Could Pop-Up Hotels Solve Disaster Housing Shortages?

I read with interest a recent piece in Businessweek about an innovate company that has managed to make something akin to a hotel food truck:

This year, Snoozebox Holdings is shipping 40 to 400 stackable containers to house guests at events including Le Mans, the Edinburgh Festivals of plays and concerts, and the G8 Summit. The prebooked rooms are equipped with flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, and running hot water.

Who would want to stay in one of those, you might ask? The company, Snoozebox, has already found some markets for its product.

snooze

The answer is, mostly, rich people. However, like with most innovations, what starts as a toy or luxury for the rich (telephones, VCRs, televisions, internet) usually becomes pretty affordable and widespread.

Take the devastating tornado that recently ravaged Oklahoma. Or the one in Joplin, Missouri. Housing is one of the most needed commodities in the wake of natural disasters. Could Snoozebox, or its competitors save the day and provide a market-based solution to help people in need?

While the obvious answer is yes, the reality is probably not. Or at least not anytime soon.

Whenever an innovation disrupts the current natural order, vested interests often use the law and politicians in an attempt to stifle competition. Economists call the former “creative destruction” (good) and the latter “rent seeking” (bad).

Creative destruction, in the form of the Uber car service or food trucks, is really great for consumers. Their competition — well established taxi cabals and brick-and-mortar restaurants — don’t see it that way. They get politicians to enforce laws that would inhibit any competitor from setting up shop, and if the laws doesn’t exist for that purpose, those interests usually push politicians to pass them.

Let’s rewind the clock to a day after the tornado hit Oklahoma. You work at Bomblebox, a fictional competitor of Snoozebox. Oklahoma would be an ideal place to offer your services to a populace coping with disaster. Hotels are overbooked, people are cramped in the houses of friends — often far away from the site of their former home. There’s a natural market for the Bomblebox.

Could Bomblebox drive a couple of trucks over and set up shop somewhere? In this hypothetical, it’s unlikely.

Each of the fifty states has their own laws and regulations governing hotels and lodging. And it’s unlikely that a company not already licensed to do business there could get all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted before the window of opportunity closes.snoozebox-exterior-sunshine

Second, local hoteliers, their trade groups, and other interest groups would probably object. There are a ton of ways they could do this:

Would Bomblebox’s products be up to snuff with Chapter 285 — the part of Oklahoma law that regulates lodging establishments?  Is the plumbing consistent with the Oklahoma Plumbing License Act? Is the electricity system consistent with the Oklahoma Electrical Licensing Act? Does each unit “maintain at least one lighting fixture suitable for reading”? Do all the bathroom floors have “impervious floor surfaces?” Is the sewage disposal system consistent with “regulations adopted by the Oklahoma State Board of Health?” I don’t know.

Remember, these laws are for your safety. Created, supposedly, to protect you — but they also often serve to protect the current natural order from competition.

You get the point.

The time and money it would take to ensure compliance would probably guarantee that such a plan wouldn’t get past the research phase. There are a lot of questions to answer just to drive a box that people would pay $400 a night to stay in while watching a race or stay at a festival like Bonnaroo. Put another way, if people are willing to pay that much to stay in a box at a race or a festival, my guess it’s probably good enough for  to stay in after the wake of a disaster.

But that’s not how regulation and the natural order operate. Mutually agreed upon and beneficial transactions, even under extenuating circumstances, are often illegal outright. You’re not necessarily free to transact with others as you see fit. While FEMA does provide disaster assistance — think FEMA trailers —  some people probably would be willing to pay more, and could afford to get something a little nicer than a crappy camper because for their well being they want the comforts of home.

Let’s pretend for a second that Bomblebox is a Missouri company, and has plans to do business all over the southland to help people recover from disasters, and provide housing during political conventions and festivals.

Could Bomblebox then, had it complied with all the varying laws regulating hotels and motels, go into business? Again, the answer is probably not.

Ill-advised price gouging laws in each of the states would likely prohibit Bomblebox from charging the market rates necessary to make it profitable. And thus, local hoteliers and the government — which also hates competition — would likely object and prohibit the “evil” Bomblebox corporation from helping people at a time when they need it most.

What about renting (or selling) house-like version of the Bomblebox? At first glance, that might appear to be a better option.

But, again, the complex web of laws and regulations would make that difficult, and in addition to hoteliers, the competitors of the natural order (RV makers, prefabricated home makers) would likely throw in a monkey wrench to complicate things.

In my lifetime, we’ve seen creative destruction move at an amazingly fast pace. The days of radio-dispatched cabs that come because of a call from your home phone or payphone are over. We’re in the Uber era now, where my smartphone will get me a black sedan in mere minutes. Instead of having to go and wait in a long line to get a Georgetown cupcake, food fad fetishists can be satisfied by a 3 minute walk to Farragut Square where multiple food trucks offer similar (and often better) products with shorter lines and often at lower prices. Or, if you really have your heart set on Georgetown cupcake, Seamless can deliver it for you.

Generally speaking, our regulatory system and laws are outdated. Uber is discovering that first hand across the country, most recently in Los Angeles. The byzantine shackles of a outdated laws and regulations that keep cities (like my hometown of Cleveland) from returning to their former status of greatness exist all across the country in various degrees.

What keeps them there is politicians who cater to the special interests, and who see themselves as wizened sherpas of the regulatory Mt. Kilimanjaro rather than people whose job it is to make their constituents’ lives easier through good policy, not political dependency.

Going forward, the cities and states that recognize the burdensome constraints of outdated regulations and laws are the ones that will prosper. They’ll have the Ubers, the food trucks, and — when times are tough — people willing to provide innovative solutions to help them in their time of need.  Their citizens will lead happier, better lives, and bounce back from adversity faster than their friends in the cities and states whose leaders who let archaic policy and outdated thinking rule the day.

Few people argue for no regulations at all, but the people who think that deregulatory advocates believe this are often the very politicians who say “everything is fine.” Odds are, it’s not. And the joke’s on you if you believe them.

 

 

 

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