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Occupants of flophouses generally share bathroom facilities and reside in very tight quarters. The people who make use of these places are often transients. Quarters in flophouses are typically very small, and may resemble office cubicles more than a regular room in a hotel or apartment building.
American flophouses date at least to the 19th century, but the term "flophouse" itself is only attested from 1904, originating in hobo slang. In the past, flophouses were sometimes called "lodging houses" or "workingmen's hotels" and catered to hobos and transient workers such as seasonal railroad and agriculture workers, or migrant lumberjacks who would travel west during the summer to work and then return to an eastern or midwestern city such as Chicago to stay in a flophouse during the winter. This is described in the 1930 novel The Rambling Kid by Charles Ashleigh and the 1976 book The Human Cougar by Lloyd Morain. Another theme in Morain's book is the gentrification which was then beginning and which has led cities to pressure flophouses to close.
Some city districts that currently have or once had flophouses in abundance became well known in their own right, such as the Bowery in Manhattan, New York City. As of 2006, building prices and value in the Bowery have significantly increased, and this combined with increased gentrification in the area seriously threatens the ability of flophouses and inexpensive boarding-style hotels to remain open.
In 1950s Hong Kong, cage homes, which have been described as "wire mesh cages resembling rabbit hutches crammed into a dilapidated apartment" were built for single working men from Mainland China. As of 2012, the number of impoverished residents in Hong Kong was estimated at 1.19 million, and cage homes, along with substandard housing such as cubicle apartments, were still serving a portion of this sector's housing needs. The combination of high rents and income inequality has been given as one reason that cage homes persist.
Cage hotels were common in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century; an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people lived in them during the winter.
These were lofts or other large, open buildings that were subdivided into tiny cubicles using boards or sheets of corrugated iron. Since these walls were always one to three feet short of the floor or ceiling, the open space was sealed off with chicken wire, hence the name “cage hotels."
A similar preference for cage hotels over shelters was reported in turn of the century New York City, where single working men ranked their housing preference in the following order:
They preferred lodging and boarding houses to cages, cages to dormitories, dormitories to flops, and flops to the city’s shelters. Men could act on these preferences by moving as their incomes increased.
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