictly prohibited by your lease); the fake pantries that consist of a narrow cabinet that is too deep and poorly-lit inside to be functional; and even worse, the absent pantries. Where are you supposed to put your foodstuffs? You know, the raw ingredients to cook with? Or even your trash can or broom?

Not too long ago, I spent the better part of a year browsing rental listings, and I came across maybe two or three units that had a legitimate pantry. And no, a cabinet is not a pantry. The best way I can explain this is as follows: imagine a clothes closet where the hanging rack does not run lengthwise from left to right but front to back. So you open your closet, and your rack looks like a narrow hallway spread out in front of you. And there’s no lighting. How is this useful? How are you supposed to easily identify a particular piece of clothing? This is essentially what many apartments have in place of real pantries. Otherwise, many people just use a cabinet. But the beauty of a pantry is that you have some form of shelving that easily lets you identify your goods all in one view, and the shelving is typically larger than that of a cabinet, so you can easily store bulky items like onions, potatoes, bananas, or large canned goods which don’t fit very well in a cabinet or otherwise take up lot of counter space. And in the case of a walk-in pantry, there’s lighting overhead so you can actually see things.

Now, not being a homeowner myself, my reference point for kitchens comes from the two homes in my family: my childhood home and my grandma’s home, both of which are very small (1,100 and 1,700 square feet, respectively). Both homes were built in the early to mid-20th century and have kitchens that are distinct rooms—as in, you can close doors to separate them off from the rest of the house. And—hallelujah—they have actual pantries! My grandma’s pantry is a small walk-in pantry that fits only one person. You walk in, and on each side, there are floor-to-ceiling shelves. The kitchen is a square with a table in the middle. In my childhood home, we have a non-walk-in, floor-to-ceiling shelf separated from the room by a door. The kitchen is something of a “galley” kitchen, a narrow hallway-like space with workspace on either side. Both kitchens also have decent counter space and normal-size sinks. By modern standards, they are tiny. And they are old. But they are functional, and I enjoy using them when I go home to visit.

For anyone who hasn’t tried out a kitchen that is its own room, I highly recommend it. It keeps the work of food preparation where it belongs! I have never heard a guest complain: I wish to see all the evidence of cooking that went on in the kitchen, and I cannot with this closed kitchen plan. Open up the kitchen! Free the smells! At the same time, having a barely functional open kitchen is definitely a disincentive to hosting guests for a meal (contrary to the idea that an open plan facilitates entertaining). In the apartment I used to live in, my partner and I never had anyone over for meals even though we love to cook. The space was just too cramped. And besides, the apartment complex had no guest parking (and this was in a city where you absolutely need a car to get anywhere; there’s no efficient public transit). Talk about structural impediments to social life!

Which brings me to my point: that kitchens are often subpar because renters’ living experiences simply don’t matter to the landlord class. Let’s think about the amount of rent a landlord can charge for a given unit. It’ll depend on the property value, which in turn depends in part on the amenities in the home. That’s why, I suspect, I have seen so many rental units with brand-new kitchen appliances (including massive dishwashers) yet very small kitchens with hardly any counter space (countertops are marble or granite, though!) and no pantries. The amenities drive up the value—and the rent—and it’s of no concern to the landlord whether this setup is actually internally consistent or functional for the renter. A serious cook who uses appliances is going to need counter space and probably want a pantry!2

Another example: I’ve also come across, not infrequently, apartments where the clothes washer/dryer is located inside a bedroom—not in a closet, but in the corner of a bedroom—or takes the place of a pantry in a kitchen. The presence of that washer/dryer is advertised as a perk and adds to the value of the unit. But these appliances can be a nuisance in these locations. Yet the landlord doesn’t care that you might not want to put up with the sound of a washer and dryer in your bedroom or your kitchen. Or.… the sound of a dishwasher in your living space. Or…. that you might want an actual pantry! And whatever happened to laundry rooms? (Far too few apartments have these. It’s much better for corporate America’s bottom line to sell appliances to put into every single living space.)

The unspoken reasoning behind all this, of course, is that landlords have an incentive to keep apartment units small (especially in newly constructed buildings—why rent four medium-sized units when you can rent eight tiny ones?), so they will stick things of value wherever they can in the unit to maximize their rent. Apartments have been getting smaller over the years even as rents have risen significantly faster than wages, and people are spending larger percentages of their incomes on rent. So the kitchen problem is not just one of annoying appliance upgrades but of space getting smaller and renters getting squeezed overall. Which is why it makes me so mad.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting that we all need massive apartments. I’m not against spaces being small per se (again, the homes in my family are quite small). I’m against spaces being non-functional or less functional than they should be—especially when renters are paying so much money for housing. And I think it’s a huge problem when our living spaces are not conducive to something so basic and enjoyable as cooking our own food. While it’s great to enjoy frozen or pre-prepared meals, having the ability to cook our own food is critical to our health and well-being. Practically anything prepared in the home is going to be healthier than commercially prepared food. (Do you happen to have in your kitchen jars full of chemical additives whose names you can’t pronounce, just waiting for you to add them to your food?) And cooking one’s own food is also likely more economical, which is especially important given how much the cost of food itself (and eating out) has risen in the last few years.

Now, you may be asking yourself, Why doesn’t the writer just buy a home and stop complaining? Indeed, homeownership gives people, in Wagner’s words, “agency within the built environment.” But I’m not in a position to take on a mortgage, and I think deference to homeownership skirts an important question about why our housing can’t just be better overall. Why do we need to purchase a 30-year financial product to deserve a good, functional, pleasing living space?

Wagner had an interesting piece in The Nation recently, in which she declared that “Capitalist Rot Has Spread to American Kitchens.” I think this perfectly sums up my point about rental kitchens—even if Wagner was talking about people who are fixing up or designing homes and kitchens they own, rather than renters. She was mostly talking about how popular design trends within the “cultural ecosystem” have impacted kitchens and made them simply too big in size. Wagner writes:

Lost in all of this [media and culture], however, is what a kitchen is or does. […] Since [the 1970s], the kitchen—originally presumed to have walls—has become more and more formless and less and less efficient for cooking. Many new suburban kitchens require constant trips across 300 square feet or more.

She contrasts those kitchens to her tiny apartment kitchen in Slovenia, where she currently lives, and concludes, “Maybe we should spend less time contemplating countertops and finishes and instead ask ourselves what even the humblest architecture does—or should do—for us.” While I’m not in a position to design my own kitchen, I think she’s right. We should ask ourselves not only what architecture and design should do for us, but what housing should do for us. All of us.

While the homelessness problem in the U.S. shows how far away we are from securing housing for all, it’s a goal we must work toward. Anything less is unacceptable. And we need to have functional housing for all. We need to be able to cook our own food, and having proper functional kitchens is key to this. But in the for-profit housing market, all that matters is extracting money from people. Until we do away with the profit motive, our living enjoyment will never be a priority.

  1. At my last apartment, I had a kitchen sink that was very shallow and small. The curved corners of the sink seemed to make the water splash up onto you. Once, when a maintenance worker came to do some repair in the kitchen, I asked him whether the sink seemed deep enough. He shook his head. “I can see right away this sink is no good. It’s too shallow.” 

  2. Another point about dishwashers is that I find them terribly unhelpful as a person who lives alone. They take up valuable storage space. And I don’t have enough dishes to dirty so many of them that it would fill up the appliance. And I have no incentive to try to fill it up with the few dishes I do have because once everything is dirty, I don’t wish to wait an hour or longer for everything to be washed. But dishwashers are omnipresent—again, I suspect, due to the value they add to the property. A final word about property values in kitchens: another feature added to kitchens is the ‘backsplash’ along the walls that go between the countertop and the cabinet. Apartments will have these barely functional kitchens.… And these tacky decorative tile backsplash walls! Who actually wants these? I am aware that backsplash is supposed to protect the wall from, well, splashes. But that does nothing, from the user’s perspective, to make an inherently not-too-functional space more functional. 


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